Reports from Cuba: A diver with a stack of degrees under his mattress

Frank Correa in Diario de Cuba:

A diver with a stack of degrees under his mattress

Joaquín Vázquez is one of the many parents whose best-laid plans for the future fell apart. Under the mattress of his room he stores several diplomas from studies he undertook to achieve a broad education. He says they were of no use to him. “I have to get by selling sludge worms (calandracas), to support my family.”

We talked in the entranceway of his grandparents’ house. He says that when he graduated from high school he did not rush to get a job, but rather worked harder, and in a relatively short time earned a Master’s in the Culinary Art, took a course in Baking, specialized in Urban Design, and studied four semesters at the Port of Havana.

“To get a captain’s license,” he says.

Of all his studies he liked this last one most, because of the family tradition involved and his personal tie to the sea. Joaquín is a member of one of the founding families of Jaimanitas 110 years ago, the Bustamantes, who created buceo en el limpio, which consists of extracting jewels and money that visitors carelessly lose from the sand on beaches, and the sale of sludge worms and bait, two trades today plied by the locals, or Jaimanitenses.

“But, as Cuba has no ships, the captaining classes were delayed,” Joaquin continues. “They sold the boats when the Special Period hit, and now in the Port of Havana there only remains the boat ‘Bay of Nipe’, as it’s so busy, with all the coming and going now. A boat that sailed so many seas, now reduced to cruising around they bays, making petty runs. ”

“We had to do the hands-on training on a Spanish boat,” he recalls. “It pains me to say that. After graduation, the crew met up. We looked at each other and we said: ‘Where are we going to work, if there are no boats? Now at the port you can see a cruise ship anchored every day. Yesterday I saw a huge one. I looked at it from afar and I said ‘God, if only I could be at the helm of one of those, docking in Taiwan or Cyprus’ … But I know I’ll never will. That’s reserved for other people.”

Joaquin’s degrees have been stowed away so long now that they are yellowing, and some are dog-eared. But the young man did not give up in his effort to succeed in life. He started a family, and the sea gave him sustenance.

“I built an apartment in the courtyard. It took me 10 years. I managed by bringing up sludge worms, working like a dog, and with the help of my wife, who works at the house of a diplomat with two children, like us, so they passed on their old clothes and shoes, which helped. I bought the plasma TV there  thanks to a 22-gram gold chain that I found in my fishing area, across from the Marcelo (wall). The kitchen counter  and the plumbing was possible because I won la bolita (underground lottery) back in 2014, making history: 22 and 69, the police and chaos…”

And he explains how he envisioned that winning combination: “I saw Cuba as a place of chaos, with my dusty diplomas, skyrocketing prices and low wages, and I had the boss breathing me down the back of my neck. No matter how often I told him that there were no boats, he told me that I had to work. Fortunately, doors were opened for self-employment, though bringing up sludge worms and diving do not appear among the new trades allowed. We get in the water every day, to look for something to live on.”

Joaquín has attempted to cross the Strait of Florida three times, and says that it is the only possible way out of the bind in which he finds himself. The last time was a few months ago, in a ramshackle vessel of foam and wood, rigged with a tractor engine and a propeller. Fifteen local jaimanitenses left from the Muro del Marcelo (wall). At the helm was Joaquin, who drew upon everything he had learned in the course at the port, captaining the contraption safely for many miles, and drifting with the current, as the books recommend.

The third night, when there was no more water or food left, they spotted long, bright lights, and he thought it was Key West, but it wasn’t. In fact, they were in for a big let-down: despite all his sailing practice and training on that Spanish ship, Joaquin ended up sailing directly to the “mother ship” charged with picking up balseros (refugees attempting to emigrate from Cuba by boat) on the high seas and return them to Cuba.

“We were on the mother ship for seven days. Separately, we were interviewed by an Emigration Officer who asked us many questions. I got seasick: nausea, dizziness, incoherent speech, and I was unable to tell him that I was Joaquín Vázquez from Jaimanitas, with multiple degrees under my mattress, and that I dove every day in the sea to bring up sludge worms, and with the police after me, on top of everything. But I didn’t say that. They returned us to Cuba. Hey, the weather’s good. I’m headed for the water.