by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Cuba

Jul 6 2015

Food availability and marketing in Cuba: a quick look

When I was in Cuba in 1992, the only food available to tourists was at the hotels: no restaurants, no street carts, no corner groceries, no family garden plots, no urban agriculture (for FAO information on Cuban food security, see this link).

On this Food First sovereignty trip, the big surprise was that restaurants were everywhere.  An outdoor restaurant in Old Havana’s cathedral square!

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Plenty of restaurants serve terrific food.

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Some chefs, like Alejandro Robaina, at La Casa Restaurante (on the left), seem poised for a wildly successful TV career.

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Cuban food invariably comes accompanied by lively music.

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We saw farmers’ markets throughout Havana.

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These are explained as part of the revolution.

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We saw specialty food shops in Old Havana.

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Street sellers peddle food from carts.

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But Cuba doesn’t have much in the way of food manufacturing.  Small bodegas and even the large suburban Supermercado do not sell many products.  What they do have is mostly imported.  I saw some Cuban mayonnaise but couldn’t find Cuban coffee anywhere except at the airport.2015-06-19 15.47.45

Even this Supermercado sells only one kind of item.  The oil is soy, bottled in Cuba from U.S. soybeans.

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Many of the shelves are empty because of the U.S. embargo and for general lack of money.2015-06-19 15.49.11

A couple of anecdotes about how the Cuban economy is changing:

The revolution made everyone equally poor, although with excellent free education, health care, and a basic food ration (the libreta) that kept everyone from total starvation, even during the worst of the 1990s.  This created a relatively classless society.

First change: Remittances.  Many families who left Cuba to get away from the Castro regime did well and sent money (“remittances”) to their relatives back home.  We were told that these amounted to $2 billion last year in total and that the money is transmitted via Western Union and couriers (“mules”).

The average Cuban salary and pension is $20 per month.  A remittance of $100 a month makes that person rich.

Second change: Deregulation of real estate.  One of our speakers told us that when private ownership of housing was first permitted a decade ago, he bought a house for the equivalent of $650.  As soon as the rules changed and allowed market rates, he sold it last year for $150,000.

Cuba’s contradictions are interesting to observe.  Go see them while you can.

Jul 2 2015

Urban farms in Havana: a brief report on my brief visit

Because transportation from rural areas is expensive and trucks are few and far between (one result of the U.S. embargo), the Cuban government is promoting urban agriculture.  Our Food First tour group went to a small organic farm and store (Organopónico) in Havana:

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The farm grows a wide variety of vegetable crops, some outdoors but some under mesh.  The sun is hot.

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The farm sells produce to local residents.  I watched a steady procession of people coming to shop, only to be disappointed at the scarcity of items available.  It’s too hot to grow much this time of year.

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The board lists prices in pesos (indicated by $)—$4 to $10 a pound.

Another of the many Cuban contradictions: Cuba has two currencies, pesos and CUCs (Cuban Convertables).  A CUC is roughly equivalent to one dollar, or 24 pesos.  Salaries are paid in pesos.  Markets sell in CUCs or, recently, both.  This system, designed to take advantage of tourist dollars, is slated to end soon.

To put vegetable prices in context: the average Cuban salary is about 470 pesos a month, or $20 (but note that Cubans are given free food rations, education, and health care).

We also visited the much larger 25-acre farm in Havana’s Alamar neighborhood.

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You can see the surrounding apartments in this photo, but not the next one.

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With no money for gas or tractors, plowing gets done with oxen.

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This farm also has a store.

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I waited on a long line to buy a glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.

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This was incredibly delicious and totally worth the wait.

How much sugar is in this?  I searched for, but cannot find reliable Nutrition Facts for fresh cane juice.  If you happen to know where to find this, please send.*

On Monday, I’ll file the last of these Cuba posts, this one on food availability.

Note: the resumption of diplomatic relations and agreement to reopen embassies yesterday should make travel much easier.

*Answer to query: Thanks to Andy Bellatti and Cara Wilking for sending this link to a Nutrition Facts label for cane juice.  No wonder it was so good: 30 grams of sugar in 8 ounces!

Jul 1 2015

Small farms in Cuba: a brief report on my visit

As noted in an earlier post, I was offline from from June 13-20 on a visit to Cuba with a Food First group visiting small organic farms, rural and urban.

This was my third trip to Cuba.  I came with other groups in 1990 and 1992 at the beginning of what Cubans refer to as the “Special Period,” the economic disaster caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of its support for the 1959 Castro revolution, and the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba.

The embargo also required countries that trade with the U.S. to stop trading with Cuba.  For tourists like me, the lingering effects of the embargo are the travel restrictions, the failure of U.S. cell phones to work, and the scarce and slow Internet access.  Hence: Offline.

But change is imminent.  I heard many Cubans mention December 17, the day of President Obama’s 2014 announcement of resumption of relations with Cuba, as if it ought to be celebrated as a national holiday.

Our group traveled by charter flight from Miami.  My first surprise: We were not alone: The Miami airport devotes two entire concourses exclusively to Cuban charter flights.  As many as 20 flights every day are packed with people who have families in Cuba, business people, and tourists of one kind or another.

2015-06-13 06.05.39Our group was interested in Cuban agriculture and food systems.  This post deals with rural agricultural production.  In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about urban farming and what the Cuban food scene looks like.

The USDA provides useful background information and statistics on Cuban agriculture.

The 2015 report has this interesting tidbit: US agricultural exports to Cuba rose from $139.2 million in 1956-58 to $365.3 million in 2012-14.

This, however, does not break the embargo; it is classified as sales, not trade.  The Cubans buy agricultural products from us, mostly frozen chicken for people, and soybeans and soybean meal for animal feed.

We did not see much agriculture on this trip.  There is plenty of land, but gas, transportation, and tractors are extremely limited.  The highway between Havana and Pinar del Rio is well maintained but we saw few cars on it.  Horse-drawn carts, yes; cars and trucks, no.  And lots of land not in production.

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The reasons for this go beyond the embargo.  We heard repeatedly that Cubans don’t like doing agricultural labor: the population is highly educated, is 80% urban, the climate is hot and humid, and Cuban culture does not value that kind of work.

Much of Cuban food is imported.  How much?  Estimates range from 35% to 85% depending on whether whoever is doing the estimating is for or against the Cuban revolution.

An official of the agriculture ministry told us that Cuba is self-sufficient or nearly so in eggs, mangos, sugar, and tobacco.  I took this photo of mangos grown on the remarkable farm in Pinar del Rio established as a model for sustainability by Fernando Funes-Monzote.

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At present, food is grown in Cuba on large farms owned by the state or held by family-owned cooperatives of one kind or another, or on smaller farms that are owned by private individuals or families.  Only 70% or so of arable land is in production.  The state still has a million hectares to distribute, but has a hard time getting anyone to farm it.

Most production is organic, but not by choice.  The embargo makes agricultural inputs unavailable or prohibitively expensive. See, for example, Modern Farmer’s photo-essay on Cuban farming.  Rice and potatoes, however, are not organically grown, and neither is most tobacco.   We heard from farmers in the exceptionally beautiful Viñales region that tobacco is beginning to be grown organically.

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They are proud of their tobacco.  It is used for high-quality cigars and is a major cash crop.

The agricultural situation in Cuba, like much else about the country, is full of contradictions.

Tomorrow: urban farming.

Jun 22 2015

Yes, you can buy Coke and Pepsi in Cuba

I’ve been in Cuba for the past week on a food sovereignty agricultural tour sponsored by Food First.

I will have more to say about this trip, but I’ll start with my obsession with sodas (because of my forthcoming book, Soda Politics): Does the U.S. embargo prevent sales of Coke and Pepsi in Cuba?

Based on research for the book, I know that Cuba is one of the last remaining countries in which Coke and Pepsi cannot be marketed.  North Korea is another.  Myanmar used to be in that category, but came out of it a couple of years ago.

So I was fascinated to see this street cart in Old Havana (Coke hecho en Mexico):

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And in a small market near the Hotel Nacional (Pepsi bottled in El Salvador):

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And in a suburban supermercado outside of Havana (3-liter Cokes from Mexico):

2015-06-19 15.50.43As for soda marketing, it’s only collectors’ items.  These are on the wall of Paladar San Cristóbal, in Central Havana:

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As I’ll discuss in later posts, these are harbingers of marketing to come.