Tag Archives: Cuban economy

In the Mix: Café Cubano

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Alicia Alonso. Santería offerings. Sunday supper. There are some people and things you just don’t mess with in Cuba. This includes coffee. More than a simple stimulant or mere morning habit, coffee here is history, tradition, and ritual rolled into one.

All manner of human affairs are conducted over teeny cups of the black, sweet elixir: friendships are forged, pacts made, and lovers wooed (or booted or double crossed) while sipping the stereotypically strong brew. Indeed, every proper visita to a neighbor or friend’s begins with coffee and even meetings – from the most ad hoc to high level ministerial pow wows – include café. No matter how powerful or poor, behind schedule or the eight ball, in Cuba, coffee is an ice breaker and friend maker. As iconic as rum, as ubiquitous as cigars.

But as I’ve said before, changes are afoot. Whereas any move by Cuba in the past 50-plus years had to be analyzed through a kaleidoscopic prism of political cause and effect, changes today are undertaken and evaluated according to economic cost and benefit (see note 1). The recent announcement of the resurrection of café mezclado is an illustrative example of this ‘new normal.’ And it’s got Cuba’s collective panties in a twist.

On May 3, it was announced that coffee distributed to all Cubans on the ration card would once again be “blended.” This is an old concept known to poor java junkies the world over: by mixing ground coffee with something else (e.g. chicory), you stretch your resources and enjoy more, albeit weaker, coffee. Cuban campesinos have long had a tradition of blending coffee with chícharo (see note 2) and the state adopted this approach throughout all these lean economic years.

There was the euphoric, dare-to-dream moment during Chavez’ halcyon days when oil money flowed throughout the Global South and Cuba was able to upgrade from café mezclado to café puro. This meant that 11 million Cubans were receiving near-free, pure coffee via state-provided rations guaranteed to all citizens (see note 3).

But reality is upon us anew and our cupboards once again harbor coffee blended with chícharo. But this time is different. Tolerance for ‘suck it up just a little longer’ is ebbing and indeed may be at an all time low (except among those reaping the rewards of the new economic regulations, of course). This is compounded by the fact that Fidel isn’t at the helm, which has had various ripple effects – not monolithically good or bad, not all visible – which are felt acutely when it comes to morale boosting during such ‘suck it up’ special periods.

Then there’s the blend itself.

Pre-petrol dollars gracias a Chavez, the blend distributed on the ration card (see note 4) was 40% coffee and 60% chícharo. It had a particular, not bad flavor and I enjoyed plenty of it with my little old lady cabal. Today’s blend, however, splits the difference right down the middle – 50% coffee and 50% chícharo.

More coffee, less chícharo. An improvement one would think.

But this is Cuba, where digging deeper, reading between the lines, and parsing the details are essential for truth finding. And so it is with café mezclado. Whereas the old 40/60 blend contained less actual coffee, it was superior Arabica, recognized worldwide as the best tasting, today’s mix uses hardier and more caffeinated but less toothsome, Robusta. And therein lies the rub.

“It’s bitter, acidic and muy fuerte.”

“If you ask me there’s more than 50% chícharo in there.”

This is what folks around here are saying about the new blend. And even as analysts and quality-control specialists go on TV to explain in excruciating detail the cost, taste, and agronomic differences between Robusta and Arabica, people remain skeptical and critical.

And scared. Fear isn’t a trait I typically associate with Cubans, who are amongst the most courageous people you’ll ever meet. However, this café mezclado is rocking our world and not just for its shitty flavor, but rather something much more sinister: the blend makes coffee pots blow up.

According to those aforementioned analysts and quality-control gurus, instances of exploding cafeteras (the stovetop espresso pots used by 99% of us) have been documented. The new blend is to blame. They assure us that all should be fine if we follow the brewing instructions on the package – necessary no doubt, thanks to the coffee bombs created by café mezclado. I mean: what Cuban needs a lesson in how to brew coffee?!

So we suck it up, follow the instructions on the package, and trust Them when They say the blending strategy will be evaluated and tweaked over time – dependent on economic feasibility, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more episodes of exploding cafeteras and a limp economy conspire to strike coffee from the ration card altogether.

Buckle up babies: it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Notes

1. The complete absence of political discourse/orientation in the new and revolutionary lineamientos is of great concern and wide comment on this side of the Straits. The other issue which people are anxious about – and the single most debated point in the lineamientos – is the eventual reduction or elimination of rations. Stay tuned.

2. The international press – which jumped on this story like an old Italian on a lithe mulatta – translates chícharo as pea. While you may be thinking ‘sugar snap’ or Jolly Green Giant style, this is the dried legume and looks more like a small garbanzo.

3. Currently the coffee ration is 115 grams and costs 15 cents. The other change is that Cubans aged 0-6 no longer receive this ration.

4. In hard currency stores you can buy 100% pure café cubano, whole bean or ground. The most popular brands are Cubita or (in my opinion), superior Serrano. This is the coffee served in bars and restaurants, hotels and clubs and what the overwhelming majority of visitors are drinking. Only in someone’s home (not a casa particular – there’s a world of difference) or in a private peso cubano cafeteria are you likely to get a taste of café mezclado.

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Filed under Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life

Drinking the Capitalist Kool-Aid in Cuba

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I’m not sure what news about Cuba is being made over your way, but I assume you’ve heard changes are afoot. I’m talking big, game-changing adjustments that surely have Che spinning in his grave (to say nothing of Marx and Lenin). The reasons are many and complex why I’ve put off writing about “the changes” (sounds like a euphemism for menopause which isn’t a bad metaphor for today’s Cuba I should think) but suffice to say, I can no longer keep quiet.

A sort of financial shock therapy, these changes are deeply personal and downright frightening for many Cubans. However necessary (and dare I say it?) inevitable, the greatest free market experiment since 1959 is a sink or swim proposition: if it does work, Havana will start looking more like Santo Domingo or Miami. But if it doesn’t work, millions of people will bear witness to generations of work going down the tubes.

This predicament, the very real possibility of economic failure translating into socio-political failure is causing anxiety, anger, breakdowns and break ups. Of course, the changes give hope to some, but I’m not among them. From where I’m sitting, they’re an unworkable solution. Salvaging the Cuban economy by allowing private enterprise and other too little, too late measures is an impractical workaround I call ‘Shutting Barn Door, Horse Long Gone’ (see note 1). The Cuban economy was, is, and always shall be struggling. It’s geography, politics, history and fate. It’s The Way it Is.

So I take exception to the theory and the timing. But even more so, I question the mechanism. Pandora’s Box is being thrown wide with this headlong dive into the shallow end of the free market pool. I call this last gasp for cash ‘One Foot on the Slippery Slope.’

I’m a capitalism refugee. I know viscerally that money is the root of all evil. It corrupts, ruins friendships, ruptures families, crushes love, and damages the environment. And make no mistake: this genie has a one-way ticket out of his bottle.

A fascist anti-materialist (see note 2), I moved to Cuba in part to escape the unchecked consumerism and dollar lust that grips my old world. An error in judgment, faulty analysis or both since I quickly learned that money and stuff (along with sex, transportation, and protein) are uppermost in Cubans’ minds; in fact, most days are dedicated to their pursuit. Still, I loved how time was made for friends and conversation, how freely people shared. This will all roll away down the Slippery Slope once the real money lust sets in, I’m afraid. When taxes and employees and suppliers must be paid and profits are squirreled away for baubles – this is when things will get ugly de verdad.

Already the fury for iPods and 2 inch acrylic nails, nights dancing at the Salon Rojo, navel piercings, and tramp stamps (see note 3) are eroding values and substituting style over substance, form trumping function. The market, I have no doubt, has the unique capacity to undermine most everything the Cuban revolution stands for.

The feeding frenzy is already in full scrum. I have friends who procured licenses under the new regulations to train dogs, sew and sell dresses, and even make ice – home delivery extra. In any neighborhood nowadays I can browse CDs & DVDs, shoes, guayaberas and house wares set out for sale on people’s porches. Every few days, an old guy walks my block shouting: “I buy empty perfume bottles.” I guess I should be glad that Havana garages hold perfume factories instead of meth labs – for now at least.

What scares me most is the fundamental economic concept of supply and demand: if there’s enough of the latter, someone will step up to provide the former. And if there’s one thing we have a surplus of here, it’s demand. I call this the ‘Special Period Hangover’ (see note 4).

Worrying me these days is more than the simple human desire for things. It’s the confluence of factors making free market free-for-alls particularly toxic and potent here: the US embargo which keeps Cubans in a permanent state of want and need; the indelible psychological effects of the Special Period; the new opportunities to amass cash; and the myriad different and novel ways to spend it.

Now, before you get your knickers in a twist, let me say that I fully and clearly understand how easy it is for me to disparage the lust for stuff, having had my chance at it. But I feel nauseous when I think about this socio-economic ‘perfect storm’ and what it means for the future – our future – the future being forged for Cubans, by Cubans.

Consider what I call the ‘Miami Effect:’ throughout southern Florida and especially in Miami, there are businesses dedicated to renting thick gold chains and ghetto hoops, rings for every finger and gold-plated watches – all gauche to the extreme. Men’s signet bracelets are also in high demand at these shops which exist solely to rent gold and bling to Cuban Americans returning to the island to visit friends and family.

Who cares if the 14k bracelet says Tito and your name is Yamel? The important thing is to arrive in Havana (or Holguín or Camagüey) looking like an old skool NY guido who just hit the Lotto. Thanks to these businesses, you can achieve your look at a reasonable price (just don’t forget to relinquish those jewels upon your return). Has it not dawned on these folks that their money is better spent on cooking oil or a pair of decent sheets for family back home? Maybe some quality sponges, batteries or other utilitarian items every Cuban home needs?

I invite my readers to take a moment to ponder the absurdity of a poor person visiting even poorer people and budgeting for bling (see note 5). I mean, I know ‘form follows function’ is a foreign concept in Miami, but this boggles the mind. And it scares me that this is part of the Cuban character. This type of materialist twist and bent is my nightmare. After 9 years in Cuba, I dread waking up to it.

A friend said to me years ago that if the Yanquis want to kill the revolution, all they have to do is drop a jabita stuffed with Levi’s, Converse, and Lancôme at every doorstep and everyone will roll over. I hope she’s wrong because that is just too fucking depressing.

Notes

1. Surely Cubaphiles will have caught the double meaning here: Fidel is sometimes referred to as ‘el caballo.’

2. For example, my blood pressure spikes when I watch my neighbor walking her two Siberian Husky puppies – the new breed of choice down here. I find it cruel and unusual for these dogs to suffer a Havana summer just because their owner wants a couple of status symbols. Then there’s all the kitschy Ed Hardy knock offs that make me shudder and groan. Maybe I should start importing Bedazzzlers – the Cubans will go gaga over a tool that allows them to bling everything from baja chupas (tube tops) to blumers (underwear). To get a better understanding of just how anti- I am about all this, check the Church of Life After Shopping link on my Blog Roll.

3. To put things in perspective, consider what these non essentials cost here on the average Cuban salary: iPod = 4 to 20 months salary; acrylic nails = 1 month’s salary; night out at the Salon Rojo = 2 months salary (minimum); navel piercing = 2 weeks salary; tramp stamp = 1.5 months salary.

4. Once the Berlin Wall fell, Cuba’s almost total economic collapse was swift. Nearly 85% of foreign aid disappeared, Cuban adults lost 20 pounds on average and the first experiment with private industry was launched. This era (1993 to depends-who-you-ask) was dubbed ‘A Special Period in Time of Peace.’

5. I welcome input from other immigrants and expats – have you found this to be true of folks from your country or where you live?

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro