My 13 days in a Cuban Prison

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My 13 days in a Cuban Prison

Chris Hughes Arrested in Cuba for Drone

Everyone complains about Mondays–If you Google “Monday Meme,” there is no shortage of funny images accompanied by witty one-liners about everyone’s least favourite day of the week.

If I told you today was like any other busy Monday, I’d be lying. It’s my first day back in the office after a month of traveling, and it’s also my 38th birthday. After a weekend of celebrating with my family, things still feel so surreal–to think that only a week ago, I was in a Cuban prison, unsure if I’d see my family, or have my feet on Canadian soil ever again. After rehashing the events in my mind, I sometimes feel the urge to question if those thirteen days in jail actually happened.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably curious as to how I ended up in prison. Before you read any further, I want to let you know that this post does not contain anything that would suggest that I have a personal vendetta against the Cuban government–I have a great love for the country, its people, and the culture, and have every intention of visiting the island again. What I am about to share with you are the events that led up to my detainment and imprisonment. Also, I want my story to serve as a warning for all drone and UAV enthusiasts who plan on traveling to Cuba, or any other country abroad.

I was vacationing in Havana, a city which I have frequented in the past, never having encountered any problems with authorities, or otherwise. While flying a recreational drone, in Confederation Square, I was detained by Cuban military officials. At first, I didn’t know what was going on, however, when I realized my arrest was based upon suspicion of espionage and terrorist activity, I couldn’t believe it.

I had flown into Havana from Panama just a few days earlier, and the drone had cleared customs with me. I had never encountered any issues with it in the other countries I visited during my travels (Colombia and Panama) and didn’t see why it would be any different in Cuba. Everything was going by so quickly–it was like trying to piece together something out of a foreign film (without subtitles).

Cut to the next scene: They just confiscated my laptop and iPhone, and they’re now handing me a pillow case, a bedsheet, and half a bar of soap. Every time I question what’s happening, the guards reassure me that everything is going to be OK.

Next scene: I’m startled by a door slamming behind me. I’m standing in a 4’x7′ cell with no windows, a small cot, and a drainage hole for a toilet. It’s dark and damp. I’m alone. For some reason, I have a feeling everything is far from ok.

As someone who tries to find the silver lining in every situation, I tell myself that they’d realize this was all a big misunderstanding. Maybe the military will review the drone footage and release me after seeing it was all just amateur video that I recorded over the past month. As the hours turn into days, the sense of fear that I was attempting to keep at bay was now eating me whole.

I want to know what’s going on outside of my cell’s walls. Why wasn’t I allowed a phone call? Does my family know where I am? How are my kids doing? I miss them… Will I ever see them again? The concept of time became foreign, and I find myself repeatedly asking guards what day it is and when I’m getting out; “No se,” I don’t know, is always their reply. I spend most of my time crouched in a corner, praying that I would wake up from this horrible nightmare.

Cut to the next scene. The door opens, and a guard tells me “Estas libre,” You’re free to go. It was the thirteenth day. The Canadian Embassy negotiated my release, and soon I would be boarding a plane headed back to Toronto.

When I look back to those 13 days in a Cuban jail, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around how a flying a drone nearly cost me my life in prison.

The Mavic DJI, and GO PRO’s first drone, which is a third of the size of others on the market today (it’s release to the public takes place next week) are sure to top holiday wish lists this year. With UAVs becoming increasingly accessible to the general public, I would like to warn enthusiasts who plan to travel abroad, to complete their due diligence on federal laws surrounding remote controlled aerial vehicles.

As I stated earlier, this is not a “Chris A. Hughes vs. Cuba” blog, as the country will eternally hold a piece of my heart if anything, more so after this experience. This post is simply me, as a Canadian, wanting to share my story with others who are unaware of the consequences that come with something as innocent as flying a recreational drone on vacation.


Chris A. Hughes