Contributed photo/Richard Fagen Cooked lobsters being removed from the steam oven in 1969.

Cuban lobster tales with Richard Fagen

  • Wed Nov 1st, 2017 1:30am
  • Life

By Gretchen Wing

Special to the Weekly

What comes to mind when you think of lobsters? Melted butter? Paper bibs? Probably not the Cuban Revolution — that is until you hear Richard Fagen on the subject. On Friday, Nov. 10, at 7 p.m. at Woodmen Hall, Richard will present “Lobstering in Cuba: A Revolutionary Story.” Like Richard’s Cuba talk last March, this event will benefit InSTEP, the Lopez International Student Travel Education Program.

Richard, then a young professor of Political Science at Stanford, was the first American scholar to travel legally to Cuba after diplomatic relations were broken in 1961. Several trips there in the mid-late 1960s resulted in two books on Cuba and an unparalleled archive of documents and photographs.

The traditional pre-revolutionary lobster fisherman suffered a double disadvantage. His boat was shabby and low-tech, without refrigeration, leaving him at the mercy of middlemen and forced to sell at whatever low price was offered. Shortly after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, his Ministry of Fisheries responded by organizing fishing cooperatives, subsidizing the construction of new, much larger boats with wet wells to hold the lobsters alive. Modern processing facilities were built on-shore, and soon lobster tails became Cuba’s third most valuable export, behind only sugar and nickel ore.

The revolutionary fishing cooperatives became the focus of a multitude of activities and new ways of solving problems. They revised lobstering techniques to emphasize conservation and sustainable fishing. They built not only new plants to provide block and shaved ice to the boats, but also new housing and new schools. And they held vigorous discussions to decide which fishermen should be the first to receive the new boats.

In 1969 Richard spent weeks out with the fishing fleet to observe and document these changes. Initially, he was backed by the National Geographic Society, which sent him 36 rolls of slide film since he could go where their own writers and photographers could not. Subsequently, Richard’s photos and analysis were published in the official journal of the London-based Royal Geographical Society.

Richard moved to Lopez full-time in 1993 with his wife Deborah Bundy. Although retired, Richard remains passionate about education and the life-changing power of travel, hence his involvement in InSTEP. For the past two decades, InSTEP has dedicated itself to ensuring that no qualified Lopez Island student is financially prevented from participating in teacher-led trips overseas.

“Neither the School nor the District contributes funds to this program,” Richard explains. All expenses are met by students, their families, and InSTEP. In short, no InSTEP, no trips. Furthermore, InSTEP is staffed entirely by volunteers. Thus, every dollar contributed goes 100 percent to support student travel and study.

“We have a filing cabinet full of testimonials from folks whose Lopez High School trips changed their lives,” says Richard. A large turnout on Nov. 10 will help to ensure the continuation of these trips. As a special incentive, all donations will be matched one-for-one by a local supporter. And while we can’t offer you fresh lobster, there will be tales for all.