I wander the farmer’s market, as usual. Shoppers line up for cabbage, garlic, cucumbers, mangos, coconut and guava. Flies scatter from a butchered pig as a mule-drawn cart carries a pair of elderly Cubans toward the baseball stadium. Out of the corner of my ear I hear my colleague, the esteemed gringo Sr. Howie, butcher the phrase “es posible tomar un photo?” Meanwhile, salsa music blares from the stage. People dance in the parking lot.
This is Chef Boy Ari reporting from the Caribbean shores of America’s favorite enemy, Cuba. I’m going to tell the story of Cuban food as best I can. But in Cuba, cases of black and white are few, while shades of gray are many. Things in Cuba are rarely as they seem, and things in Cuba are definitely not as the U.S. government wishes us to see them.
Speaking of which, if there are any Federal Agents reading this, calm down. Chef Boy Ari is legal. I’m here with a group of agriculture students studying how Cuba managed to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Prior to the fall of the U.S.S.R., Cuba was the sugar bowl of the Eastern Bloc. All Cuba had to do was grow sugar, and everything else was provided, including food (Estonian sprats, anyone?), oil (so much so that Cuba became an oil exporter by selling the excess), and all of the tractors and chemical fertilizers and pesticides they needed to continue along their path to industrial-strength sugar cultivation.
It was a pretty good deal until 1991, when the whole Soviet package went south. After that, Cuba found itself with nothing but a whole lot of sugar in the ground, but no oil to run the tractors, no agri-chemicals to support the monoculture sugar habit, no sweetheart trade deals guaranteeing above-market prices for Cuba’s sweet white product.
At this point, the government of Cuba’s neighbor to the north, otherwise known as the U.S., saw an opportunity to deal a death blow to Castro’s regime. So the U.S. government tightened the noose even further. In addition to the bans on travel and trade with Cuba already in place, the 1993 Torricelli Bill (aka the Cuban Democracy Act) made it illegal for U.S. companies to do business with foreign subsidiaries that do business with Cuba.
With the remains of the U.S.S.R. busy dealing with problems of their own, and with U.S. companies and their business allies forbidden from trading with Cuba, the island nation became more of an island than ever. U.S. politicians hoped that by starving the Cuban people into desperation, they could foment a revolt against Cuba’s “cruel dictator” and effect regime change from within.
Indeed, the Cuban Democracy Act forced the disappearance of more than 300 medicines from Cuba’s pharmacies, and food shortages brought the average Cuban’s caloric intake to around 800 calories per day at times. In 1993, over 50,000 Cubans suffered from an epidemic of optic neuropathy due to a deficiency of vitamin B complex. Fertility rates dropped and abortion rates climbed.
But Cuba did not starve. To be sure, belts were tightened and life was hard. However, rather than rallying against their government, the Cuban people (the ones that didn’t flee the country, anyway) galvanized in their resolve to beat this challenge together, and Cuba emerged stronger. It was a classic case of what the CIA calls “blowback,” which translates loosely into “pissing into the wind.”
Cuba began breaking up many of the large state-owned sugar plantations and put them into grazing and fruit and vegetable production. In the cities, vacant lots, yards and roof tops were converted to vegetable gardens, which also produced fruit and small edible animals, such as chickens, pigs, goats, and rabbits.
Slowly and surely, Cuba diversified and increased its food production capacity, without the importation of Soviet agri-chemicals and oil. Thus, Cuba’s new agriculture became almost entirely organic by default. As bellies began to fill, a growing conciousness of the ecological and health benefits of organic agriculture created yet another layer of national pride.
Meanwhile, Cuba stayed true to its course of sharing the love. Ironically, President Bush’s empty promise that “no child will be left behind” (a euphemism for no rich child will be left behind) has a real-life counterpart in Cuba, where today, every Cuban child under the age of 7 is guaranteed a liter of milk every day.
Fresh off the boat on our first day in Cuba, we visited one of the 35 urban vegetable farms, called organiponicos, which are scattered about Holguin, Cuba’s 3rd largest city. Josh Slotnick, an instructor of organic agriculture at the University of Montana, darted around asking questions and communing with the farmers via the international language of carrot bunching. We stood in a guava and sweet potato intercrop—a farming technique wherein certain crops are grown side by side—and marveled at the solid green carpet upon the earth.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org