Bread with croquettes of uncertain origin are also popular, and donuts filled with guayaba, condensed milk or chocolate. A vast number of families on the island only prepare one hot meal a day, at night.
They have strong black coffee with sugar for breakfast. And some plain bread, or with oil and garlic. Lunch is whatever appears, depending on what money is available. It could equally be a snack in a private cafe or a disgusting bread and pork in a state eatery.
The star “fast foods” in the Havana streets are the croquettes and fritters. A perfect “wild card”. Since they are cheap, they have become the “peoples’ food”. You can serve it for breakfast or lunch and for dinner for the poorest folk.
Noelvis has become and expert fritter-maker. He works 12 hours a day. “I sell up to 900 fritters a day. My profits are around $400 or $500 pesos. I also sell loose croquettes for a peso or bread with two croquettes for five. A fritter costs a peso. I prepare some dough with white flour and add well-chopped chives, garlic and some off-the-shelf seasoning. The secret is that I don’t use yeast to make the pastry rise. I fry them in boiling oil and when I spoon them into a pot, I try to make sure they aren’t very big. I let them fry long enough so that when they cool they don’t go sticky and caramelized. After some hours they are crispy.
A packet of ten croquettes sells for 5 pesos in the state-owned fish shops. The fritter sellers buys them for resale. “I get a profit, half and half.” says Noelvis. Their ingredients are unknown. The nylon bags where they come in don’t tell the ingredients. Cubans call them “croquettes to be deciphered”.
Ricardo works in a factory where they make croquettes and gives an assurance that they are chicken based. “They use all of it, from the skin to the bones. They grind it well and make a dough. The hygiene measures are good. The people who prepare food wear rubber gloves.”
Their flavor varies. Sometimes they have a distant aftertaste of chicken, other times fish. Or they taste of nothing. They seem like plastic, artificial croquettes. But if they are eaten fully fried they don’t taste bad.
Before she leaves her house, Diana drinks a coffee and when she walks to her pre-university institute she religiously breakfasts on two flour fritters and a croquette. “To keep my figure I eat just one croquette without bread. Although with so much saturated fat it’s a little difficult. My parents give me six pesos a day, and with this money I can only buy croquettes and fritters. The lifesaver for many people.”
Another staple of “fast food” are the churros. They were always sold thin, long and powered in sugar. Yamila, who owns a churro station in the Luyano town, says that they are made of wheat flour and if you add a “yucca mixture they taste better. But right now the trend is to prepare them in a fatter mold and two fingers in width. After, they are filled with a thick marmalade, condensed milk or chocolate syrup. The profits increase significantly due to the flavors”.
Filled churros are the latest trend in Havana. Their prices are expensive for the middle class pocket. A churro filled with guava, mango, coconut or chocolate is approximately $5 pesos and $10 for the ones filled with condensed mild or tuna fish.
“Children are the best customers, although adults also buy often. If you want good sales you have to get a place in a central avenue or close to a children’s park as is my case”, says Eusebio. The market competition is aggressive. In his zone, there are three churro posts; so they have to become creative. “I have family in the United States and they have told me that at McDonald’s they don’t only sell hamburgers, they also do promotions. They offer children’s menus and they give toys or balloons so that gave me an idea. In my post, I will install a TV and the clerks will be dressed as clowns. If you buy three churros, you’ll get another one free”.
Perhaps you can’t compare the “fast typical Cuban food” with a Big Mac or a Pollo Tropical meal in Miami, but we can also sell ours in bulk.
Picture – Filled churros which are now in trend in Cuba, they also like them in. countries like Spain, Mexico, Peru, USA and England. These were taken from “Los Churros: A Secret History”.
Translated by GH
21 September 2013
According to Castro’s security people who deserted to Florida, on his property of more than 40 houses, known as Zone 0, to the west of Havana, the only Comandante also had acres of land where they tried out new varieties of beans and vegetables, he had an ice cream factory, another for cheese and a private cinema.
Although he didn’t take matters as far as his North Korean opposite number Kim Jong-il, who, in 1978, gave an order to capture the South Korean movie director Shin Sang-ok to try and establish a movie industry which would reflect an artistic vision of the communist madhouse and the Juche ideology.
The dictator of Pyongyang treasured an archive of more than five thousand films. And he appears as the executive director in the credits of seven of them. We know that in the “command and control” countries art is the property of the state.
This means that the supreme leader can censor a work, approve the budget of a production which praises the regime, or send a dissident intellectual to the slammer.
When many cinema enthusiasts in Cuba assumed the grey chapter of socialist realism was closed, when movie posters only announced Soviet and East European films, these days in Havana they are showing North Korean films.
For the last two decades, 80% of the movies seen on television and in the cinemas have come from the States. That’s the positive part of the gringo embargo. Both the ICAIC and ICRT openly pirate American serials, films and documentaries without paying a cent for the author’s rights.
For the new generation of Cubans, the films they shoot in Pyongyang are a mystery. From 10th to 13th of September, the children’s cinema in Central Havana was the centre of an exhibition of North Korean movies. Not the first in the island. In the 60’s and 70’s they also presented crap there from the Asian country.
The first day, I couldn’t get in. It was invitation only. But I did notice a mob of functionaries and diplomats, dressed in grey tones with small pins of Kim Il-sung on their shirt lapels, looking after the invitees.
Who were not many. Fifty official journalists and ideologues from the Communist Party who, for reasons of protocol attended the premiere of a film in a bellicose style with little artistic merit.
The next day, entrance was open to everyone. It rained at intervals in Havana. At 5:00 in the afternoon they announced the showing of a movie about martial arts. At 8:00, another, about war, the favorite theme of North Korean cinema.
In spite of the fact that entry was 3 pesos (15 cents), people weren’t too enthusiastic. They looked sideways at the poster and asked which Korea the movie was from. When they realized it was from the north, they walked on.
At the entrance, a group of bored pensioners waited for the start of the performance. Two passing peanut and popcorn vendors moved on somewhere else as a result of poor sales.
The woman selling the tickets looked me up and down when I bought two. I told her I was thinking of watching both films showing that day. “I don’t think you have the stomach to watch all the way through both of them”, she predicted.
I have watched dozens of soporific movies from the former Soviet Union and the old East European countries, but the North Korean one topped the list: it was an artistic genocide.
At my side sat a scrawny North Korean diplomat who had forgotten to use deodorant. It seemed that his role was to assess the level of acceptance of the exhibition on the part of the people of Havana.
The man look shocked when people walked out in the middle. Me with them.
by Iván García
Photo: Scene on Wolmi Island, a war movie projected at the premiere of the exhibition of North Korean cinema in Havana. Shot in 1982, lasting 92 minutes and, in North Korea it is forbidden for kids of under 16. It is based on what took place on the Island of Wolmi in September 1950. In order to respond to the general counter-attack of the Korean popular army, the US army tries to land on Inchon Beach in the Yellow Sea. The Wolmi Island soldiers resist for 3 days in the face of 50 thousand soldiers and 500 ships led by Gen. MacArthur. It also shows the role played by the Korean women in the war. It is the star movie of the Pyongyang regime and, in spite of having been shot 31 years ago, it features in the North Korean film weeks in other countries, like in 2010 in London. Taken from the website Movie Firearms Database.
Translated by GH
19 September 2013
Owing to the lack of statistics and figures, independent Cuban reporters have to reinvent certain rules when providing information. We don’t have access to government press conferences and no minister gives interviews or comments.
Nor can we rival the foreign agencies accredited in Havana. Not having technology, 24-hour internet access, being unable to cover official events, it is impossible to compete with the speed of the foreign press.
There are certain types of news which an independent journalist can put out faster than a correspondent from the BBC, EFE, or AP. Above all in relation to the world of opposition: a dissident’s hunger strike, an eviction, or one of the Ladies in White being beaten up.
But that’s not the best side of the field to be playing on. Cuba is an area full of stories that the regime tries to ignore. In the streets and shanty towns, chatting to ordinary folk, we always find good reports.
We have something to thank the poor work of the state journalists for. If Granma and Juventud Rebelde were in the habit of providing information about marginalization, ruinous infrastructure, or how Cubans manage to survive inside the socialist madhouse, there would not be much reason for independent journalism to exist.
We would limit ourselves to writing boring opinion pieces. Or cover opposition meetings. The official journalists have left the battle-field and left it open to the dissident journalists.
It was a major error not to provide information about day-to-day life, nor about the ills that afflict society, like drugs, prostitution and corruption at all levels.
The ideological Taliban like to sell their account of how the island is different from the rest of the poor capitalist nations of the American continent.
At one time it was. There wasn’t freedom of expression or of association, but the state, supported by the inflow of millions of Soviet rubles, guaranteed a grey kind of life with health and free education.
In return, we were supposed to be “Revolutionaries”. To applaud speeches about the “Maximum Leader” and condemn Yankee Imperialism. That was the deal. Political disagreements were restricted to our living rooms.
It was prohibited to ventilate them in public. Any criticism, we were told, had to be “constructive”. You were allowed to complain about poor food service or inefficient officials.
What you could never do was indicate that Fidel Castro was responsible for the economic disaster and the failure of a social project. The Comandante was like Zeus. God of gods. Untouchable.
The independent journalists crushed that myth. Not to be seen as heroes. Or martyrs. Just that one morning we crossed the borderline of what we were supposed to talk about or say laid down by the government.
And we know what enormous courage was required and that there is a price to pay. From libel to jail. But here we are. Telling the stories of the man in the street. Everyday I talk to workmen, kids, the old and the marginalized, the tired and those disillusioned by 54 years of autocracy.
I am not writing about the human misery experienced by some of the people in order to damage the image exported by the government. Describing the lives of the losers, the ignored and forgotten is part of the commitment of a free journalist.
If the mandarins who control the media consider that “disseminating human misery helps the enemy”, that’s their problem.
It’s up to me to relate what happens in the place where I live and in the city where I was born. To give a voice to citizens who don’t exist as far as the official press is concerned, And they are there. You only have to go out into the street.
Fat Antonio said “I’m fed up with it.”
(This anecdote was published 14 September 2009 in the blog Desde Havana.)
Antonio Mateo, felt he was about to go mad. Monday August 3, 2009 he woke up early, took his usual sip of bitter coffee and decided that on that Monday he would do something different. He wrote an open letter telling about his boring life and the bad state of his home.
Antonio, 46 years old, and 280 pounds, living next to Malecón 655, had had enough. The long-drawn-out bureaucratic processes for dealing with his problems were now just too much. For years he wanted to do an exchange — trade his home for someone else’s — but the rigid and absurd laws applied by the Housing Institute did not permit people to exchange in certain neighbourhoods.
Not even if they own their own houses, as in Antonio’s case. He knows very well that in Cuba the word proprietor is a bad joke. People who own their own homes, lose their rights if they decide to leave the country and have to go through long processes when they decide they want to exchange it. Selling the house to someone else is prohibited by the anachronistic Soviet-style statutes which still exist in Cuba.
Desperate, Antonio decided to cut things short. He moved his old bed into the middle of the public street and deposited his 280 pounds in it. It was his way of protesting. The fearless police were there for three hours, trying to find a way out of the conflict, unused to these signs of rebelliousness in a population that was generally very peaceful.
Of course, he was taken off to the police station. It is not known what sanction or fine was imposed. In one part of his letter, with a dose of anguish and anger Antonio says: “I address myself to you to set out my problem, in view of the fact that I have applied to other levels and had no reply. I live in a room, which I own, and when the Malecon Plan started, the zone was frozen, and I can’t move, or carry out maintenance, or have a wife and children living with me. I have realized that everything is an argument with lies and more lies. I don’t want a palace, I only ask that they come up with a solution. I am a sick man who needs peace and a place where I can live with my loved ones who could look after me and help me.”
Simple people, like Fat Antonio or Pánfilo, famous for exploding with anger a few months ago in front of the foreign press cameras, and as far as we knew, have been sentenced to two years in jail for the crime of “being dangerous”, show that something is changing in some people’s mentality in Cuba. For the moment, Fat Antonio says “I’m fed up with it”.
Translated by GH
14 July 2013
The PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela) brothers have divided the country into two trenches. Their followers — in petrocasas (mass-produced small houses) and medical practices painted in red and white with images of Chavez hanging from the roof — if they show absolute loyalty, gain the right to a position as a minor official, where they can earn thousands of bolivars extra.
Those who are against — half the Venezuelan population — are treated as enemies. Nicolás Maduro is governing in virtually a state of siege. The army in the streets. And his comrades turn up in Parliament with gauntlets hidden in their pockets in case they need to hit their opponents.
Maduro has drawn the short straw. The man has a short fuse. He has little room to manoeuvre. As a statesman, he leaves a lot to be desired. His public speaking is a disaster.
He pulls three or four phrases out of the drawer and repeats them to the point of tedium about his love for Hugo Chávez . It doesn’t look as if the old Caracas bus driver is able to more Venezuela forward with his government drawn from the street, where only his own followers turn up.
A country is not a party. You should govern for everybody. Listen to the others. And respect their opinions in the parliament. Many people believe that the advice that Fidel Castro is whispering from Havana is seeking to polarise and radicalise a Bolivarian revolution which is deflating.
That’s how Castro governed in Cuba. The bearded guerilla humiliated the priests and any religion which was not Marxist. He nationalised all property. And provided an air bridge which allowed his enemies and the middle class to flee to Miami. But that was in the time of the cold war.
In the 21st century, to put together an almost scientific autocracy, with a parliament in the Cuban style in which they vote unanimously, is impossible. Following Castro’s strategies is the shortest route for the PSUV to dig its political grave. For many reasons. One of them: Castro’s government is a monument to inefficiency.
It survives on exile dollars and passing the collection box in Venezuela. Productivity is at rock bottom. Salaries are laughable. The infrastructure is dysfunctional. Even the much-trumpeted successes of the revolution in public health, education and sport are going backwards.
Politically, guaranteeing basic rights and employment while sacrificing liberties will never be worthwhile. Those rights and duties which a modern state must fulfil. Without asking for votes in exchange.
Maduro isn’t Chávez. The man from Barinas had charisma. Ability to manoeuvre, and, in spite of his major screw-ups, with his oratory he was able to convince his supporters.
Maduro creates distrust even in typical Chavistas. The position of President is too big for him. Rushing forward is not the right decision.
Whipping up the political differences between Venezuelans is putting out a fire with gasoline. Entrenching himself in institutions which respond to the interests of his party is not the correct solution.
He should offer political breathing room and participation to the opposition. It represents 50% of the electorate. It’s not a small thing. If you could grade Maduro’s performance in his first month of government on a scale of one to ten, he would get a zero.
As President he has not been up to scratch.
Translated by GH
4 June 2013
In the south of Havana, underneath a burning sun, half a dozen men are working in a precarious workshop making blocks using a machine made up out of odd bits and pieces. It’s hard work. For twelve hours a day they put in cement, stones and clay, filling up a mold which the Frankenstein machine then, with tired wheezing noises, coughs up again as blocks for use in construction. In a typical month they earn 1,600 pesos (64 cuc – Cuban Convertible Currency). Four times more than the average Cuban salary.
In theory, these precarious factories, put up in a hurry in a deserted recreation area or in the middle of a field, close by heavy industry, could be the key to increasing production of construction materials. For many families, it allows them to repair their dilapidated houses, especially now, following the passing of the devastating hurricane Sandy through Santiago de Cuba and other eastern provinces.
Alfredo’s target, working in the improvised workshop, is to produce 8,000 blocks a month. He usually manages that, working at half-speed, in the space of 10 days. The rest of the blocks he produces, between 750 and 900 a day, are carefully stored in an old state warehouse.
In accordance with the instructions of their senior manager, those blocks aren’t mentioned in the monthly report. They are for “under the counter” sales. If you add the more than 20,000 blocks which Alfredo’s workshop can produce — and there are hundreds of these little mobile establishments throughout the country — to the output of heavy industry, it is reasonable for people to ask themselves why then are the prices of bricks and building blocks so high.
Each one costs 10 pesos on the black market (0.5 cuc). Demand exceeds supply. And if you go to try to buy them in one of the state flea-markets, you never find any. Nevertheless, the yards of several stores are overflowing with cement, paving stones, aggregate, bricks and blocks.
According to an official of the Ministry of Internal Trade, managers in companies and stores collude in artificially maintaining the scarcity, in order to keep prices up. And that doesn’t only apply to construction materials.
Acopio, whose role is to acquire 80% of the harvests of co-operatives and individual farmers, has transformed itself into a stronghold of predatory corruption. Factories and branches of Internal Trade selling products for hard currency have set up a formidable mafia profiting from the prices of food products.
The regime is in the habit of favoring and turning a blind eye to this sort of activity. A can of beer, a soft drink, or a malt-whiskey, for example, including shipping and unloading, doesn’t cost more than 10 centavos in cuc. But then the foreign currency tax collectors see to it that the shops sell them with a 10-fold markup on the price.
The double currency has created a closed market in the national economy, above all in the companies which sell oil, mayonnaise, tomato paste, soap and detergent, which are among the most profitable, thanks to the elevated income from sales in convertible pesos
These mafia groups, which have taken hold in the local commercial and distribution channels, have amassed fortunes. Information is circulating in the internet about the case of the manager of a factory producing preserves, who has a cupboard full of dollars in his house. Nearly all the corrupt people are bureaucrats. With a red party card in their pocket. And when they speak, like robots, in everything they say they repeat two or more times the words Revolution, Fidel and Raul. An absolute bunch of opportunists.
They make up a compact group, with a monopolistic control over the prices of food, and essential items. Someone who used to work in a state-owned grocery store told me that in the month of April last year they received instructions from the provincial government to supply all the state outlets with black beans at the price of 8 pesos a pound.
Good news for the mafia rings. At that moment in the non-state farms, a pound of black beans cost between 15 and 18 pesos. The answer was to delay the distribution. By the back door, trucks full of beans started to deliver to private houses, which were converted into temporary stores. Then later, the beans went out again from these houses to supply the private farmers’ markets.
They sold the beans wholesale to private sector agents for 12 pesos a pound. And with the profit, 4 pesos a pound, they oiled the wheels of corruption: truck drivers, stevedores and senior managers. In this way they sold tons of black beans. And in official reports it was recorded that a pound of beans was selling for 8 pesos — which it never was.
Apples are another good example. In the hard currency shops, they cost between 35 and 45 cuc centavos each, according to size and quality. Right now you can go around the shops and cafes in Havana and you won’t find any apples for sale. Nevertheless all over town hundreds of people pushing barrows are offering apples at 15 to 20 pesos each.
Behind all this Cuban-style “dumping” there exists a clockwork mechanism which carefully manages the availability of foodstuffs and prices. General Raul Castro has created an army of anti-corruption inspectors, headed by Gladys Bejerano, Controller General of the Republic. The idea is to put the brakes on this multi-headed monster which affects the life of the whole nation.
But for every vermin’s head that Bejerano gets close to, five more spring up. It’s totally evil. People think that we are dealing with something quite weak. They only go after the low and mid-level swindlers and crooks. Certain individuals, referred to as the “bosses of the bosses” carry on in their air-conditioned offices, calmly and unconcernedly watching what’s going on.
Photo: Collecting bricks from a building which collapsed in the path of Hurricane Gustav in Havana in August 2008
Translated by GH
January 14 2013