Iván García, 2 May 2017 — On an afternoon like any other, an underground seller of beef, living in the southeast of Havana, bought flank steaks wholesale from a slaughterer, to then sell them to private restaurants and neighbours who could afford them.
He filleted the chops and started to offer them for the equivalent of three dollars a pound. “They flew off the shelf. By night time I didn’t have an ounce of it left. If any red meat comes my way, I can sell it immediately. The thing is, Cubans like to eat a good piece of steak with fries, washed down with a glass of orange juice. But, my friend, that dish has become an extravagant luxury in Cuba,” says the vendor, who knows a thing or two about the ins and outs of the Havana black market.
Even though a pound of beef costs three days’ of a professional’s salary, you don’t always find it in the profitable black market.
In the island there is a network of butchers, slaughterers and sellers which makes sufficient money selling beef. “Everything starts when someone spots a bullock or a cow not properly protected in some odd corner in the Cuban countryside. That’s when they start to plan how get it to end up as stew (kill it) and transport it to Havana, which is where they can sell it for the best price. They can get between 1,300 and 1,600 chavitos (CUCs) for a 1,000 pound bull, and the slaughterer, the transporter and the sellers get a few kilos of meat free”, according to a cattle slaughterer, a native of the central region of the country.
And he explains that they will just as happily kill a calf, a grown up cow, or a horse, “whatever has four legs and moves, gets what’s coming to it. Of course, a slaughterer who knows what he’s doing takes care not to kill a cow which is sick or has brucellosis, because if the police catch you, along with the twenty years the District Attorney goes for on account of killing a cow, he adds another five or six on top for endangering public health.
In 2013, the Granma newspaper reported that more than 18,400 cattle were dying of hunger or disease in the province of Villa de Clara. In April 2014, the Communist party organ highlighted that something over 3,300 cows died in the first three months of that year in the province of Holguin, and another 69,000 were found to be under-nourished. The authorities blamed the drought and, according to Granma, 35 thousand head of cattle were receiving water from water tank trucks in order to alleviate the effects of the months without rain.
According to Damián, an ex-employee of a sugar mill, who now survives selling home-made cheese on the Autopista Nacional, “what has happened to the cattle here is irresponsible and those officials should be behind bars. But they carry on like that, carrying their Party card and talking annoying rubbish”.
Mario, a private farmer, says, jokingly, that “Cuba is an unusual mixture of Marxism and Hinduism. Seems like a religious prohibition on eating beef, which is what Cubans like to eat. Although the leaders carry on eating it — just look at their faces and stomachs; they look as if they are going to explode. If you gave them a blood test, their haemoglobin would be around a thousand”.
During the time of the autocrat Fidel Castro, when people wore Jiqui jeans, Yumuri check shirts and very poor quality shoes, all made locally, the old ration book which, in March 2017, had been in use for 55 years, authorised half a pound of beef every nine days for people born in the country.
“Then the cycle was lengthened to once a fortnight, then once a month, until it was quietly disappearing from the Cuban menu. Along with many other things like milk, fresh fish, prawns, oranges and mandarines”, recalls a butcher, who made plenty of money selling beef “on the side” for four pesos a pound in the ’80’s. In the 21st century he survives making money from selling soup thickened with soya.
In the last week of February, some “good news” was announced. Because of poor agricultural output, the state started to sell potatoes through ration books again.
“It’s one step forward, one step back. Five years ago potatoes were rationed. Until one fine day, the bright sparks in the government decided that, along with beans, they should be sold by the pound. So that, everyone was fucked, with potatoes becoming a sumptuary good. If you wanted to eat potato puree or fries, you had to wait in a queue for four hours and put up with fights and swearing just to buy a bag of ten potatoes for 25 pesos. And now that it is rationed once more, the news channel tells you that they will sell you 14 pounds a head, two in the first month, and six after that. But in my farmers’ market they don’t give you a pound any more. Five miserable spuds and you have to take it or leave it”, says Gisela, a housewife.
If you fancy a natural orange juice, get your wallet ready. “Green oranges with hardly any juice cost three pesos, if you can actually find any. A bag of oranges costs between 140 and 200 pesos, half the monthly minimum wage. I keep asking myself why it is that in countries with a Marxist government, or a socialist one, as invented by Chavez in Venezuela, getting food has to be such torture”, says Alberto, a construction worker.
In Cuba, you can’t eat what you want, only what turns up.
Before 1959, in many Cuban households, eating fried steak for lunch or dinner, with white rice and fries was not a luxury. In the fast fried food places anybody could buy a steak sandwich with onion rings and Julienne potatoes. Taken by Casavana Cuban Cuisine.
Translated by GH