Night Fishing in Havana Takes Patience - and a Long Line

Jose Chavez slips a slab of squid onto a long hook, laces the line through a lead weight, and whizzes the bait over his head like a lasso, casting it hundreds of feet into the Florida Straits.

The hospital administrator turned bicycle-taxi driver is one of hundreds of men who - some from hunger, others to beat boredom - on moonless nights unfurl long nylon lines along the almost five miles of the capital's craggy cement seawall, the Malecon.

A few hours later, like most of the men pinching lines between their thumbs and forefingers, the closest Mr. Chavez comes to a bite is a tug from the outgoing tide.

"That's not what's important," says Chavez. "The time passes. And there's the breeze. Maybe dinner for tomorrow night. That's what's important."

Like many of the other rodless night fishermen fighting the legion of prostitutes, roving musicians, and romantics for space along the ocean barrier, Chavez says he'd prefer to launch a skiff and try his luck further from the gurgling pollution pooling on the rocks.

But he and the others - except the scofflaws floating lines from rubber tubes a few hundred yards out to sea - say they gave up seeking government permission to fish by dinghy. Too much bureaucracy, Chavez says.

"You have to bring papers to different government offices, get stamps from this one and a license from that one - and then you still don't get permission," he says, sporting a mustache of sweat. "It's not worth it."

Last March, the Office of Fishing Inspections in Havana issued new rules requiring fishermen to acquire certificates certifying the seaworthiness of their vessels.

While the regulations are purportedly to protect the fisherman from shoddy craft like Styrofoam and wood rafts, Chavez said they are a means of cracking down on those trying to flee the Communist island.

Those operating crafts without proper authorization or with an expired license now face fines from 200 pesos (about $10) up to 2,000 pesos and the possible confiscation of their rafts or skiffs, according to the Office of Fishing Inspections.

So instead, on dark nights like this one, when the rainy season attracts schools of red snapper to the murky harbor, Chavez threads his nylon line around a tire-sized wooden spool, loops it around an aluminum can, and naps with his feet on his bicycle's handlebars until he hears the clinking signal that he's got something.

"Some who don't need the food fish for the money," says Rolando Bauastro, eyeing four lines. "You can sell the fish. The bigger, the more money. So we wait for the big ones." Mr. Bauastro says the black market yields about a dollar per pound for red snapper - the most common fish hooked off Havana.

Others are less concerned about the price or potential free meal. "I fish for the sport and the tranquility," says Arturo Moises, a retired employee from the Ministry of Exterior Relations. "Fishing teaches you patience and simplicity. That's all I want."

As for tranquility, there's little to find on the Malecon. Rows of overhead street lights intermittently buzz on and off. Rickety Soviet Ladas cruise down the seaside street, pumping salsa and son music.

Yet none of that ruffles Chavez, who points out the phosphorescent eyes of squid peering eerily out of the ocean. His mind is too fixed on the first fish in three weeks he's waiting to catch.

He feels the line jerk. Then nothing again. He shrugs.

"Soon," he says. "Soon. I can feel it. They're coming."

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