Photos by Gonzalo Vidal (all rights reserved).
Vladimir has always loved the sea, and felt it beckoning to him. You can often find him, as the sun is lowering in the afternoon sky, on the rough Alamar coast, dressed in his wet suit, goggles, snorkel and flippers, swimming up and down the rocky shore snaring octopuses or harpooning fish; or sat in the inflated inner tube of a lorry that at times serves as his boat, resting with his flask of coffee and obligatory packet of cigarettes, or trailing a nylon line and bated hook to tempt a fish into his clutches. Above all, he brings his untiring patience with him, sometimes continuing until dawn, if the catch has been slow to come. On occasions, if he considers the weather appropriate, or his marine instincts call to him, he will go out with his equipment in the mornings, to collect what he can find.
In three to four hours of work he usually garners between four and six pounds of octopuses. For variety, he will perhaps spend some time with a line, in the hopes of catching a fish. Perhaps a red or yellowtail snapper, common to these waters – although over fishing in recent years has greatly depleted Cuba’s marine fauna, and contributed to the decline in the island’s fishing industry. Any small fish will be good for his own table; but those of decent size he is sure to be able to sell, at a good price, to one of his regular customers.
Vladimir usually has no need to openly sell his catch. Over the past ten years or more, he has built up a number of regular customers, who welcome his arrival at their doors with octopuses and occasional fish, with guaranteed freshness. Selling at a dollar a pound, he has been able to make a steady, if not spectacular, living for himself and his family. In just four days he can equal the average Cuban salary, currently standing at the equivalent of just $19 a month.
You might say that the sea is in Vladimir’s blood. As a young man he became a sailor, in the Cuban fleet sailing the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. From 1976 to 1989, that was his life. But when the economic tide turned so spectacularly with the collapse of the Soviet Union, upon which the island’s economy had become so dependent, the number of active ships was greatly reduced. In the process, Vladimir found himself facing the worsening crisis without the minimal security of a job. Thankfully, he was offered work as a builder, which kept him going for a further two years. But with every sector collapsing under the strain of resource shortage, he again found himself unemployed.
That was the worst time imaginable to find yourself without any source of income – although in the early 1990s, even if you had some money food became a scarcity. The so-called Special Period forced most Cubans into an imaginative search for alternatives. Vladimir, with his love of the sea and the skills he already had in submarine fishing – which he had developed during happier times when it was possible to treat it as a sport – instinctively looked to the waters. There he knew he could find not only a supplement to the poor diet offered by the declining rations, but also potentially a means of earning the money that would enable him to obtain the other necessities that had become so hard to come by.
From around the turn of the millennium, Vladimir began to work again in construction. But this time, instead of doing so for the state, and the meagre and insecure income that this would bring, he went into independent business. In partnership with his brother, he regularly works making granite work surfaces for kitchens, putting up tiles and installing bathrooms. This might bring him between 150 and 200 dollars a month, when the work can be found. But when jobs are scarce, or when he finds himself with free time, Vladimir continues to turn to the sea, with his fishing equipment and octopus hunt. It is then that he is happiest. The water calms his nerves, and strengthens his health, overcoming the effects of the asthma he has always suffered from, and his inescapable smoking habit.
His equipment is rudimentary. The thermal wet suit enables him to stay in the water for long periods without suffering the effects of the cold, while his flippers enable him to propel himself with ease in pursuit of his quarry. He constructed for himself an instrument, his bichero, which is a kind of hook with wooden handle, used for probing the hidden submarine nooks and pulling out the octopuses that hide there. He has also made another device, similar to the bichero, but which is straight and pointed. This, his fijo, is his mini, hand-held harpoon, for hunting fish. In a plastic bag, his pack of unfiltered cigarettes, matches and inhaler for his asthma, as well as a reel of nylon fishing thread and hook. This he ties to an empty plastic bottle, to act as a floater to keep a hold of his bag as well as his catch.