Hey, “Mamá Iné”!… Are We Out of Coffee Too? / Miriam Celaya

Coffee beans (Flickr)
Coffee beans (Flickr)

14ymedio, Havana, Miriam Celaya, 5 September 2014 — On Wednesday September 3rd, the official press conveyed another grim announcement to the Cuban people. Granma wrote: “The coffee harvest, newly launched in the province of Guantánamo, in eastern-most Cuba, will be ‘small’, with a decrease of 33% compared to the previous year.” The news adds to what appears to be the new information strategy (Raul-style “transparency”?) consisting in offering on newscasts on radio and TV, and in newspapers, a trickling of notes, articles and reports that show some negative figures on the Cuban economy, conveniently interspersed with other usual triumphalist breath. As a common denominator, such reports also bring proposals for typical solutions: calls for efficiency and “systematic actions” to ensure increased productivity to compensate for the economic debacle that is about to hit.

Thus, this crop will produce 342 fewer tons of coffee despite the installation of “another seven ecological pulp-extracting facilities” that will increase industrial performance to “reach 4.02 pounds per each can that will benefit”, superior to the previous coffee harvest figure. And, though we have not experienced severe weather to justify the lower production, and though they do not offer details about possible causes for the decreased harvest, everything is a prelude to coffee –as the sugar crop in previous years – is another traditional economic line in Cuba headed for extinction.

The Birth of a Tradition

Coffee is an essential component of our national culture, strongly rooted in our consumption and traditional customs, both at the family and at the social level since its introduction in Cuba in the late 18th century by French planters fleeing from the rebellion of slaves in the neighboring island of Haiti.

In the early 19th century, wealthy Cuban coffee plantations flourished, especially in the southeastern part, contributing since then to the economic wealth and to the development of another form of agricultural technology in the country which became cemented definitively in the 20th century, when coffee production reached its highest standards of quality and quantity.

There were no neighborhood stores without the typical aroma stemming from coffee grinders.

With the coffee boom and the reduction in prices, consumption of the aromatic infusion among the Cuban population increased, including among the poorest levels, replacing cocoa in popular consumption.

A recognition of the importance of this agricultural branch in the history and cultural identity of the country was the recording of the Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in Cuba’s Southeast as a World Heritage Site in 2000, based on the specifics of a tradition whose first material tracks, which are still preserved, constitute “a unique example of pioneer form of agriculture” and “substantially illuminate the technological, economic and social history of the Caribbean and Latin America” (Proceedings of the UNESCO World Heritage).

In recent decades, coffee, like all domestic products, has been marked by the rapid economic decline and decay that is affecting the entire Cuban economy. The causes are the same as the ones that ruined the sugar industry and the rest of the national socio-economic life: political voluntarism and extreme centralization of a totally unproductive and inefficient system.

The disaster has been gradual but steady, and it’s reflected in the practice of coffee consumption and contamination of the product, with additions to stretch it and cover at least the meager allowance of 115 grams (4 ounces) as the monthly ration, a 50-50 mixture of the lowest quality coffee and green peas. The palates of millions of Cubans have been corrupted with the resulting brew, to the point that many do not know or have forgotten the true taste and aroma of the fragrant bean.

But Cuban coffee made its mark not only on tangible items such as production and consumption, but it also etched and enriched our national spiritual life via the most unlikely and varied artists and performers. Thus, the green coffee plantations became an integral part of the Cuban rural landscape, while in urban spaces coffee shops proliferated, and there wasn’t a neighborhood store without the typical aroma from the coffee grinders.

Poetry too, painting, and even music were inspired by coffee in some of the best known works of Cuban art. Suffice it to remember the retro song that the unforgettable Rita Montaner made popular in the first half of the last century, with that refrain that became perpetuated in our popular folklore: “Ay, Mamma Inez, Ay, Mamma Inez, all of us negroes drink coffee,” flatly denying that principle that was both fallacious and racist that once called the infusion “the black nectar of the white gods”.

Cuban coffee today

Today, coffee has become scarce even on the shelves of stores operating in “convertible pesos” (CUC), in spite of imports of beans marketed by French or Spanish companies and by Vietnam, which became a coffee producer with the assistance of Cuban experts.

Today, coffee agricultural tradition is dying in Cuba. Perhaps it is fortunate that UNESCO has recorded the ruins of our nineteenth-century coffee plantations in the list of World Heritage sites. It may be that, after the passing of the olive green plague, this will be the only vestige left of what once was one of the finest.

Translated by Norma Whiting