Eating Steak and Fries is a Luxury in Cuba / Iván García
Iván García, 2 May 2017 — On an afternoon like any other, an underground
seller of beef, living in the southeast of Havana, bought flank steaks
wholesale from a slaughterer, to then sell them to private restaurants
and neighbours who could afford them.
He filleted the chops and started to offer them for the equivalent of
three dollars a pound. “They flew off the shelf. By night time I didn’t
have an ounce of it left. If any red meat comes my way, I can sell it
immediately. The thing is, Cubans like to eat a good piece of steak with
fries, washed down with a glass of orange juice. But, my friend, that
dish has become an extravagant luxury in Cuba,” says the vendor, who
knows a thing or two about the ins and outs of the Havana black market.
Even though a pound of beef costs three days’ of a professional’s
salary, you don’t always find it in the profitable black market.
In the island there is a network of butchers, slaughterers and sellers
which makes sufficient money selling beef. “Everything starts when
someone spots a bullock or a cow not properly protected in some odd
corner in the Cuban countryside. That’s when they start to plan how get
it to end up as stew (kill it) and transport it to Havana, which is
where they can sell it for the best price. They can get between 1,300
and 1,600 chavitos (CUCs) for a 1,000 pound bull, and the slaughterer,
the transporter and the sellers get a few kilos of meat free”, according
to a cattle slaughterer, a native of the central region of the country.
And he explains that they will just as happily kill a calf, a grown up
cow, or a horse, “whatever has four legs and moves, gets what’s coming
to it. Of course, a slaughterer who knows what he’s doing takes care not
to kill a cow which is sick or has brucellosis, because if the police
catch you, along with the twenty years the District Attorney goes for on
account of killing a cow, he adds another five or six on top for
endangering public health.
In 2013, the Granma newspaper reported that more than 18,400 cattle were
dying of hunger or disease in the province of Villa de Clara. In April
2014, the Communist party organ highlighted that something over 3,300
cows died in the first three months of that year in the province of
Holguin, and another 69,000 were found to be under-nourished. The
authorities blamed the drought and, according to Granma, 35 thousand
head of cattle were receiving water from water tank trucks in order to
alleviate the effects of the months without rain.
According to Damián, an ex-employee of a sugar mill, who now survives
selling home-made cheese on the Autopista Nacional, “what has happened
to the cattle here is irresponsible and those officials should be behind
bars. But they carry on like that, carrying their Party card and talking
Mario, a private farmer, says, jokingly, that “Cuba is an unusual
mixture of Marxism and Hinduism. Seems like a religious prohibition on
eating beef, which is what Cubans like to eat. Although the leaders
carry on eating it — just look at their faces and stomachs; they look as
if they are going to explode. If you gave them a blood test, their
haemoglobin would be around a thousand”.
During the time of the autocrat Fidel Castro, when people wore Jiqui
jeans, Yumuri check shirts and very poor quality shoes, all made
locally, the old ration book which, in March 2017, had been in use for
55 years, authorised half a pound of beef every nine days for people
born in the country.
“Then the cycle was lengthened to once a fortnight, then once a month,
until it was quietly disappearing from the Cuban menu. Along with many
other things like milk, fresh fish, prawns, oranges and mandarines”,
recalls a butcher, who made plenty of money selling beef “on the side”
for four pesos a pound in the ’80’s. In the 21st century he survives
making money from selling soup thickened with soya.
In the last week of February, some “good news” was announced. Because of
poor agricultural output, the state started to sell potatoes through
ration books again.
“It’s one step forward, one step back. Five years ago potatoes were
rationed. Until one fine day, the bright sparks in the government
decided that, along with beans, they should be sold by the pound. So
that, everyone was fucked, with potatoes becoming a sumptuary good. If
you wanted to eat potato puree or fries, you had to wait in a queue for
four hours and put up with fights and swearing just to buy a bag of ten
potatoes for 25 pesos. And now that it is rationed once more, the news
channel tells you that they will sell you 14 pounds a head, two in the
first month, and six after that. But in my farmers’ market they don’t
give you a pound any more. Five miserable spuds and you have to take it
or leave it”, says Gisela, a housewife.
If you fancy a natural orange juice, get your wallet ready. “Green
oranges with hardly any juice cost three pesos, if you can actually find
any. A bag of oranges costs between 140 and 200 pesos, half the monthly
minimum wage. I keep asking myself why it is that in countries with a
Marxist government, or a socialist one, as invented by Chavez in
Venezuela, getting food has to be such torture”, says Alberto, a
In Cuba, you can’t eat what you want, only what turns up.
Before 1959, in many Cuban households, eating fried steak for lunch or
dinner, with white rice and fries was not a luxury. In the fast fried
food places anybody could buy a steak sandwich with onion rings and
Julienne potatoes. Taken by Casavana Cuban Cuisine.
Translated by GH
Source: Eating Steak and Fries is a Luxury in Cuba / Iván García –
Translating Cuba –