Our capitalist crew gathers at Marina Hemingway
Havana fishing event brings anglers, worlds togetherBy Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff
Published: July 4, 2015 | Updated: July 4, 2015 at 08:37 AM
Phil Thompson showed up to repeat his 2013 victory when he entered a recent fishing contest in Cuba, so third place left him wanting more.
But the 63-year-old Ruskin native reeled in much more than a third-place trophy during his recent trip to Cuba for the 65th Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament in Havana.
For one thing, he set a tournament record for the most marlin caught and released in a day with five.
But more importantly, Thompson and a group of a half-dozen American anglers shared their knowledge of American fly fishing techniques and equipment with Cubans who either hope to get into the charter fishing industry or are already in it.
The one-week course, called “Support the Cuban People Fishing Program,” brought together two groups from countries isolated by politics for more than five decades. They met June 12 in the Cuban fishing hub of Cayo Cruz, on the northern shore of the province of Camaguey.
“We became like family,” Thompson said.
One of the Americans gave a new Cuban friend the shoes off his feet. They also gave away fishing rods, one to a man who wants to teach his son to fish but can’t afford a rod, and another to a bartender who has a captain’s license and a dream of leading fishing charters.
“Hopefully, by the time we get back, the bartender will be on his way to becoming a guide,” said Thompson, who splits time between Key West and Tampa. “That will elevate his pride and income.”
Thompson is among those who believe restrictions on travel between the United States and Cuba will be lifted soon. Currently, tourism trips to Cuba are illegal under U.S. law.
When that day comes, Cuban fishermen who know American appetites stand to prosper.
“Cubans are mostly used to working with Europeans and Canadians,” Thompson said. “They have different techniques. And American equipment — everything from rods to supplies — is superior to anyone else’s in the world.”
Thompson and his crew also tutored the Cubans on how to spot poachers in catch-and-release preserves and to operate their own charter companies.
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The same crew returns to Cuba in August for a seminar in the popular Cuban maritime preserve, Gardens of the Queen, an archipelago 60 miles off Camaguey and Ciega de Vila that is considered one of the healthiest coral reef systems in the world. The area teems with bonefish, snapper, sharks and orcas.
Thompson said a dozen Cubans participated in the first seminar, and he expects the number to grow.
He aims to bring even more fishing equipment for Cubans who can’t afford it, along with humanitarian relief.
“Simple things like aspirin, vitamins, repellent and a host of small supplies can make life a little easier,” he said.
The two largest charter fishing companies in Cuba are the government-owned Marlin Nautica y Marinas and the privately owned Italian corporation Avalon Cuban Fishing Centers.
Thompson’s program worked in conjunction with Avalon. Working with Marlin would violate U.S. law.
“This is exactly what the president’s new policy of engaging Cuba is all about,” said Jeffrey Boutwell, board member with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund in Washington, D.C.
Boutwell was also in Cuba for the tournament and met Thompson there.
“Mr. Thompson’s program is providing and empowering the Cuban society in a non-governmental way by providing resources and expertise that can benefit the local Cuban economy.”
This year’s tournament, named for author and former Cuba resident Ernest Hemingway, marked the first time since 2003 that the U.S. government allowed its citizens to sail boats in from American waters.
From 2004 to 2014, U.S. participants had to fly to Cuba and use boats already there.
Twenty-four teams entered the tournament, 12 of them from the United States, Thompson said.
The winner was Sarasota’s Bill Pullman, who caught and released 11 marlin and sailfish.
Most of the international teams, Thompson said, hired a few Cubans as crew.
There were only two teams representing Cuba in this year’s tournament.
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Any Cuban has the right to own a boat for commercial or recreational purposes, although the purchase must be authorized by government authorities. The process includes a background check.
It’s “rather easy” for a Cuban citizento get permission, said Timothy Ashby, a former senior U.S. Commerce Department official and now a London attorney advising clients on doing business with Cuba.
Still, boats in Cuba cost $5,000 to $10,000, more money than all but a few can afford, Thompson said.
Even the government-owned fleet of Marlin fishing boats falls short of American standards, he said.
Still, more Cubans are buying local boats or boats from the Bahamas and other islands, financed by relatives in the U.S. or elsewhere, Ashby said.
“I was in Cuba last month and visited several marinas where large U.S.-registered fishing boats were berthed,” he said. “There’s an emerging Cuban middle class with extra disposable income, so soon they will not need to secure financing from relatives.”
This is where Thompson’s program steps in.
“Some of the older guys raised under Communism I spoke with couldn’t wrap their heads around having their own charter company and the money they could make when Americans arrive,” Thompson said. “But most in Cuba are excited about what’s to come.”
Thompson said more than 150 U.S. citizens asked for permission to sail to Cuba for this year’s tournament, but the U.S. Treasury Department granted licenses to only 11, including the author’s grandsons John and Patrick Hemingway.
One of 12 reasons spelled out by the U.S. government for legal travel to Cuba is athletic competition, including a fishing tournament.
With 52 marlin caught at the recent tournament, Thompson expects more than 200 American teams will try to enter next year.
“I hope the United States allows at least 100 boats to go,” he said. “That will be a sight to see as they all make their way to Cuba together.”