The Green, Green Cane of Cuba

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Cuba has garnered a reputation for, and has been touted as, a model of green, organic, non-GMO sustainable production and consumption. According to the Organic Consumers Association (quoting Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis, a study), many of the foods that people eat every day in Cuba are grown without synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.

Some of this is true, but because the regimen has been adopted out of necessity and not out of ideology (unless you count the Communist ideology that brought this on in the first place), it is not rigorously adhered to in the way in which, for instance, an organic farmer in the US might adhere to it. It is expediency, with ideology added after the fact to capitalize on necessity.

At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail.

As USA Today reported in March, “Cuba once focused on capital-intensive, industrialized agriculture on large state-run farms, but was forced to change after economic support from the Soviet Union evaporated. Beginning in 1990, Cuban food production fell precipitously. The country shifted to a low-input agricultural cooperative model. Even so, it suffered serious food shortages in 1994, which prompted further changes.” It might be added that, changes or not, sugar production has fallen by 60% over the past 30 years.

Unable to import industrial fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba resorted to using horse, cow, pig, chicken, and even human waste for soil nutrition. And it tried to become self-sufficient in food production. At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail. And woe betide the gardener who broke a shovel — sabotage!

Into the breach stepped Uncle Sam, easing the embargo restrictions on exporting food and medicine to Cuba.

On my recent bike trip across Cuba, I was accompanied by a bourgeois socialist couple — retired on government pensions, upbeat about Castro’s “reforms,” berning-for-Bernie — who wanted to see the island before it was “ruined” by McDonalds, Walmarts, discount dollar stores, and other popular tendrils of free choice that might invade once the embargo is lifted. Fair-weather vegetarians (don’t mention bacon around them!), free-range egg fans, supplement-swallowing, sugar-hating, GMO-abjuring, organic-food faddists, they were also looking forward to eating “healthy” food in Cuba.

Well, Cubans don’t do vegetarianism. Castro pushed salads — mostly cabbage — on them during the “Special Period” in the ’90s; and, at least for tourists, greens remain a dependable staple, composed mostly of cabbage, tomatoes, beets, and cukes topped with canola oil and vinegar. But Cubans much prefer meat, beans, rice, and starchy veggies — yuca, malanga, and plantains, preferably fried — plus anything with sugar: rum (and any other alcoholic drink, such as the mojito, with an added dollop of sugar), guarapo (pure sugar cane juice), raw sugar cane, churros, cucurucho (a mixture of honey, nuts, coconut, and sugar), coffee brewed with sugar (traditional), malta (a thick, extremely sweet version of non-alcoholic malt stout), coke mixed with sweetened condensed milk, ice cream, and extra sweet pastries.

Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice it up.

On our visit to Cuba, my wife and I saw chickens everywhere, scrawny but free range. Every evening when arriving at our lodging, our host would offer us dinner, an always preferable alternative to eating in a government restaurant. I’d ask what was available and, knowing Cuban cuisine, would decide for the group. Initially I’d lean toward chicken out of respect for my “vegetarian” companions. Invariably, the chicken portions would consist of a giant thigh and leg with meat so white one could have mistaken it for a breast.

Aside: contrary to popular US perception, Cuba does have a fast-food restaurant chain — El Rapido, a state-run enterprise. Guidebooks and trip accounts tout it as dependable, with food quality varying from passable to good, especially the chicken — again, a thigh and leg combo. We never ate at a Rapido — but not for lack of trying. The ones we stopped at were either out of meat or not serving food because something had malfunctioned, or something else had gone wrong — but still open, with full staff just sitting around.

Riding with me in a taxi one day, Melinda, one of my progressive companions, wondered how the chickens we were served were so big when the ones we saw roaming about were so rickety. So I asked our driver. He said Cubans don’t kill their chickens, they’re for eggs. Eatin’ chickens are stamped with madinusa. Not familiar with the term, I asked him what it meant. He looked wryly at me, sideways, and then I got it: Made in USA.

When I told Melinda she gulped and said, “You mean we’ve been eating Purdue chickens? From now on let’s ask for pork; at least it’s organic.”

Pork is the ubiquitous Cuban meat. The only available roadside lunch snacks were in-season fruit stands and roast pork sandwiches consisting solely of pork and bread. (Cuba grows no wheat; it’s all imported, some of it possibly GMO.) Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice up the pork sandwiches (yes, it’s a strange combination, but delicious).

Beef was the least available meat, even though we saw lots of cattle in the central provinces. Apparently it’s reserved for the nomenclatura and tourists. Though not available in government ration stores, it can be obtained by anyone at convertible currency stores — if you have the money. At one B&B where the owner was tickled pink that I was a Cuban-American, it brought out her impish side. I requested ropa vieja, a traditional brisket or flank steak dish. She thought about it for a minute and said, “We can do that. And it’ll be the best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.”

I responded, “Remember, I had a Cuban mother.”

Without skipping a beat she retorted, “It’ll be the second-best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.” We both laughed.

Fish is widely available but of varying quality. Whenever it was offered as fresh and a good species, especially pargo, Cuban Red Snapper (nothing like it!), I opted for it. Yes, Cuba hasn’t overfished its stocks. But not for eco-ideological reasons; rather for “sugar cane-curtain” reasons: to limit small boat traffic along its shores, minimizing escape and infiltration attempts. Additionally, small-enterprise fishing businesses haven’t been allowed: the state will provide the fish. However, lobster is often available, and it is to die for — huge, cheap, and delicious.

Arguably, our best meal was at a paladar (private restaurant) in Playa Giron (aka Bay of Pigs). We were the only ones there. The menu, recited, not read, included a special trio of fresh fish, shrimp, and lobster, all for $15 each, including cheap imported Chilean wine and all the trimmings. When the waiter was through I asked him about caiman (the Cuban croc), which I’d heard was available for eating in the Zapata swamp area. He answered that yes, they served it but couldn’t announce it, as it was a protected species. Though I desperately wanted to try it and cock a snook at the Castro regime, we all opted for the special.

One of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — the source is nostril level and in-your-face.

One B&B owner, who’d been in the tourism business all through the Special Period, both legally and illegally (and had spent time in jail), elaborated on what food was like back then. He cooked us a typical dinner (as a side dish to the marlin and lobster he was serving us): boiled cabbage. I don’t know what he did to it, but it was surprisingly tasty. He added that breakfasts in the special period consisted of sugar water followed by labor in the cane fields — a dish he didn’t serve us.

You see a lot when you ride a bike through the countryside. At least once we saw someone spraying pesticides on crops. When I mentioned it to Melinda she despondently admitted that she too had seen it. But one of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — Cuba’s breezes dissipate that possibility, and there’s little heavy industry. The source is nostril level and in-your-face. All those old cars that look so charming have been retrofitted with diesel engines that have zero emission controls. Clouds of black smoke spew out of nearly every vehicle, to such a degree that one of our companions got sick. Riding for any length in one of those classic cars will make you sick. Floor holes funnel the poison into the cabs, which means that all windows must be open all the time. Our B&B in Havana closed all the windows facing the street, to keep the exhaust out. Though the problem is acute in cities and towns where traffic can be dense, even out on the highways we’d hold our breath and avoid in any way we could the passage of a bus or truck, the most common vehicles on highways.

Garbage, like many things in Cuba, is full of contradictions. Cubans are a very clean people. One informant told me that trash collectors are particularly well paid. In general, the streets are quite clean. But . . . every once in a while mounds of garbage dot cities, towns, and the countryside, almost as if they’ve been warehoused in discreet piles and then forgotten, only to make a sudden reappearance.

On the way to find my grandmother’s grave, I struck up a conversation with a street sweeper, about my age. He was pushing a two-binned pushcart and sweeping with a handmade broom. He had a very photogenic face and was smoking a cigar. Intermittently picking up trash — there wasn’t much — and sitting in the shade, he caught my eye. I asked if I could photograph him. He was proud to be so noticed. After some introductory remarks and typical Cuban give-and-take, he declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” I asked him to elaborate. He said things were much better before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

According to one person I talked to, the only municipal potable tap water in Cuba is in Baracoa, in the Sierra Maestra mountains at the far east end of the island. And it is delicious. Cool, free-flowing rivers fill Baracoa’s reservoir. Elsewhere, municipal water is a mess. In Guantanamo and in Havana, where I actually watched the process of getting tap water (and likely in other places too), it runs like this: Early in the evening, the water mains fill up. In a couple of hours the water level in the pipes gets high enough to reach the house branches. At this point, my two B&B owners turned on an electric or gasoline pump to get water from the mains into a cistern. Another couple of hours goes by; then, around 11 pm, another pump moves the water from the cistern up to a rooftop tank. Voila! Domestic water! — though not provided in the greenest way. Rural areas depend on trucked water and cisterned rainwater. Potable, government bottled water is also widely available. It is definitely not delicious. Though it has no actual repellent taste or smell, I have never tasted worse purified water. The consumer cost of both water and electricity is trivial — again, hardly an efficient or green approach to conserving resources.

Cuba’s organic farm production and the Obama administration’s trade overtures have caused concern among Florida’s organic farm growers. The March 18 issue of USA Today reports that

Florida farmers say the Obama administration’s plan to allow Cuban imports threatens their $8 billion-a-year business. Florida’s larger organic growers, already struggling to remain profitable, may be particularly hard-hit because Cuba has developed a strong organic farming sector.

Initially, Cuba most likely would export many of the same products grown by Florida organic farms, and the communist nation would enjoy the advantage of lower wages, state subsidies, cheap transportation and the novelty appeal of Cuban products.

It’s not just the subsidized competition that is worrisome. One American farmer asks, “When you buy Cuban products, are you helping the Cuban farmer — or the Cuban government?” He goes on to note that he worries about diseases, pests, and invasive species. Two-thirds of Florida farmers are against any deal. Bell peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers are the primary products of Cuban state farms, but avocados and more exotic produce such as guanabana (soursop) are in the running.

The street sweeper declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” Things were much better, he said, before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

USA Today adds, “Eva Worden, a Cuban-American organic grower in Punta Gorda, Fla., supports a resumption of trade between the U.S. and Cuba but wants to be sure the fruit and vegetable needs of the Cuban people are met before encouraging exports.”

Natural, organic, and even “genetically modified” terms have always been a minefield of imprecision and ideology. When politics is added to the mix, it’s anyone’s guess what government policy might turn out to be. Best to let the consumer decide . . .




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