Without McDonald’s, Burger King or KFC, fast food par excellence in 21st century Cuba consists of fried food and croquettes made from unknown ingredients.
Throughout Havana there are thousands of street vendors specializing in rustic cooking. They sell fried food and heavy croquettes. Some like Ignacio prepare the coating for their fried items with wheat flour, salt and chives. Jose Antonio merely adds a commercial seasoning mix. Yoana prefers to craft hers from yams or corn meal. They are not bad if eaten hot.
Cold is another matter. A greasy packaged ball that tastes like plastic. In the capital croquettes often are not made by the vendors themselves. They usually buy them from special fish markets and then resell them for a 50% profit.
Right now only the cheapest foods can bought with the national currency. A packet of ten croquettes costs 5 pesos. They are within everyone’s budget, though no one knows with any certainty what is in them.
Some say they are made with claria* or catfish. Others claim they are prepared with fish byproducts. And one person, who is said to have worked in a place where croquettes are produced, swears they are manufactured with chicken skin. No matter. They are the gastronomic wild card of the elderly, retired people, students, tramps, the unemployed and laborers.
The pair of “mystery” croquettes that you have for breakfast are the same as those they serve your children for school snacks. They are also routinely used for lunches or other meals along with the inseparable white rice, chickpea soup or black beans, and tomato salad.
If a street vendor does not have his own covered wagon, a guy who owns some old wrecks will rent him one for 50 pesos a day. Before dawn the vendors heat the cooking oil in a big cast iron pot. When the flame is going strong, they will fry the little flour balls. They often fry hundreds of items using the same oil. They cook the croquettes over medium heat.
Some fried food vendors sell the croquettes for a peso apiece. The more clever ones offer a piece of bread with two croquettes for 5 pesos. Creole food is washed down with a soft drink for two pesos a glass. Hundreds of students and workers head to their schools or factories for a quick breakfast of fried food or croquettes.
For most Cubans a breakfast of scrambled eggs with bacon or ham, buttered toast, orange juice and cafe con leche or hot chocolate is something only for rich people, business executives or government ministers. Or it is simply an extravagance one only sees in foreign films.
In Cuba the normal breakfast consists of coffee without milk, the ration book’s allotted 80 grams of bread per capita topped with homemade mayonnaise or oil and garlic.
Fried food vendors gained notoriety in the 1990s during the bleak years of the “special period,” an era in which nutritional needs were satisfied with grapefruit skins and orange leaves. Or warm water with brown sugar, the famous “chicken soup.”
There were some lazy scoundrels who made money selling pizzas by replacing the cheese with melted Chinese preservatives. During this period people lost weight as though they were in a Finnish sauna and developed exotic illnesses like beriberi and optical neuritis.
It was then that the olive-green autocrats pulled out of their sleeves a list of concoctions developed by nutritional experts. In their laboratories they had designed foods to fool the stomach – New Zealand yam pasta, fricandel, dogmeat, meatless meat flour, Cerelac, powdered chocolate milk, and tacos, presumably Mexican, with black beans.
The father of all these inventions is Fidel Castro. An untiring nutritional researcher who at age 86 has proudly declared the moringa tree to be the food par excellence for Cubans of the future. The jewel in the crown was a ground meat product made with beef, pork or chicken by-products bound together with some 60% soy. Its official name was “extended ground meat,” but people called it “extended soy.”
It was a surprise to Havana’s butchers. At night, under cover of darkness, they poured gallons of water over containers filled with the revolting stuff. The concoction grew, according to them, without losing its essential qualities. It is perhaps the only food product developed in Cuba that approximates the biblical parable of the loaves and the fishes.
For the moment the bleak years remain in the past. But the issue of food is still the number one priority for the average Cuban.
Without McDonald’s, Burger King or KFC’s fried chicken, fried flour and croquettes made from unknown ingredients are all the rage in Havana. Of course, they cannot compare to a sandwich from Miami, a potato omelette from Madrid or a Turkish kebab from Berlin. But they are selling like crazy all throughout the city.
Photo from Noticias 24
*Translator’s note: An invasive species of catfish, introduced into Cuba from Asia in hopes it would help alleviate food shortages.
23 February 2013
As with everything in the island of the Castros, there are two standards for alcoholic beverages. If you travel outside world with an official passport, or receive dollars or euros, life on the green cayman is much more pleasant.
With hard currency you can eat in an established restaurant such as El Aljibe on 7th and 24th Streets in Miramar, or Los Nardos across from the National Capitol. Or acquire stuff with registered trademarks from China.
You can have a decent, furnished house. Or a refrigerator stocked with beef and shrimp. And at night treat yourself to a Heineken imported from Holland, or the domestic brands Bucanero and Cristal. You can also get rums with the Havana Club label, or the wonderfully aged Caney and Santiago, produced in the former Bacardi factory in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba.
Drinking rum or beer is almost a national sport. Any event, family party or special occasion will serve as a pretext to open a bottle. Rum allows people to relieve their daily stresses and romantic woes. To admit their doubts about the future of the country. To speak openly about the health of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. To discuss baseball statistics or NBA matches.
According to official statistics 45.2% of the Cuban population over the age of fifteen consumes alcoholic beverages, with a 7% to 10% degree of prevalence. Alcoholism and prostitution are two of the the topics on which independent journalists report most often.
The difference between an affluent drunk and one of limited financial means is striking. While generals and government ministers enjoy ample tumblers of Scotch whiskey or Jack Daniel’s, the neighborhood drunks have to make do with the explosive rum sold in bulk at some liquor stores.
The last rung for someone who takes pride in belonging to a certain alcoholic culture is drinking homemade booze. It is the worst of the worst. Truly the drink of the forgotten. It is made in a sordid backroom or house in the neighborhood. Industrial charcoal or cow dung is used to refine this cheap liquor. It is pure fire. Tears well up when it goes down your throat. It’s potency makes it suitable only for hardened alcoholics or suicides.
Among the masses it goes by different names – trainspark, tigerbone, drop-your-bloomer, jump-backwards. Blacktears is a lethal combination of boric alcohol and Homatropine eyedrops filtered through cotton.
A bottle of this diabolical stuff costs ten Cuban pesos, while the exquisite Santiago rum – the best in Cuba today – is worth between 7.00 and 9.60 convertible pesos – some 175 to 230 Cuban pesos, or almost half the average monthly salary.
When it comes to drinking, in Cuba there is no distinction as to age, race, sex, ideology or religion. It does not matter what your educational or cultural level is. There are social drinkers who do things in moderation. When they feel they are at the point of getting drunk, they know it is time to stop.
Others drink like pirates – bottle after bottle – as if they were trying to beat a Guinness world record. Everyone drinks as his pocketbook will allow. Rum and beer appeal to intellectuals, dissidents, hookers and party activists alike. It is rumored that President Raul Castro likes to drink vodka – Russian and perfectly pure.
27 January 2013
In recent days a very concerned neighbor approached me to warn me about an investigation by special services. “We have been watching him for some time,” the official told the neighbor. This is nothing new.
According to neighborhood sources Military Counterintelligence (CIM) has been looking for three years into any bit of information that might be useful in compiling a file or record on me. They are particularly interested in my private life.
In August of 2010 a unit of special troops from the Armed Forces arranged a meeting to question me for more than an hour. Among the threats made, they told me, “In other countries they don’t meet with you for writing an article; they kill you.”
I am a Havanan who writes about his perceptions of Cuban life, in particular of Havana, a province where I have lived since 1965, when I was born. There are various Cubas. Dissimilar realities. It would be presumptuous to think that one simple independent journalist could capture the complex and rich panorama of the entire island.
There are those who applaud and vote early in elections in which nothing is resolved. The ones who believe in the system. Opportunists who use their party membership card as a winding staircase up the superstructure of power.
Of course there are also male and female hookers. Transvestites and homosexual prostitutes. Mediocre teachers on the rise. Apathetic doctors who arrive at their clinics every morning motivated by “special patients” bearing gifts in hard currency or in kind.
People who go to work only because their jobs give them the chance to rob anything they can. From a light bulb to a kilogram of flour. There are also drugs to be found on the streets. Young people, fifteen to thirty years old, who comfort themselves with psychotropics and marijuana.
There are honest people too. One can, of course, find many respectable citizens. But my own personal reading of the situation is that the number of Cubans disenchanted with the government’s economic and political mismanagement is on the rise.
In any conversation – on the street, in your neighborhood or in an old taxi – you will hear people loudly complaining about the olive green autocrats. They will confess to you their desires to emigrate. They will tell you they are tired of fifty-four years of exotic and inconclusive tropical socialism, which fails to satisfy their expectations.
Cuba wounds or it consoles. It depends on how you look at it. Personally, I do not believe that free health care, education and cultural access justify the lack of democracy.
In many aspects of its public life, Cuba has become no different from other impoverished third-world countries. There is no organized crime or legions of beggars on the streets.
But there are formidable “cartels” or “clans” of corrupt bureaucrats who manipulate the supply and demand of the national economy from behind the scenes. More than a few have become rich – very rich – by profiting from scarcity.
They are like the wall in a handball court. This is the real enemy that General Raul Castro must confront in his battle against corruption. Curiously, the police raids do not extend to the upper echelons of power.
The bigwigs at the top of the state bureaucracy still run the cash registers, adding zeros the ends of their personal bank accounts. They are thinking about the future. Astute, they are opening a window to any business that might come from the north.
I do not believe that political dissidents and independent journalists are a serious problem for the regime. There are not many of us. And we are divided. Faced with attacks, incarceration and fear, the Cuban opposition has not been able to raise the level of discourse enough to reach the average Cuban.
We do not have publications and cannot avail ourselves of hours of hours of television and radio time in which to express our points of view. We do not have a solid leader capable of pulling us together. We are awaiting figures like Henrique Capriles.
In an autocracy it is difficult for people who dissent to develop and stand out. To be an opposition figure in Cuba seems like a job for a madman or an adventurer. But it is not. There are a handful of Cubans with a democratic frame of mind who want the rules of the game in their homeland to based on freedom, respect and tolerance.
And for the state to stop wielding power as though this were a puppet theater. I am neither on the right nor the left. I gave up on simplistic political dichotomies some time ago.
It is the Cuban government that is on the right of the political spectrum. It is the one that is the most conservative. The most counterrevolutionary. The real anti-democratic obstacle.
I am not a hero. Nor am I particularly special. I have many flaws. I am also fearful. But long ago I decided to place my hopes on individual liberty.
This makes me feel differently. Every morning when I am shaving in front of the mirror, it makes me feel good about myself. I do not have to pretend. Or lead a double life.
From Havana I write and sign my name to stories that describe my impressions of things that are happening in Cuba right now. I write about the losers. About the downtrodden. I do not invent them. They exist.
I try to portray the precarious lives of those whose testimonies do not appear in the complacent State media. Although I don’t always achieve it. I send a message back to the tough guys of the Military Counterintelligence. I will continue writing.
Photo taken by a New York reporter in 2009 at the entrance to the Hotel Colina in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood during a conversation with Ivan Garcia, Laritza Diversent and Luis Cino.
18 February 2013
In the last few weeks, foreign reporters investigating the health of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, have been calling me. My response is always the same. Living in Havana, where the Caracas strongman is being treated for cancer, does not mean one has access to up-to-the-minute news.
The mystery surrounding Chavez’s health is evident. Without access to the internet, Cubans’ only sources for news are local media outlets — all official. They disinform more than they inform.
It is the opposite outside of Cuba, where there is more detailed information on the condition of the lieutenant colonel from Barinas. I often get updates on the Cuban-Venezuelan soap opera when I go online once a week from one of Havana’s hotels.
Or when my mother calls me from Lucerne, or friends call from the United States or other countries. But everyone knows that reporters are sometimes looking for a different angle. That is when they ask for commentary or analysis on the future of Cuba.
This is somewhat complicated given the lack of transparency of the military regime. But in Cuba we all wet ourselves any time someone tries to map out the future of our country.
Babalu worshipers, fortune-tellers, independent journalists and dissident politicians — we all read between the lines of the official news and believe we can sense what direction the regime will take. Cuba in the next five years.
We all seem to be emulating Walter Mercado.* We hope our predictions come true. Some believe that, after the Castros, we will have real democracy. Others are more pessimistic.
They think we will see something resembling North Korea’s Sung dynasty. Certainly, if we do not learn from the reforms carried out in the 1990s by some communist countries of Eastern Europe, we could end up being the perfect haven for recycled leaders who change colors abruptly and weave a tight web of associates and business partners.
There are several possible scenarios. Most people dream of a democracy with presidential elections every four to six years and numerous political parties, of a place where it is not a crime to criticize something, of abundant freedoms and a first-world level of prosperity that, with any luck, might transform us into a “Caribbean tiger” similar to the Asian tigers of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea.
Such optimism frightens me. To those who believe this, I would ask: From where will we get the resources and from where will honest leaders come who can lead us down this road? The response is almost identical among those who believe that in ten years Cuba will find nothing about Switzerland to envy.
They say that Cuban exiles from Miami and elsewhere in the world will arrive with capitalist experience and saddlebags stuffed with dollars to invest in the country. I hope so. I would certainly like that. But money from the likes of Fanjul, Saladrigas and Bacardí will not necessarily bring us the democracy for which we all hope. I would bet instead on our compatriots in the diaspora, those who are holding down two jobs and sleeping with visions of the Malecón dancing in their heads.
Bookish optimists would not consider it to be a problem if, the day after the departure of the departure of the Castro brothers, the island woke up to find itself penniless. Nor do they see a threat to a future democracy coming from the hundreds of military leaders turned businessmen who now wield money, resources and political connections.
Few in Cuba stop to think about how we will negotiate legal disputes over the debts owed to individuals and businesses who lost their assets when they were nationalized by Fidel Castro. “They will be paid with vouchers or something similar, and everything will be ironed out,” say some, who quietly predict that in 2013 we will see important developments in the life of the nation.
Optimism is always contagious. But when a foreign journalist asks me for an analysis on who the future leaders might be, my mind goes blank. He might well be a rabid Castro type like Balaguer in the Dominican Republic who, after the death of the dictator Trujillo, tried to pass himself off as a democrat. He or she might also be one of today’s dissidents.
International reporters like to mention names. The betting pools favor Yoani Sanchez, although in numerous interviews the blogger has stated that the president’s chair is not for her. It would not be bad if the future president were a woman. Except for Mariela Castro, I would vote for any one of them. There are the attorneys Laritza Diversent and Yaremis Flores, though in their own minds they don’t think of themselves as stateswomen.
Or Rosa María Paya! If there is one thing that Cuba needs, it is a feminine soul. We have more than enough testosterone. An any rate, it is not clear to me that the current leaders of the dissident movement — regardless of their gender — would be in a position to form an open, transparent and truly democratic government.
Within the dissident community there are so many egos and so much destructive posturing that it can provide little or no real help. If they could cast this aside and work in concert by adopting a common platform for the peaceful struggle of creating a democratic republic, it is likely that this dream of many will turn out to be more than an illusion.
In the meantime, we are still ruled by the Castros. And in addition to power and the means of repression, they also retain a plan for succession. But life often brings unexpected surprises.
Chavez’s death was not in Fidel or Raul Castro’s original script, but it could change the final outcome. For better or worse.
Photo from ABC.
*Translator’s note: A well-known TV astrologer and psychic.
7 February 2013
When three years ago Octavio, 52, asked a relative in Miami for a loan of $ 8,000, for the purpose of opening a ’paladar’ (private restaurant) in the Havana neighborhood of La Vibora, he was sure that his business would prosper. Not so. In this false Cuban winter, he still owes $8,000 to his relative. And even worse, he had to close the restaurant due to unprofitability.
“In addition to having just a few customers, purchasing fresh, quality food was an ordeal. For these businesses to work you have to have good contacts in the black market. Buying food and supplies legally doesn’t work, you can’t progress. Not to mention that there is no wholesale market and the taxes are very high,” he says.
To fail at a private venture is disappointing. Of course in real capitalism there are winners and losers. But the Cuba of Fidel Castro was always considered an anti-capitalist sanctuary and enemy of the free market.
When in 1993 the Castro government authorized the opening of farmers markets and handicraft workshops, it was under a strict fiscal control and the jealous supervision of a battalion of state inspectors who, because of the rules and prohibitions imposed on self-employment, found it very easy to catch the owner in violation of the laws drawn.
Over time, the private work languished, suffocated by a raft of measures that prevented it from thriving. In October 2010 General Raul Castro reopened the private sector and relaxed the rules.
It was logical. The olive-green autocracy wanted clear out the public accounts and payrolls inflated with unproductive workers and employees who were quite heavy a burden. The regime’s plan was to layoff a million and a half workers in three years. To fend for themselves, setting up timbiriches — tiny businesses — selling croquettes or refilling cigarette lighters.
So quietly, without the sound of revolutionary marches, erasing the official discourse of “Fatherland or Death We Shall Overcome” and sticking out its tongue at Marxist rhetoric, the Castro government morphed from a socialist system (at least as we read in the Constitution) a formidable apparatus of state capitalism, corporations run by anonymous military men in white guayabera.
For a ton of Cubans, accustomed to 54 years on chanting slogans and cheering, waiting for orders from above and receiving meager subsidies, it was traumatic to be told from the podium that they should change their mentality.
Of the more than 450,000 private workers licensed to practice on their own, many had been doing it for a while clandestinely. Upon opening the door of a disguised capitalism, those who were caught naked were precisely those who worked for the state. They were people adapted to earning a ridiculous salary every month, working very little, and experts in stealing or adulterating finances for their own benefit.
In the absence of courses in small business management, investment and marketing, the self-employed have had to learn the laws of capitalism through failures. The most profitable businesses right now are renting rooms, private taxis, photographing quinceañeras, weddings and birthdays. But except for hired drivers, who due to the chaotic urban transport operation generate profits, for every one who succeeds, three fail.
More than 60,000 have returned licenses. Still and all, most consider it preferable to work on their own, giving up the miserable state salary. Then people take risks and make commitments to open their own path. Along the way they have learned to swim upstream.
This is the case with Jesus, a successful photographer who has a good gig taking photos at parties, especially girls’ fifteenth birthdays. “My experience tells me that, aside from the professional quality of your work, you have to know how to sell yourself,” he said in his studio, built in a garage. He pays 10 CUC a month to advertise in the phone book. And 50 CUC to a sign painter to make a striking lit up sign at the entrance to his house.
Or Gerado, who works renting rooms and advertises on the internet. They are lessons not learned by Octavio, former owner of a paladar in La Vibora.
In this island version of capitalism in the worst African style, future proprietors have to know that good connections with sellers in the clandestine market are fundamental not to fail. Others try to fall in love with money. It’s customary that, for every customer introduced to a paladar or who rents a room, the owner gives a 5 CUC finder’s fee, and some free food and a couple of beers if it’s a private restaurant.
With such rigid laws the prevent getting rich, one of the way to move forward with a business is through financial chicanery, hiding income, buying products under the table, using unfair methods of competition, even betraying your competition to the tax police.
That Octavio failed is not a surprise. “In this scene honesty has little value. You have to fight like a dog. Otherwise you won’t succeed. He is a good example.
The Octavio failed not surprised. “In that scene is worth little honesty. You have to be a fighting dog. Otherwise not succeed. ” He is a good example.
Although it still hasn’t made it into the history books, Cuba has gone from wild utopian socialism to capitalism. In silence.
Photo: Taken from Swiss Photographer capturing the contrasts of Cuba, a report published in 2009 in Nación.com of Costa Rica.
23 January 2013
I would like to believe that President Raúl Castro’s meager reforms to the Cuban economy will improve the quality of life and contribute to a growth in productivity for a nation whose hands have been tied and which has become adept at getting by on subsidies from overseas.
But the ambiguity and inefficiency of a system copied from the Soviet model, and the clinging to power and patriarchal mindset of the founding leaders of the Cuban revolution — supported by a wide segment of bureaucrats, military entrepreneurs and occasional opportunists — lead me to a hard and simple conclusion.
Cuba is not working because it has an inept government. Those who support the system will keep trying to bury their heads in the sand and believe in the usual platitudes that we are a sovereign people, poor but dignified, with free public health and education at every level of society, and a daddy state that, even in bad times, will watch over the dispossessed so that they do not die of hunger.
Some of the achievements of the military regime have been costly. Moves towards democracy and the possibility of multi-party coexistence were scuttled. Fidel was the Messiah. You were either with him or you were stateless.
If today we have an economy that has run aground, the blame lies with the government. If workers’ first concern is robbing the state rather than work, it is because their salaries are inadequate. The blame for this must fall on their rulers.
One can try looking for excuses or pretexts by blaming the American embargo for the island’s precarious situation, but I am not buying it. When we were feeding off the Soviet teat, quality and worker productivity were already very low. Castro managed the economy like a private farm and bled the country in a long and costly civil war in Africa. The official media often publishes stories about the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I have never seen a single word written about the heavy price Cubans have paid for our subversive military actions in other parts of the world.
Aged and full of reproach, Fidel Castro now rests in an undisclosed location. His brother Raúl governs as his hand-picked successor. Although he publicly praises Fidel, he has put a definitive end to volunteerism and absurd regulations that have turned Cubans into fourth-class citizens, closed ministries and bid farewell to all of the Commandante’s trusted staff.
But his ambiguous reforms have not produced the economic revival that the people need and want. At eighty-one years old, it is likely the General feels trapped in a maze. If he presses down on the accelerator of change, the car will veer out of countrol, but temporary fixes will simply keep the country mired in bureaucracy, corruption and inefficiency.
No one is more aware of Cuba’s current situation than the authorities themselves. Their nonsensical rhetoric — talking about changing the mindset, demanding that members of the press write critically and asking that obstacles to productivity be eliminated — arouses suspicion in the populace.
It is all useless. Utterly pointless. In reality, little or nothing is being done to change the state of affairs. Some claim it is a way of buying time. Political oxygen and propaganda intended to create an image of reform, a new face to present to the exile community and the international public.
Behind this ambiguity lies hidden the essence of a regime run by the Castros. It is impossible to prosper or grow economically in a country where it is a crime to get rich.
Photo: Workers repairing the seawall along Havana’s Malecón. From El desamaparo de los trabajadores cubanos.
23 January 2013