From ’Protoplin’ to Sugarcane Juice

“In order to have free guarapo (sugar cane juice) the only thing that is necessary is to eliminate the prohibitions that do not allow sowing.” (Flickr/Travelmag)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Desde Aqui, Havana, 28 May 2020 — It was in the 1980s, durng one those trips to the provinces which I took as a journalist for the magazine Cuba International, accompanied by the Luis Manuel Fernández, better known as Pirole.  In the midst of the boredom of those hotels with no diversions, Pirole and I began to build a fantasy to save the country.

We “discovered” Protoplin, an alleged by-product of sugar cane that was used to feed cows, cure cancer and as a fuel. During the days of that trip, every time some kind of problem arose, such as a flat tire, an unexpected blackout, or the absence of an iron in the hotel, we competed to see which of us would say the magic phrase. “Let’s have the Protoplin.”

In his infinite and audacious sense of humor, Pirole went on to tell the Party secretary of that province that we had confirmed information that in the laboratories of the Icidca (Cuban Institute of Sugar Cane Derivatives) he was working, in coordination with Soviet and German scientists, to obtain a miraculous new product that had already been baptized as Protoplin. To hammer the point home, after a knowing look, he would ask the official for discretion because we were not yet authorized to disclose that portent of socialist science.

The joke accompanied us for years as a key to a mutual and secret understanding. At Pirole’s funerals, I said to him, in respectful silence, that if the Protoplin had existed it would have saved from him from his heart attack.

We were not aware that the original author of that joke was Fidel Castro. In his immense arrogance, that man made us believe more than once that he had the solution of every problems at hand. We believed in him so much that we did not realize that he was making fun of us and spread our innocent fantasy: curtains can stop the winds that damage farming; Cuba can harvest ten million tons of sugar in a year; the perfect “Cuban cow” can be created through cross-breeding; planting pigeon peas between rows of coffee plants will increase the production of both; coffee could be grown in a cordon around Havana; the New Man could be formed at schools in the countryside; ’microbrigades’ made up of amatuers could solve the housing crisis. And in Fidel’s final years, the “rectification of errors and negative trends” campaign; the “energy revolution“; the “battle of ideas“; and the “miraculous moringa.”

Despite the slogans of change of mentality, it is evident that those in command in Cuba today are part of the self-proclaimed continuity. The performance of a ruler should not be judged by one phrase, but it is disconcerting to hear the president ask “when are we going to have guarapo (sugar cane juice) for free in this country” or to affirm that “lemonade is the basis of everything.” Both set off alarms that the old voluntarist delusions are still valid.

The yearning to discover the Protoplin fits into children’s dreams where we rub a lamp and we no longer have to go back to work. In order to have free hand, all you need, Mr. President, is to eliminate the prohibitions that do not allow planting, importing machinery, and trading under market rules. Freedom, not lemonade*, is the foundation of everything.

*Translator’s note: Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel recently gave rise to floods of scorn and endless jokes, when he suggested that “lemonade is the base of everything.”


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