Fresh Fish?

By Dmitri Prieto

People fish in Cuba but they can’t legally sell their excess catch to a willing market.  Photo: Bill Hackwell
People fish in Cuba but they can’t legally sell their excess catch to a willing market. Photo: Bill Hackwell

The town where I live, Santa Cruz del Norte, is located on the north coast of Cuba, midway between Havana and the city of Matanzas.  Santa Cruz was originally a fishing village, founded – so they say – by immigrants from the Canary Islands, from where it took the name of our sister city on the island of Tenerife.

Every year, when the founding of the town is commemorated in May with our patron saints day, fishermen line up their boats with each raising aloft the symbol of the city: a cross, decorated with lights and wreaths of flowers.

Santa Cruz’ identity and history is therefore tied to the sea. Here the cross, more than a religious symbol or an instrument of torture, evokes the memory of a man who was the friend of fishermen and with whom he went fishing in a boat on another sea, that of Galilee.

That’s why the most obvious aspect of Santa Cruz is that fishermen should in some way be honored as an economic and cultural pillar of the town.  But this is far from the reality.

If one digs into the local history of Santa Cruz, it is inevitable that anyone interviewed who is more than 40 years old will bring up a celebrated town character known as Faro: he was a fish vendor, a veritable town crier.

Faro was black, always went barefoot, and (according to some) had been a fisherman in his youth.  However, for some mysterious reason he quit fishing to become a street vendor of fish caught by others.

His cry, “Fresh fish!” resonated throughout the town, and the personality of Faro – who was well-known and liked by all – served as his guarantee, because the fish he sold were always of the finest quality.

Faro’s shout has not been heard in Santa Cruz for a long time; he died here years ago.  But no one followed in his footsteps.  For some mysterious reason, although fishing continues to be practiced by many in town, it’s difficult to legally purchase fresh fish through the government channels.

You can acquire that product of the sea only through private contacts and in some (very few) commercial establishments, but not the fish caught by the little boats that on May 3 are decked out with crosses.  Store-bought fish is caught by ships, sometimes exotic, from distant lands, and sometimes from quite far away.

Why is this?  Commercial legislation in Cuba has established tremendous restrictions on private sales.  These constraints practically exclude local suppliers (fishermen) from the marketplace, since they are prevented from setting up a genuine fish market, something basic in a historic fishing town such as Santa Cruz.

To an even greater degree these restrictions handicap vendors; that is to say, people like Faro who would otherwise be able to buy fish from those who catch them and subsequently resell them to neighborhood consumers.

As a result, we are left to either secretively “ask around” to find out who’s selling fish or – through sheer luck – happen upon some fisherman on the coast with fish on their line and ask them (in a low voice) “how much?”

Nonetheless, these “informal networks” actually work to some degree, and every night we see constellations of lights on the sea just off the coast of Santa Cruz del Norte.

The lights don’t always belong to the boats of fishermen from Santa Cruz; many are also those of people from Havana, floating around on tractor-tire inner tubes and other precarious watercraft, in which they devote their late nights and early mornings to their tasks.

Some do this for pleasure, others to live, and still others (perhaps the majority) for both reasons. But what is certain (except in periods when the controls are tightened) in any form of public transportation between Santa Cruz and Havana will probably find one or several fishermen carrying their catch and telling their tales.

If Cuba is an island, that is to say, a land surrounded by the sea, and if fish contain phosphorous, an element so important for the intellect, then why, as part of the battle for a cultured society, aren’t fishermen permitted to sell what they catch in a market where consumers can come and choose?

Likewise, why isn’t permission to work granted for people like Faro who through whose honest labor could provide the town with a service (one that supplies phosphorous)?  If this were allowed they would also provide that very special spirit of a seaside town where people tout their wares though only a shout; then we would be able to say that the centennial culture of Santa Cruz had succeeded (finally!) in rescuing its identity.

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