Ivan Garcia, 15 March 2015 — The dirty, dilapidated produce market — its floor covered with red dirt and its shelving rusty — in Cerro’s crowded El Pilar neighborhood is ten minutes by car from the center of Havana. Sandra, a housewife, has spent two nights in line here waiting for potatoes.
“At three in the afternoon the truck arrived. It took an hour to unload them and, when they went on sale, the line was a block long. The commotion was incredible. The police had to come to restore order. There was a ton of people in line and I ended up not being able to buy potatoes. The manager and his employees kept a lot of bags for themselves to sell on the side,” Sandra says, who was able to buy twenty pounds of potatoes two days later after spending another night in line.
Neither American comedian Conan O’Brien’s show in Havana nor the selfies of Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell with the local playboys nor the predicaments of President Nicolas Maduro have kept the average Cuban from attending to her pressing daily needs.
Especially when it comes to finding food. With spring upon us, the potato has returned to the Cuban kitchen. It is a food that has acquired special status since 1959.
Marta, a retired teacher, has been waiting in line for four hours under a scorching sun to buy potatoes. “The Cuban diet is very poor so it helps round things out. You’ve got rice, sometimes soup, chicken from time to time, a lot of egg and — most commonly when it comes to meat — pork. The potato is the perfect filler,” she points out. “It stretches your meals. If you make meat and potatoes or add it to chicken fricassee, you can feed more people. It adds substance to omelettes. And if you run out of rice before the end of the month, you can make mashed potatoes to fill you up,” she points out.
Until 2009 potatoes were sold through the ration book, but Fidel Castro came up with a plan that was supposed to keep produce markets stocked with potatoes all year long.
Castro ordered the construction of dozens of hub markets with refrigerators for preservation. He said everyone would be able to buy a certain quantity of potatoes every month through the ration book.
On November 1, 2009, potatoes and peas went on sale through the book throughout the island. The potato, a peso a pound. Within three years, the tuber had become an exotic product.
“You have to wait for the winter and spring harvests to buy potatoes, which leads to long lines. Or you have to buy them on the black market, where a three to five pound bag of potatoes costs 25 pesos,” say Agustín, a laborer.
“I get there, dead tired from work, and have to wait in line all afternoon in the hot sun or at dawn. I prefer fries but, when I have potatoes, I don’t have the oil to fry them,” he laments.
Those who receive remittances or who own private businesses do not have to wait in line. “For 70 pesos a guy delivers potatoes to my doorstep. If I had to wait in line, I wouldn’t eat them. Luckily, I have a daughter overseas who sends me money every month. When potatoes disappear from store shelves, I buy a package of ready-cut frozen fries,” explains Samuel.
Osmelio, the owner of a café offering food and sandwiches in Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood, bought twenty sacks of potatoes at 50 pesos each. “I’m selling a plate of fries for 15 pesos. After going so long without potatoes, ” he says, “people with the means buy them at any price.”
After fifty-six years of military dictatorship, traditional Cuban dishes have increasingly become distant memories. Beef, shrimp, snapper and fruits such as anón (sugar-apple) and guanábana (soursop) are now luxury items in the national diet. The potato is on the waiting list.
Photo: The police monitoring the line to buy potatoes at El Milagro, a market owned by the Youth Work Army (EJT), located in the Tenth of October district. Photo by Manuel Guerra Pérez, Cubanet.
Note: In response to the perennial shortage of agricultural products on an island with good soil and a tropical climate, a friend told me, “People in Cuba complain about shortages, but it doesn’t occur to them to solve the problem by planting tomatoes or other vegetables, even if it’s in pots and small beds. Or bananas, potatoes and garlic in plastic buckets like we used to do at home in Havana. I will never forget how a neighbor mocked my mother, telling her she didn’t do this because she wasn’t a peasant. She was not one to stand up to the dictatorship, so gardening would have helped her to eat.”
And he’s right. In many countries, some more developed than others, people yearn for a piece of land to grow vegetables and flowers. Monday through Friday, I watch a BBC program called Escape to the Country in which they show three houses in the countryside to city residents of the UK. In the end, the guests settle on one based upon what they can afford. Not all of their guests are retirees or people about to retire. There are young couples who are not only looking for the peace and beauty of the country, but also want the chance to have a garden, orchard and even a chicken coop. All this love of nature is being lost in Cuba, along with jobs for seamstresses, tailors and shoemakers among others. —Tania Quintero
Translated by W