The State Buys Fish from Us for One Peso per Pound, Individuals Pay Two Hundred

Although fishing is his great passion, Chucho does not go out to sea as much as before. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Matos, Manzanillo (Cuba), 28 January 2024 —  As he talks, Chucho likes to “pass his hand” over the boat he uses to go fishing. A crust of salt disfigures its sides, the hull is patched with pieces of aluminum and it is not uncommon for the engine to stall while at sea. It is a hard life and it pays little, but he and the other fishermen in Manzanillo, a town in Granma province, have a motto: “We cannot stay on land.”

At sea there is food, even though it is hard get. On land – besides the problems of living in one of the poorest towns in Cuba — they wait for the inspectors, the fishing industry bureaucrats and the local townspeople, who come to the beach on bicycle, hoping to buy fish directly from the people who catch them.

Buying and selling on the informal market, and making deals with private business owners, while avoiding raids by inspectors are the only ways to survive. “When you do business with the state, they always win, explains Chucho. “The Fishing Combine pays us less than 2,000 pesos for every ton of fish we catch. And one ton is 2,200 pounds,” he calculates. “It’s a total rip-off. The state pays less than a peso for each fish.”

“We’re forced to sell to private individuals, who pay us 200 pesos a pound. Then they resell it.” There are those who manage to make a good deal with a small business owner who buys the entire catch from them. “It’s a good way to get the merchandise out quickly,” admits Chucho, but delivering it requires speed and agility. And sometimes, he complains, the boats’ puny engines do not cooperate.

“Your paperwork has to be up to date at all times because, on the coast, the inspectors issue harsh fines over the ’engine issue,’ but we are very careful.” The engine issue is the Achilles heel of the fishing industry in a country on edge due to the authorities’ obsession with controlling “illegal” departures. Although located on the southern coast, Manzanillo is not immune from bureaucratic rigidity and surveillance. “We fish up to eight kilometers from the coast,” says Chucho. That is the boundary of the official preserve, though he adds, “The border guards have never put limits on us.”

Without hiding his passion for his craft, Chucho describes his technique. “We fish with nets that we make ourselves. We catch mackerel and mullet while the smaller fish slip through the net. We throw the line and catch fish up to 80 or 100 pounds. We also fish for Spanish mackerel, sawfish, redfish and snook.”

There are boats that have been sitting here for years because their owners do not have the money to fix them

Chucho is speaking next to a strip of beach with unused boats lying amid mangroves and palms. “There are boats that have been sitting here for years because their owners do not have the money to fix them. It doesn’t matter that we are in love with the sea. When something breaks, we have to figure out how to fix it.”

Each fisherman pays a security guard forty pesos a month to keep an eye on their boats. “He is a serious person,” explains Chucho. Trust is essential and, after working at it for several years, the man has earned it. “It’s been years since we had any theft here and he knows his job is secure.”

Despite the obstacles the state puts in their way and the challenges of the profession, Manzanillo benefits from the fisherman. Several establishments in the town carry signs offering pompano and mackerel, both for 260 pesos a pound.

As it has for centuries, the profession has other cards to play: luck and the tricks a fisherman has learned out on the ocean. “The sea is very hard. You know when to leave but you never know if you’re going to see your family again. We have learned to live the real danger of not returning,” says Chucho.

Others spend their whole lives working. Their hands are worn from abrasions and salt water. “After all these years, I haven’t even been able to build even a nice little cabin,” complains Chucho. Experience has taught him not to trust the promises of officials. Eating, supporting one’s family, surviving. Those are the only things that matter in Manzanillo.

“They, the state, have their fleets but we, the little guys, have to keep plugging along. The way things are — with an engine that costs an arm and a leg, and all the juggling we have to do with the paperwork — sometimes we’d rather just leave the boats on land and not go out.” The boat cemetery on the beach is a fitting testament to that final sense of resignation. Lying on the sand, with no one to “pass their hands” over them, the boats languish like the elegant colonial mansions in the old town center, ruins created by apathetic officials of a city whose glory days were made possible by its port.


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