The Cost of a Steak in Cuba / Cubanet, Alberto Mendez

Remains of a freshly slaughtered cow (photo taken from
Remains of a freshly slaughtered cow (photo taken from

Cubanet, Alberto Mendez Castello, Las Tunas, 21 August 2015 — “The crime of theft and slaughter of cattle continues at high levels in Puerto Padre,” the official press reported in July.

The prosecutor Jose Luis Pupo Rueda said in an interview broadcast on the radio that, beyond the lack of control of the cattle and poor supervision of both state and private herds, a factor that encourages the theft of cattle is the existence of “a market because of the meat situation.”

What the prosecutor called “the meat situation” is the total absence of beef in stores or its supply under the state monopoly at prohibitive prices.

One kilogram of minced beef, with 10% fat, costs 5.05 convertible pesos (over $5.00 US), or 126.25 “Cuban” pesos (CUP), i.e., almost half the 260 peso monthly pension of a retired worker.

In the informal market, meat from stolen cattle or those “lifted” from state slaughterhouses is much cheaper and of better quality. It costs 25 CUP a pound.

“And if you have old people or children in your house and have nothing to feed them, you buy meat without asking where the cow came from,” a woman confessed to this reporter. She has elderly parents and two little grandchildren in her care.

“I do not blame them [the illegal butchers] or hate them, the real culprit is the State with its laws,” said a cattle rancher who has lost thousands of pesos at the hands of cattle rustlers said. “They stole three mares from me, a breeding stallion, two bulls and I don’t even know how many cows, but this is a dance I’ve had to dance with the worst people,” he said with a farmer’s philosophy.

By Resolution Number 329, and according to the rules set forth by the Institute of Agrarian Reform on October 1, 1962, the Cuban government established full control over the trade of beef, the slaughter of cattle and the disposition of their flesh, limited only to the State.

In Cuba the slaughter of cattle and meat sales between private parties became a crime “against the national economy,” initially punishable by two to five years in prison.

As those sanctions did not stop the continuous theft of cattle, they were increased to the range of four to ten years in prison for those who slaughter the animals; while selling, transporting or in any way trading in beef can lead to sentences of between three and eight years in prison. A person buying such meat can go to prison for from three months to one year.

To give an idea of ​​how much slaughtering livestock is punished in Cuba, note that the penalty of ten years imprisonment that judges can impose in such cases is less than the courts are empowered to apply the crime of murder. “He who kills another, shall be punished by imprisonment from seven to fifteen years,” says Article 261 of the Criminal Code.

Thousands of Cubans have gone to jail needlessly in the past 53 years, since the beef trade became an exclusive monopoly of the State to “protect the national herd.” And rather than grow, the national herd declined further. In the 1950s there was one cow per person in Cuba, and we occupied third place in Latin America in per capita meat consumption, after Argentina and Uruguay. That time is distant history.

“In thirty years, from 1958-1988, the number of cattle in Cuba declined from more than 1,080,000 head, while the population nearly doubled. The ratio of livestock to population dropped from 0.92 per per person 0.46,” an agronomist told this reporter.

If in Cuba cattle once spent the night in the pastures, producing meat and milk while grazing at will with suitable temperatures, without the inclement tropical sun, now they remain within steel enclosures from dusk until dawn to protect them from rustlers.

And what’s worse, is that breeding cattle is so discouraging that more than a few of the children and grandchildren of the rangers are not following in the footsteps of their elders.

In Jack London’s story, “A Piece of Steak,” the boxer Tom King loses a fight because he can’t even get a loan to buy some meat to eat. Had he lived in Cuba he also would have lost the contest, because in Cuba a steak costs you your freedom.