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Market Scene : Cubans Tasting Capitalism--But It's Just an Appetizer : Selling food is now legal, with limits. A lively black market provides everything from cars to cigars.

March 29, 1994|KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAVANA — If an old man of the sea catches a big fish, who gets to keep it? Ernest Hemingway had his old man give it up to the predators of the deep, but in today's Cuba it belongs to Fidel Castro, at least by the rules.

According to the Castro regime's regulations, any fish caught in Cuban waters by Cubans belongs to the government. It cannot be processed or sold privately, even though recent reforms permit private enterprise in a few fields.

The regulations are a matter of great distress to Chincho Calacon, by Cuban standards an old man at 63 but also a man of opportunity.

Calacon is one of a handful of defiant Cubans challenging Castro's rigid economic system, under which nearly everybody works for the state in one way or the other.

His way is, with some friends, to fish illegally for marlin and other large fish from old tractor-tire inner tubes, using only a plastic line and their hands. No poles, no gaffs, no nets.

Unable to get a proper license either to operate a boat or to fish, Calacon and three or four associates have joined the black market, which for dollars--lots of them--will provide almost anything that the Castro regime either can't or won't, at least not at a fair price.

The black market purveys satellite TV, automobiles, tomatoes, pills to increase sexual potency, teen-age girls (or boys), cigars, single-malt Scotch whisky and anything else that comes to mind, including a good meal.

His urge or need to acquire dollars sends Calacon out of Havana Harbor in the black sky before dawn several days a week, towing the oversized inner tubes behind a tiny rowboat powered by a small, sputtering motor.

After an hour of so of stomach-churning roller-coasting through the whitecaps of the harbor and into the open sea, Calacon has his associates clamber into the inner tubes and toss out their lines, holding the spools in their leathery hands.

On one recent trip, a young man--Hector, he called himself--got a hit on his line after bobbing about for just under two hours. Very carefully he pulled in the fish, hand over hand on the plastic line.

It was a small marlin, and it was not clubbed or gaffed for fear of attracting sharks that were sensed but not seen in the water. Instead, when the exhausted prey was tugged close, the other men paddled over and helped haul the fish onto Hector's inner tube. He held it against his chest while it suffocated.

After another hour, the little armada gathered itself and returned to Havana.

Calacon cut up the fish and began selling the pieces on the Malecon, Havana's bay front. In short order, he sold about 15 pounds of marlin at $3 a pound. U.S. currency only, no exceptions.

The old man, whose last legitimate job was in a bicycle assembly plant now closed for lack of parts, argues that he is not a maceta , as the black marketeers are called here. The word literally means flowerpot and is used contemptuously to describe people as members of the idle rich.

"I am doing what the government said we could do," the wire-thin, tensile-strong Calacon said on the way in from the fishing trip. "I am an et cetera, not a maceta ."

In an odd experiment in free enterprise, Castro last year approved as part of a limited reform program a list of self-employment activities that could charge in dollars and make a profit.

There were 140 such categories approved, including the sale of "light foods (drinks, sandwiches, candies, et cetera)."

Calacon's objections to the contrary, in government eyes the private catching and selling of fish is not "et cetera," and therefore illegal.

For the moment, Calacon has been permitted to operate with only minor "move it along" types of harassment, presumably because he is small time and no threat to Communist market theories.

Also lurking either within the "et cetera" clause or close in its shadow are other small activities, including private restaurants, places with one or two tables in private homes.

In fact, these dining rooms, known as paladares , are the most prominent of the little businesses that have sprung up since last year's reforms. They are popular because they provide food found not even in the expensive restaurants limited to tourists. In addition, the paladares are cheap, at least for foreigners with dollars.

A certain romanticism to the point of myth has built up about these restaurants as places where rare and wonderfully prepared food can be enjoyed with champagne and other European wines in an atmosphere of linen, soft lighting and strolling musicians.

Perhaps such oases of culinary delight existed in Havana in the two or three months before Castro recently cracked down on the paladares . But recent visits to four private restaurants touted as the city's best found something more musty than mythic.

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