Photographer’s Harrowing Tale of Imprisonment for Flying a Drone in Cuba

In 2016, a Canadian traveler innocently flew his drone in Cuba and was unexpectedly arrested and accused of being a spy for the United States Government due to an unfortunate coincidence.

Chris A. Hughes, a self-proclaimed camera and travel enthusiast, found himself in seriousl trouble with Cuban law enforcement during a holiday in the country several years ago. He told his story to YouTuber Chris Hau as part of his series “Production Horror Stories.”

Several years ago, Hughes flew to Havana, and while out with a local friend, he noticed two buildings with impressive artwork. Although drones weren’t that well known at the time, Hughes had one with him and decided to capture an aerial shot of the two buildings.

As he flew the drone, a military officer approached him and, according to Hughes, started to yell at him in Spanish which prompted Hughes to descend his drone. Shortly after, numerous military officers surrounded Hughes and separated him from his Cuban friend, preventing him from being able to communicate effectively since he did not speak the language.

Both of them were taken to a local jail and accused of being American spies. The situation quickly turned from a “friendly drone aerial shot in the park” to one where Hughes was interrogated about his intentions due to an unfortunate coincidence: Unbeknownst to Hughes and his friend, the building that he was filming happened to also be where Fidel Castro was at the time, which was the cause of the commotion.

Both parties could not speak each others’ languages which made the situation even more aggravated as did lack of access to a phone to arrange for a lawyer or an interpreter. The officers looked through Hughes’ confiscated phone and found a typical tourist photo of his family in front of the White House, which prompted even more questions about his association with the government of the United States.

Eventually — still, none the wiser about what is going to happen with him — Hughes was moved to a prison and held there for thirteen days, locked inside his cell. To Hughes’ relief, the Canadian Consulate sent an English-speaking representative and advised Hughes to allow the Cuban law enforcement to follow their process of the case — although it was unknown as to what that process entailed or how long it might take — in order to not further provoke any aggression.

Not long after, the charges were dropped and the Sergeant of the military of Cuba promised to return Hughes’s drone and footage — with the exclusion of the particular offending clip — and even welcomed Hughes to return to Cuba in the future, albeit without the drone.

In the years since the dramatic event, Hughes has had time to reflect on himself both as a person and as a traveler who needs to respect the local laws of every country he visits. Hughes says he has visited Cuba since and has fond memories of his trips there, but the experience of being imprisoned will stay with him for the rest of his life, he told Hau.

Unfortunate and life-changing encounters with law enforcement due to similar situations are nothing new, especially as more countries and states have begun to crack down on the use of drones. Some countries have gone as far as heavily penalizing unsuspecting tourists, such as the case of Hughes in Cuba and the imprisoned French tourist Benjamin Briere in Iran, as noted by Fstoppers.

Hughes’s travel videos can be viewed on his YouTube channel, as can Hau’s photo and video tutorials and future interviews from his “Production Horror Stories” segment.