14ymedio, Havana, 5 January 2021– El Paisa made his living until a few months ago by bringing milk, cheese, butter and yogurt from a town in Güira, Artemisa, to Havana. His clients were about twenty families scattered around the tall buildings that surround the train station on Tulipán Street, in Nuevo Vedado. The business that had sustained his family ended with a deadly combination: pandemic, more vigilance on the roads and the dry udders of cows.
“There is no food to feed the cattle and the farmers who continue milking already have a contract with some paladares (private restaurants) and sell all the cheese directly to those restaurants,” he tells this newspaper. “After the whole little cheese industry was confiscated from that man in Caimito, everyone is scared.”
Despite its bad roads and few transportation options, in Artemisa if something moves fast, it is rumors and fear. Last August the arrest of the popularly called King of Cheese, a provincial rancher arrested for an alleged crime of illicit economic activity, generated a wave of fears, and retreats among the producers of milk derivatives and their intermediaries.
“There were some days here when people didn’t even want to say the word cheese, everyone was scared,” recalls El Paisa. After that, with the borders of Havana closed due to the increase in COVID-19 cases and increasingly aggressive roadblocks, the small businessman says he has “forgotten even the taste of butter.” Now, he offers his customers leeks, onions and some pork.
The so-called “guajiro cheese,” a variety of the product little cured and made by hand, has been a traditional offer of the national black market. Farmers are not authorized to sell any derivative of milk to individuals or to sell it in agricultural markets, and can only keep the amount of milk that they can justify as intended for family consumption, regardless of the high and poorly paid quotas, that they must deliver to the State.
Despite those restrictions, the cheese always ended up finding its way. “He sold about 50 pounds a month, a few years ago at 20 pesos but the last sales were already at 50 pesos,” El Paisa recalls. That was enough to pay the producer, keep a good profit and invest in the next batch. The product that he offered ended up, for the most part, in the snacks that the children took to the schools, the pastas cooked at home and many of the pizzas that are sold in private businesses.
Most of the buyers of the “guajiros’ cheese” did not want to, nor could not, spend the more than 100 Cuban pesos (about 4.50 CUC) per kilogram, that the cheese in state stores cost, most of which was imported from countries like Uruguay, Germany and Holland and was of the gouda type. The offer of Cuban cheese in the shoppings (Cubans use the English word for the larger stores) has been limited, although at times brands such as Caribe and Coral have been seen on their shelves.
Where cheese has been seen these days is in the official press. On Tuesday, La Demajagua, the daily newspaper of Granma province, published an article saying that the dairy company Granlac sells its cheeses in freely convertible currency (MLC) in the Mariel Special Development Zone and in the Cimex and Caribe stores.
The provincial newspaper assures that both Fontina type cheese and others that Granlac produces, such as gouda or patagrás, as well as yogurt, “are sold for their quality in MLC with the aim of attracting foreign currency for the country.”
However, to date this brand of cheese is rarey seen in stores, both in Cuban pesos and in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), where imported brands or those produced in the companies Complejo Lácteo de La Habana and Productos Lácteos Escambray, among those with the highest production and variety on the island, are more frequent. Until now, the stores in MLC have been supplied mainly with cheese from Holland, Germany and Uruguay.
Granlac is the “largest supplier of dairy derivatives” in Cuba, praises La Demajagua, “especially in this region of eastern Cuba where the Swiss set up Nestlé, which has generated a lot of experience from its first production in 1930.”
“In order not to detract from this innovative tradition,” says the official newspaper, quoting Luis Rafael Virelles Barreda, general director of the company, “Granlac ventures into the creation of pellis from rice flour and nutrients whose quality is equal to those of commonly known to our population.”
The same nutritional value of those popular Cuban snacks, artificial, addictive and with a lot of salt, is shared by the “cheese” most sold by the Cuban State, which has sold it for years in national currency: the so-called “melt.” It is a product most of the time without a label, with a high sodium content, a color close to orange and shunned by food service businesses for its artificial flavor and its chewy texture when it melts.
“Does the pizza have ’melt’ cheese or real cheese?” Is the question most often heard by a small entrepreneur who has his place on Ayestarán street in the Cuban capital. “They ask me so often I already answer without being asked,” he tells this newspaper. “People don’t like it but it is what it is, because the Guajiros are no longer bringing cheese to Havana.”
“Many times what is distributed under the name of processed cheese is actually a substitute made from fat such as sunflower oil and butter, salt flux and coloring,” explains the merchant who, before selling pizzas, made a living as an employee of the Ministry of Internal Trade. “It smells like cheese and may taste faintly like cheese, but cheese it is not.”
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