Chicken, Cuba’s National Obsession

Getting a whole chicken could take hours or even days in line. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, June 11, 2020 — Products such as pork, eggs and beef, frozen chicken may be in short supply but chicken is one of the few animal proteins that finds its way to the island’s tables. This has led to the bird becoming the great national obsession. Cubans wait in line to buy it, government ministers talk about and economists analyze it.

Amid the difficulties that the pandemic has made worse, the good news seems to be that the authorities have increased chicken imports from Brazil and the United States in recent months to supply the domestic market. According to official Brazilian data purchases from that South American country alone grew 87% between March and May of this year.

“Traditionally, Brazil has been Cuba’s second biggest supplier of chicken, normally well behind the U.S,” stresses Pedro Monreal, an economist who points out that Brazil exported 2,456 tons to the island in April while the United States exported 16,560.

Monreal explains that since February 2020 sales of the product internationally have increased “though still at levels lower than those of mid-2019, which explains the current scarcity.” The shortage has led to rationing, limiting how much customers can purchase even in free market stores.

With locally produced pork virtually nonexistent in retail shops and the black market for fish and seafood operating at half-capacity due to the suspension of inter-provincial transport, long lines form outside stores in Havana where there are rumors that chicken will soon be available. The average wait to buy a package is between five and six hours, although it can also go on for days.

Last April Cuban authorities took advantage of a lower prices for U.S. chicken to buy more from that country. In March 15,276 tons of chicken meat was delivered to the island at a cost of 14 million dollars; in April 16,560 tons were imported but cost less than 11 million dollars according to the charts released by Monreal.

“In April 2020 the price per kilogram of chicken meat exported from the US to Cuba had a sharp reduction of more than 24% compared to the previous month and was the lowest price in the last 12 months,” the economist points out.

However, among home-delivery businesses that are still open, few are offering chicken dishes. “We offer pasta, pizza, sandwiches and some pork when we can get it, but we can’t guarantee we’ll have chicken. Who could right now?” explains the chef of a privately owned restaurant who advertises on a well-known online shopping site.

“Right now we are putting together a Father’s Day menu and we’ve been able to get the ingredients for roast pork, baked fish and lasagna with ham, but we haven’t been able to get what we need for a chicken option because we’ve barely seen any at all,” he adds.

Many in the food service sector point out that it is not enough to increase poultry imports; it is important to get enough of the right parts. “The only things you find in stores are leg and thigh packages, which won’t work for certain recipes, though, of course, you could always try,” says the owner of a prepared food business which has gained a lot of customers during the pandemic.

“We sell food that is almost ready to eat. We prepare our empanadas, croquettes and fried dishes so that the customer can finish cooking them at home,” he explains. “Until recently, our popular item was breaded chicken cutlets, stuffed with cheese and ham or cut into strips. But we haven’t been able to offer those because there aren’t any chicken breasts or whole chickens to be found anywhere.”

The owner masterfully explains how to debone a drumstick or thigh “with a very fine knife and an attentive eye” in order “create a filet that can be used in more complex recipes.”He acknowledges, however that when he does manage to find thighs or drumsticks, he prefers to fry or roast them. “Customers practically grab them out of our hands.”

Classified pages have dozens of ads for “boxes of whole chickens.” This became a popular option in 2016 when packaged chicken in bulk was first promoted to retail customers, a trend that was reversed even before the pandemic began due to the island’s liquidity problems last year.

Domestic chicken production is very low. In 1989, the best year for which data is avaiable, 73,300 tons were produced. In 2018, however, the figure was just 8,200 tons.

Just over a year ago, it was considered an almost “plebeian” product. Fried chicken was the most common menu item at carnivals, state-run eateries and outdoor festivals, but in recent months its value and status have risen sharply.


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.