Analysis: A miracle for fisheries – but will it last?

Cuba’s much-expected comprehensive reform has yet to take shape, as official measures have been limited to disconnected, isolated steps. It’s what Cubans call chapisteo – best translated as “tinkering”. The latest example: New regulations for fisheries.

Two years ago, Resolution 17 passed as a comprehensive law to regulate the fishing industry. It showed how much the Cuban government continues to be entrenched in the statist-absolutist model. Instead of opening up spaces for the private sector to increase production, it actually introduced more restrictions for private and cooperative fishing enterprises. Without exaggerating, you can call it an enormous straitjacket that slows and de-incentivizes any private and cooperativist undertaking.  

This statist revival effort has its roots in the first half of the 1970s, when fisheries were Cuba’s second-largest source of hard-currency income. The government had created a chain of state fishing enterprises with vessels bought mostly in Spain. As the catch was rising, regular Cubans were able to freely buy modest quantities of seafood. The hake became a regular staple on Cuban dinner tables. The Cuban fishing fleet roamed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, from the coast of Peru to South Africa, producing a decent yield. In a great barter deal for Cuba, it paid Spain with part of the catch to purchase new fishing vessels in that country.

By the 1980s, however, all this had become a sad memory, and seafood disappeared from the Cuban diet. Only in informal markets, under the table, was it possible for regular Cubans to buy fish or seafood. By the 1990s, the Fishing Ministry had been dissolved, and it was raining restrictions. The Caribbean’s largest island, surrounded by the sea, dropped to the dead last spot in consumption of fish and seafood. Only a small catch was sold in some European Union markets.

But then — better late than never — a miracle happened this year. At the end of October, Resolution 52 was published, opening up spaces for the distribution of privately caught fish. The measure includes:

  1. Elimination of the requirement for private fishing enterprises to show an agreement with an authorized state distributor prior to applying for a license.
  2. An announcement by the Oficina Nacional de Inspección Estatal that it will sell new fishing licenses.
  3. Authorization of distribution and sale of the catch under regulations yet to be adopted by local governments. Private fishing enterprises are allowed to catch peces, túnidos, ostiones, almejas, jaibas y camarones marinos (beyond coastal lagoons, in all coastal waters).
  4. Private fishing entrepreneurs are entitled to pensions.

This is, without doubt, a step in the right direction, and coastal Cubans are celebrating the new regulations. However, their enthusiasm remains tempered. Why? The resolution says it has “exceptional and experimental” character. This intimidates entrepreneurs and makes them cautious to invest, because the state could reverse its policy at any given time. All that said, if Cuba’s opening to small and midsize enterprises is an indicator, this could be the beginning of a success story. Let’s hope this is the case.

Former Cuban intelligence officer Domingo Amuchastegui has lived in Miami since 1994. He writes regularly on Cuba’s internal politics, economic reform, and South Florida’s Cuban community.

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