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Cuba: The Significance of Palfrey's Swim

Today, two Cuban bloggers – one who lives in Havana and the other from the diaspora, living in Florida, discuss the attempt by Penny Palfrey, a 49-year-old British-Australian swimmer and grandmother, to swim the imposing stretch of water between Cuba and the Florida Keys. She was attempting to do it unencumbered by a shark cage and was keeping people abreast of her progress via her Twitter feed, as Yoani Sanchez explains here, at Translating Cuba:

The American Diana Nyad, 62, has tried three times, without managing to cover the whole distance on any of her attempts.

In Penny’s case, we can follow her journey via the GPS attached to her bathing suit, and through her Twitter account, @PennyPalfrey, we can get details on her location and physical condition. In her initial prediction she calculated a time of between 40 and 50 hours to get to Key West, but her current pace suggests it will take a little longer than expected.

The tenacious Penny is surrounded by a support group that includes doctors, trainers, meteorologists, observers and two yachts with ultrasound equipment to ward off sharks and other predators. Last night some jellyfish caused her irritation and discomfort, but according to what is being said on the social networks, nothing ‘bad’ enough to abort the trip.

Sanchez also notes that…

The point of departure was the Ernest Hemingway International Yacht Club to the west of the capital Havana, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. She has dedicated her feat to this milestone and also — before launching herself on the sea — thanked her husband Chris Palfrey, the technicians who have supported her, and the Cuban officials associated with the project.

…and recognizes what an amazing physical and sporting achievement it would be should Palfrey manage to pull it off:

The intense training prior to this effort has taken months of work and great physical effort, especially for a woman who is not only a mother but a grandmother. In 1997 the Australian Susie Maroney managed to cross the Straits of Florida, but she did it protected by an shark cage, so if Penny Palfrey succeeds this time — with little protection — it will be one for the record books. It would also be an important accomplishment in her career, which has already landed her in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. She also holds the world record for the longest unassisted swim in history, 108 kilometers, set last year in the Cayman Islands.

But for Sanchez, the real significance “should be measured not only by its sporting connotations, but [the fact that it] transcends the competitive landscape to enter the political arena”:

This fragment of sea that Penny is crossing today has been crossed by thousands of Cubans who, in recent decades, have escaped from the Island. The most notorious migratory incidents involving the Florida Straits have been the Camarioca Boatlift in 1965, the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, and the Rafter Crisis in 1994. But still today people continue to throw themselves upon the sea in the most precarious of crafts.

On the same day that the British-Australian began her swim toward the United States, a group of eight Cubans was returned by the United States Coast Guard after being intercepted in their crude polystyrene raft. In addition, some exiles have been quite critical of the act of attempting such a feat in the piece of the sea they consider a ‘Cuban cemetery.’ For many who have followed the news in the national media they can’t help but note a curious contrast: the apparent discrepancy between the police harassment against those who set sail in boats made in the United States, and the fanfare accorded to the exploit of Penny Palfrey.

This is top of mind too, for Alberto de la Cruz, who blogs at babalu. In reporting that “jellyfish and hammerhead sharks forced Penny Palfrey…to end her attempt…to swim the stretch of water between Cuba and the Florida Keys”, he says:

Over the past few days, the news media all over the world has been abuzz reporting on Palfrey's long-distance swimming attempt across the Florida Straits, the same straits which have claimed the lives of an untold number of Cubans who desperately tried to escape the tyranny and slavery of the Castro dictatorship. Although tens of thousands of Cubans (some estimates place the number of lives lost at over 100,000) have perished in those very waters, the news media has never paid much attention to these disturbing and horrifying statistics. But when a British grandmother attempts the same voyage, suddenly, it is interesting.

Nevertheless, Yoani Sanchez ends by saying:

Notwithstanding the variety of opinions, both for and against this sporting endeavor, the truth is that with every yard Penny advances, the distance between both countries is shortened and becomes smaller. These two shores, so close geographically yet politically so distant, seem — at least for one weekend — to be on the verge of touching…

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