Cuba’s History Told by Beans / Alberto Mendez Castello

Cuban ration booklet — AFP

PUERTO PADRE, Cuba.  Within the systematic scarcity and increasing cost of daily life, the last week was marked by gaps in supplies.  And although cement, steel and deodorants are missing, groceries are particularly missed.

More than the bread of the ration books that has gone missing some day or another, stomachs cry out for the “midnight,” for the one peso bun that could be acquired unrationed, along with the rationed bread, but that now is not produced for lack of flour.

For many without purchasing power, it mattered little during the several days that chicken was lacking in the “Hard Currency Collection Stores” (as the State itself named them).  But it did matter, and quite a lot, when this week, after standing in long lines at the butcher shops, the ration of “chicken for fish” was not enough, nevertheless and being a rationed product, people had to content themselves with getting on a list for when a second round is produced, that no one knows for sure when it will be produced.  “This is more of the same, ’when it’s not Juana, it’s her sister’,” grumbled one of those who did not get his quota of “chicken for fish.”

As is known, although Cuba is surrounded by the sea, on this island fish is a scarce product and is expensive, so that when it’s time to supply it through the ration book, the government substitutes some few ounces of imported chicken, which on many occasions, because of factors of corruption or bad administration, does not reach all the consumers of certain localities, adding to the discontent of the population because of … “shortages.”

Depending on the person from whom you acquire it, the time of year, the place, the quality of the product, and the species in question, in Puerto Padre a pound of fish or other marine product can cost between fifteen and forty pesos.

But if the meat products are scarce and expensive here, nevertheless and now being well into the third five-year period of the twenty-first century, nothing less happens with vegetables, which as early as the ’50s decade of the last century, in the case of rice, provided 24% of the Cuban diet, while beans made up 23%, according to data from the time by the National Institute of Economic Reform.

“I forget the last time that I ate red beans”

In one survey by the Catholic University Association, carried out among the rural Cuban population in 1957, it was found that only 4% of those interviewed mentioned meat as an integral part of their customary portion, 11.22% milk, only 1% admitted consuming fish and only 2.12% of those surveyed acknowledged eating eggs.  The investigators asked themselves: “How does the farmer subsist with such deficient contributions of meat, milk, eggs and fish?”

The same surveyors from the Catholic University Association revealed the mystery in their report:  “There exists a providential and saving fact: the bean, basic element of the farmer’s diet, is exceptionally a vegetable very rich in protein. In other countries where corn takes the place of beans in Cuba, deficiency diseases are very frequent. We can assure, without fear of error, that the Cuban farmer does not suffer more deficiency diseases thanks to beans.”

Black beans — picture from the internet

“Beans providential and saving? That would be in that period, when beans were eaten by the poor in Cuba!” exclaimed a doctor who on condition of anonymity explained to this correspondent how the local population, although not in all cases precisely underfed, mostly is malnourished by a diet in some cases insufficient and in others unbalanced.

In the bowl of the hands is more than enough space to fit the beans that, through the ration book, the consumer may buy for a whole month that, perhaps, suffice for one, two or three pots of rice and beans; the rest, for people who worked all their lives and got a very diminished retirement under socialist planning, must be bought at market price. “I forgot the last time that I ate a stew of red beans,” confessed a retired electrician.

Today, in Puerto Padre, a pound of red beans costs fifteen pesos; also white beans and garbanzos cost fifteen, and between ten and twelve for black beans; a pound of rice is five pesos, a small head of garlic costs a peso, a little more than a peso for a medium onion, five pesos for a bowl of peppers and between three and seven pesos a pound for tomatoes. Pork meat costs twenty-five pesos a pound.

The humble rice and beans that freed our poorest farmers from deficiency diseases today costs some forty pesos if seated at the table are two old people, two children and the man and woman of the house, something like the family of today; six mouths although with more old people and fewer children, the same number as the rural family from the fifties.

Maybe that is the reason for underweight and small children, why so frequently the consultation and waiting rooms of clinics and hospitals remain crowded. And they are not scarcities more or less of recent weeks, but from the last half century, where by decree, in Cuba meat came to be the chosen food, while the poor stopped eating beans because of socio-political circumstances, making Cubans more destitute, maybe worse fed than our ancestors, the aborigines.

Cubanet, February 26, 2014,  

Translated by mlk.