The souvenir and craft market near the port vibrates, full of life on this day. It’s Sunday and the tourists circulate among the wood carvings, leather briefcases and beautiful mahogany humidors for storing cigars. On one side of what was once San Jose wharf, are now displayed paintings, landscapes in acrylic, portraits of voluptuous mulatas, and drawings of towering palm trees against a blue sky. There is a lot of cheesy art here for quick sale to the tourists who will take a piece of the Island with them to hang on the walls of their distant homes. If you look closely, if you get past your initial infatuation with coconuts painted with gaudy oils, there are true works of art here.
But what calls your attention are the symbols of national identity repeating themselves from stall to stall: conga drums, the rounded dome of the Capitol, rickety old Chevrolets, bottles of rum, men — and it’s only men — sitting around tables playing dominoes, the rounded hips of Creole women, enormous Cohibas, and coffee that steams in the center of the composition. This last element, the brew that is an inseparable component of being Cuban, dark and bitter — like our roots — has been with us for centuries.
To have a sip of coffee in the morning is the national equivalent of breakfast. We can lack everything, bread, butter and even the ever unobtainable milk, but to not have this hot, stimulating crop to wake up to is the preamble to a bad day, the reason for leaving the house bad-tempered and fit to burst. My grandparents, my parents, all the adults I saw as a child, drank cup after cup of that dark liquid, while talking about anything and everything. Whenever anyone came to the house, the coffee was put on the stove because the ritual of offering someone a cup was as important as giving them a hug or inviting them in.
With the eighties, came the struggle to stretch the meager offering from the ration market while not leaving visitors without the expected brew. In reality, to comply with the formalities and also have enough to be able to have a cup on waking, we had to add something to the black powder to make it go further. The most common ingredient was peas.
I can no longer count the number of hours of my childhood spent grinding the blackened peas roasted by my grandmother. We then mixed them with the real thing — those green or red berries picked on the coffee plantations. The result was an unusual infusion far from the original flavor, but even so we took a leisurely sip and enjoyed it. This practice was not unique to my family, almost all Cubans were experts in extending the 12 ounces a month which was the coffee ration.
People made surprising discoveries — using roasted wheat berries, using the residue from one brew to make the next, and even adding some crushed toasted herbs that barely changed the flavor. All that and more so as not to give up the espresso or cortadito — espresso with milk — to savor that magic moment when with family and friends we would sit over our cups, whatever they might have in them.
A few weeks ago the President, General Raul Castro, announced publicly to the National Assembly that they were going to begin mixing other ingredients in the subsidized supply of coffee. It was nice to hear a president speak of these culinary matters, but mostly it was the source a popular joke, that he would say something officially that has long been common practice in the roasting plants of the entire Island. Not only citizens have been adulterating our most important national drink for decades, the State has also applied its ingenuity without declaring it on the label.
So the former Minister of the Armed Forces is, in fact, just warning us that from now on the labels will no longer say “100% pure coffee.” Nor will they use the adjective “Cuban” in its distribution, as it’s no secret to anyone that this country imports large quantities from Brazil and Columbia. Instead of the 60 thousand tons of coffee once produced here, today we only manage to pick about six thousand tons.
The reasons are many, but the most basic one is the lack of motivation for the peasants in the mountains to harvest the precious grain. Very low wages and difficult living conditions in rural areas have encouraged migration to the provincial capitals, slowing agricultural growth. In addition, the producers would rather sell their crop on the black market than to State companies, which pay badly and after months of delay.
The result of all this has been, in recent weeks, a greater scarcity of “the black nectar of the white gods” — as the indigenous people once called it. Housewives have had to revive the practice of roasting peas to ensure the bitter sip we need just to open our eyes. Whether it can be called coffee is a matter of debate, but the paintings sold to tourists still present it as such, as if that symbol of national identity were still with us. A steaming cup stands in the middle of many paintings, and fortunately many of the foreigners who buy those paintings don’t have to smell what’s really in that cup, much less drink it.