Every person I've spoken to in Havana assures me that it is a greater crime here to slaughter a cow than it is to slaughter a person. All cows, they add, are property of the state. When caught cooking illicit beef, Cubans have even been known to commit suicide rather than face incarceration. Why is beef so precious to this country's communist dictatorship? I've come here to find out. The answer, I suspect, must have something to do with endemic hunger and the desperation of continually fighting for survival. Or perhaps it's an anomalous legislative side effect to five and a half decades of revolutionary idealism and trade embargoes, the sort of skewed reasoning that arises among mind-sets capable of ordering the execution of those with differing views.
There's more marbling to this story, however. The last time I traveled to Cuba, almost ten years ago, I'd been advised not to eat any beef. Locals told me that the beef served in restaurants came from the United States, and that it was of terrible quality. Some warned that it was contaminated; others said it was D-grade utility meat, or "cutter" beef, commonly used for dog food in North America.
Although I steered clear of any ropa vieja that crossed my path, it seemed unlikely that the US would be selling beef to Cuba, given the trade embargo that has existed between the two nations for the past 54 years. But since the American government started authorizing agricultural exports to Cuba in 2000, the island has brought in a staggering $4.7 billion worth of US-produced food, almost all of it by payments of cash in advance. The purpose of an embargo is to isolate and weaken the survival mechanisms of an enemy state through commercial policy. In this case, America is profiteering by feeding Cuba's citizens. Few people realize it, but around one quarter to one third of Cuban food imports currently come from the USA.
Before departing, I did manage to speak with Patrick Symmes, author of two nonfiction books on Cuban subjects (Chasing Che and The Boys from Dolores). "A lot of the food in Cuba comes from the US," he told me. "Sausage from North Carolina, apples from Washington State, disgusting tubes of mechanically separated turkey paste from Virginia." He wasn't aware of any statistics on US beef in Cuba, and he cautioned me that it would be hard to get clear numbers. "You'll soon find that reporting things on the official side will prove fruitless," he explained. "Not just in Cuba, but also in the US, where a number of states have now made it illegal for journalists to report in American slaughterhouses." These "ag-gag laws," as they're known, illustrate just how far factory farming will go to protect its sleazy practices.
Symmes said he'd tried to track down the former head of food distribution for Havana, a certain "Colonel Fatso" who had fled Cuba after being accused of corruption and was hiding out in Chile. "The whole food-distribution system in Cuba is secretive and somewhat corrupt, so you won't get anything useful out of any of them," Symmes noted. Dick Tracy–style food gangsters aside, Symmes also mentioned that things are looking up in the food scene in Havana, with an increase in the amount of privately owned restaurants, called paladares, often located inside people's homes, since the regime eased the restrictions on private ownership in 2010. The competition has forced paladar owners to start preparing delicious food, he added—something rarely encountered in Cuban restaurants over the past few decades.
A number of them, I suspected, must even be using beef. While trying to figure out how much of their beef comes from the United States, I came across a US International Trade Commission report that stated that American exports would increase if Cuban officials were allowed to inspect the beef. Whatever meat they are buying from the US, it seems, is being purchased without being inspected. The whole situation felt a little gristly, which is what brought me to Cafetería 5ta y A in Havana on a sunny June morning.
The average Cuban salary is 471 pesos, just under $20 a month. The beef patties here cost 60 pesos ($2.50), so they're prohibitively expensive, but this is one of the few places in Havana where you can actually eat a burger, regardless of cost. Chicken burgers are also on the menu, although ground-pork burgers are what most people order here; at 25 pesos they're only a dollar each, still a significant splurge for the average citizen, but doable for anyone with a kind-hearted relative in Miami. Those who can afford a meal at 5ta y A have necessarily found ways to pad their government-subsidized food rations with extra money made on the side. They are almost certainly among the two thirds of Cubans who receive some of the $3 billion a year in remittances sent here from family members living abroad.
On the day I arrive, a number of locals are devouring lunch on the front portico. It seems early in the day for burgers, but Cubans are meat lovers, and 5ta y A has what they want. It specializes in burgers.
Leading me past a sign saying "Especialidad Hamburguesas Caseras," a waitress brings me into a leafy garden adjacent to the kitchen where I meet the owners, Alberto and Ivan Alonso, two paunchy, fortysomething brothers. They and their family live here in this house, inhabiting rooms above and behind the restaurant.
My fixer2 explains that I'm a journalist who wants to talk to them about beef in Cuba. The brothers chat among themselves for a moment. They seem to be arguing, but they could just be speaking loudly. "Ay, qué calor," says their mother, Mirta, fanning herself in the shade.
"OK," Alberto says finally, adding a stipulation: "No politics, just food."
"No problemo," I respond, in my hablo-poquito Spanish, aware that the conversation will nonetheless turn political, as everything inevitably does in Cuba.
Alberto asks me the first question, already knowing what the answer will be. "Do Americans eat a lot of junk food?"
"Sure," I respond, smiling along. "How about Cubans?"
"Cubans eat whatever shows up!" he says, with a roar of laughter.
He's right, of course. Cuba is a country that does not produce enough food to feed itself, so it has to rely on imported goods, which is particularly frustrating when your closest neighbor also happens to be the largest consumer market in the world and it refuses to import any of your goods in exchange because you are enemies. During the Soviet era, things were somewhat easier, due to Moscow's sponsorship of what was essentially a tropical satellite state. After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Cuba entered a decade-long period of economic duress and near-famine from which it still has not fully recovered.
Things got so bad during the so-called Special Period in the 90s that some people resorted to preparing croquetas filled with bits of rags they'd used to mop floors. There were reports of condoms being melted on pizzas to approximate cheese. Cats and dogs disappeared all the time.3 Mincemeat was being made out of ground-up plantain peels. Authorities recommended using breaded and fried slices of grapefruit peel as stand-ins for steaks.
Today, according to the Alonso brothers, Cubans have access to more food, but they still mainly eat rice and beans, with some pork and chicken. The Alonsos decided to focus on burgers at 5ta y A because they knew they'd be popular. "Comida chatarra—junk food—has a long history here," Alberto explains. "Before the 1959 revolution, one of our popular snacks was called fritas—chorizo and beef patties in between buns, kind of like a Cuban hamburger."4
As we're chatting, Ivan gets up and walks to the door to greet a vendor who has walked in off the street. He comes bearing sacks of onions.
"Are they Cuban onions?" I ask.
"Yes, they're malnourished," the salesman answers, with a crooked smile.
My fixer tells me that it's common for people to go door to door selling produce and meat, even fresh seafood and turtle meat. In Cuba, you often buy things "on the left," meaning you don't really know where it comes from. People do what they can to survive here—as a result, petty theft is quite common. Hustlers continually approach you in the street, whether to relieve you of your belongings or to attempt unloading something they've managed to procure elsewhere. There's even a word that Cubans have for the ability to pinch things from their job that they will subsequently resell as a means of augmenting their basic salary: búsqueda. Raúl Castro complains about the "laziness and proclivity to stealing" among his countrymen, but that proclivity is how they stay afloat.
When Ivan returns, having dropped off the bag of onions in the kitchen, we get back onto the topic of burgers. "What percentage of your sales are beef, and what percentage pork or chicken?" I inquire.
"Sixty percent beef," Ivan says, "and forty percent pork."
Mirta, his mom, shushes him. They confer for a moment. Ivan thought I'd been asking what percentage of the beef burgers were actual beef. They aren't even all-beef patties; that's how scarce beef is in Havana.
"Ninety percent of the burgers we sell are pork meat," Mirta clarifies, "while five percent are chicken and five percent are beef."
"And where do you buy the beef?" I ask.
"In the markets," Ivan answers.
"But there's no beef there," my fixer interjects. "The last time I saw actual beef on sale in Havana was four months ago. It was twenty-five CUCs a pound."
Twenty-five CUCs a pound ($28) is pricey anywhere in the world, but especially so in a place where that amount equals five weeks' worth of the average citizen's paychecks.
"And we're not talking dry-aged premium rib eye," she specifies. "Just basic beef."
"Which markets do you get your beef in?" I ask, pressing the Alonsos. The brothers start speaking rapidly among themselves.
"They want to know if you're working for McDonald's," my guide translates.
"What?" I exclaim, confused. "Are there even McDonald's restaurants here?"
"No, they're not allowed, of course," she answers.
"Of course," I answer, feeling like an idiot.
Mirta and her two sons look me up and down through narrowed eyes, trying to ascertain my motives, suspicious that I'm somehow an enemy agent.
"Better that McDonald's are not here," Mirta huffs, looking away.
"I don't like McDonald's," Alberto adds, a hint of malice in his tone.
"Yeah, me neither," I chime in, wanting them to be sure I'm not a McDonald's operative, something I can easily say I've never been accused of before. I tap my pad and pencil to remind them that I'm a journalist. "What I'm really wondering is where you can get beef here, and where that beef comes from."
Mirta shrugs, raising her eyebrows and making a "not-my-problem" pushing gesture with her arms. They seem to have grown paranoid that I'm a competitor trying to squeeze beef-to-pork-patty-ratio intel from them, which I'll then use in my own burger business. Or something.
"Does the beef come from the United States?" I ask.
They don't know, or they're not saying. "It doesn't have any packaging," Ivan offers. "You just buy it as meat."
In the end, they refuse to tell me where they source their beef. "You have to look around" is the most they'll give me. Mirta does, however, conclude the interview with a passionate 15-minute-long monologue about the importance of socialism. What the Cubans want, she says, her voice growing hoarse, is for the poor to be able to live better, and for the rich to not be so rich. (She almost spits as she pronounces the damnable word "rico.") "The other countries in the world should tell the US to make the bloqueo go away," she declares, wagging a finger in the air. "We want to have milk for our kids, more grains, more cereals. Take away the blockade, and let us believe what we believe about equality."
Yet as Mirta continues her speech, I find myself wondering, What if McDonald's did come into Cuba—what would happen to a place like 5ta y A? The private sector may be growing, but Castro is wary of giving companies too much freedom lest it weaken the government's choke hold on all aspects of life here. Foreign ownership in Cuba remains risky, as there's nothing preventing the government from seizing control of any enterprise at a moment's notice. The people in power today are the same comandantes who expropriated, and then nationalized, all non-Cuban-owned businesses after the revolution.
As I notice Mirta's designer purse, it also occurs to me that the Alonsos are better off than the average Cuban family. Most can't afford burgers; some can. The more remittances pour in, the more burgers are getting sold. And the profits made at a place like this eventually end up, after being taxed heavily by the government, in the owners' pocketbooks. Socialism is a fine ideal, but there are clearly different levels of status on this utopian island. Cuba certainly isn't communist in the romantic sense of a place where everything is partitioned out fairly among all members of society. Rather, it is like Eastern Europe used to be in the 70s, a place where people drive Trabants and are forced to say one thing while living another, constantly worrying about getting in trouble for the meager boons they've managed to secure for themselves amid the enveloping turmoil of their surroundings.
My guide is bemused that I find the bounty so wondrous. "Cubans don't care much about vegetables," she tells me. "There were so few vegetables in the eighties and nineties that people lost their taste for them." An education campaign is currently underway to inform Cubans of the importance of healthy eating. Fidel Castro has, in recent years, encouraged citizens to use moringa, a root vegetable. "Instead of beef or milk, you can have fried moringa or cream of moringa," my fixer explains. "All our nutritional prayers can be answered by moringa, Fidel insists. He wants us to become a moringa-based society."
The idea hasn't caught on—Cubans love meat too much. Knowing that, I'm relieved to note that the market exhibits no shortages of meat. None of it, however, is kept in refrigeration, and all the hunks of flesh are swarming with flies in the tropical heat. This sight is not what we in North America would consider hygienic—although, granted, the conditions animals face in Western factory-farm slaughterhouses aren't all that pretty either. "Cuban food-safety standards are incredibly low," Symmes had warned me, over the phone. "The butcher sections at these agros have all these slabs of meat and carcasses stacked on the dirty floor."
I watch a bunch of pork shoulders roll by in a rusty old wheelbarrow. Almost all the meat available at the market turns out to be pork, with a small amount of lamb. "Any beef?" I ask a butcher.
"No way," he responds. "Never."
As I move to the next stall, a man approaches me and starts whispering the words "papas, papas," at me.
"What does he want?" I nervously ask my translator.
"Quiere papas?" the man stage-whispers, louder now.
"No, no," she intervenes. "This guy is trying to sell you black-market potatoes."
"It's illegal to sell potatoes in the markets," she says. "Because the government controls the commerce around potatoes, all potatoes are state property. They're supposed to end up in the state-run restaurants, so they aren't available in the markets. The only way people can get them is through the black market." As we're speaking, another man comes over to see if we're interested in camarones.
"Black-market shrimp?" I ask her.
"Yup, shrimp are also perdido."
I shake my head at the man, who seems ready to reach into his trench coat to reveal a brace of prawns the way you would show off a bunch of counterfeit watches. Sensing our lack of interest, he tries other items. "Quiere pescado? Langosta? Papas? Papas?" When we make it utterly clear we won't take anything, he skulks off like a small-time drug dealer, looking for another mark. If he's successful, it dawns on me, he'll have enough to buy a couple of burgers.
This isn't an isolated incident; this is how Cuba functions. The country has a thriving underground economy. Because of búsqueda, anything you can find at the hotels you can also find on the black market. "The food comes into the warehouses and then walks out the backdoor too," my fixer tells me. "Some part of all of it gets siphoned off. There's such a huge black market here that you can get anything you really want, if you know whom to ask."
After El Cocinero, I have a late-night meeting with a foreign correspondent for an international media corporation. She asks that I not use her name in the story, but she has agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. "Beef is so hard to get in Cuba," she tells me. "But it's what Cubans want more than anything else. We often hear reports of cows [oxen are used for farming purposes instead of tractors] that have been surreptitiously pushed into the highway. That way they can say it 'died of natural causes' so they can legally eat it."
We meet at La Pachanga—Cuba's most famous fast-food spot. A burger here (all beef, I am assured) costs $4, the equivalent of the average Cuban's weekly wages. As with fancier paladares and state-run restaurants, the only people who can eat here are those with access to hard currency: foreigners, paladar owners, inexplicably well-off Cubans, or simply those lucky enough to be the recipients of remittances.
The waiter tells us that their burgers are made with Canadian beef. "We buy whole pieces of beef and then grind the meat in house," he informs us. I order their house burger, a two-patty affair topped with a fried egg, cheese, and bacon. We're even able to get bottles of Cristal beer here. (Nothing's perdido for those with CUCs). The inch-thick patties and all the toppings arrive packed into a slightly stale bun. Taller than your average American-sized burger, it partially topples over when the waiter sets it on the table. I squish it down, take a deep breath, and dig in. The Pachanga bacon cheeseburger tastes fine, not like some extraordinary, out-of-this-world, Bouludified gourmet burger but entirely satisfactory, even with the background notes of oversweet artificiality you typically find in condiments from anti-capitalist nations.
As we finish our burgers, I realize that part of the joy of eating them is the thrill of knowing you are doing something possibly dangerous, like taking ketamine you bought from your younger sister's boyfriend. "I'm always getting sick from the food here," the correspondent tells me. "Whenever there are media events, all the foreign press get together and compare notes on how bad their diarrhea is. But the food here at Pachanga is safe. You used to be able to get burgers at a place called Burgui, but they were just disgusting. It's closed now."
"Do you think they were using American meat?" I ask, bringing up the lack of inspections.
"It could be. I know you can get Brazilian beef, Uruguayan beef, and Canadian beef here—as well as some US beef. But I have no idea where any of that beef ends up."
"Is it possible that American beef is going to the tourist trade here?"
"Yes," she allows, "but keep in mind that all the restaurants here are for the tourist trade. Every single one of them. Real Cubans can't eat here, or at any of the paladares. They can't afford to."
"So do they ever get to eat beef?"
"Rarely. Although, one of the ways that they can eat beef is by buying these tubes of ground meat mixed with soy and other add-ons. It's called picadillo—ground mystery meat. You really don't want to know what's in there."
"How does it taste?"
"Oh God, I would never eat it—although it is widely eaten by Cubans. Some expats use it to feed their dogs, because you can't buy dog food here. You mix it up with yams and give it to dogs. I cooked it once, and it stank the house up so much I almost vomited."
Wetherall suggests I visit another paladar, Casa Miglis, which is famous for its Swedish meatballs. (The owner, Michel Miglis, is a Swedish émigré, which explains why his restaurant stocks items such as "lingonberries brought all the way from the deep Swedish forests.") When I stop in, Miglis's food buyer, Enrique Ramón,5 happens to be there—and he's happy to disclose how he procures the beef for the restaurant's meatballs. Ramón is a soft-spoken Cuban man with a quick mind. For Cuban restaurateurs, finding a good buyer is crucial because sourcing ingredients is so challenging. In any developed country, he'd be rocking a sharp suit as an important staffer working for a top restaurant like this, but here he is clad in a ratty T-shirt and shorts.
"In Cuba, we call beef oro rojo—red gold," Ramón tells me. "The state controls beef sales, and as much as Cubans love beef, it just isn't available to them, which is so unfortunate."
"But why is beef available to paladares?" I ask.
"As a paladar we have the means—the CUCs—and the conditions to legally purchase it," Ramón explains. "Even so, it isn't easy. We want good quality—but good quality is very hard to find."
"But isn't all beef hard to find?" I ask.
"That's true," he answers, with a strained laugh, "but it's easier to find carne de segundo (second-grade meat) than it is to find carne de primero (first-grade meat)." Ramón offers to take me to see where he purchases beef. He can't say where the differently graded meats came in from, as he just buys the meat from the butcher's section of a big grocery store that sells food in convertible pesos. The supermarket is called Centro Comercial Palco. It is run by the military. Ramón tells me that Sundays are usually good days to find beef, so we agree to head over there together the following day.
"Cuba used to have the biggest, most productive cattle ranches in the Western Hemisphere," Wright tells me when I call him at his home in Naples, Florida (which is so close to Cuba, he says, that "on a clear night with a good cigar" he can almost see Havana from his front porch).
"What happened to that grand cattle-ranching tradition?" I ask him.
"They ate all the cows," he answers.
I laugh, thinking it's a joke. "No, really, I mean that," he insists. "Listen: A few years ago, I asked one of the comandantes of the revolution what went wrong. He said, 'Look, we were hungry, we were young—we ate them.'"
In the 1970s and 80s, the Soviets helped replenish the local bovine supply with hearty Holsteins. But they needed to be fed grain, and when the USSR collapsed, so did the grain imports. Incapable of surviving on Cuba's native grasses, the majority of their herds—tens of thousands of cows—perished in the fields.
As connected as Wright is, even he doesn't know how much beef is being exported from the US. Does he have a ballpark figure? "Poco poco," he suggests. Amounts have diminished over the past decade, he adds, due both to cumbersome trade requirements and the soaring price of beef. In Wright's view, the main reason beef is so hard to find here is the price. "It's hard enough for them to feed the human population," he summarizes, "let alone an animal population. The bottom line is that people just can't afford beef at five or six dollars a pound..."
I interject to tell him that when beef does show up in stores here, it sells for $28 a pound. "Whoa, that's not right," he exclaims, considering it. "That's going to have to change. So many things are going to change there. It's inevitable."
His words echo the sentiments of a successful restaurateur I spoke with one night over rum and cigars. We sat together in a crumbling stone paladar overlooking an apocalyptic landscape of windowless, hurricane-battered homes. Like most people I met in Cuba, he was generous, and like many of them, he asked that I not name him. "Cuba is poised for change," he said, adding that he wished Cuba would become a democracy capable of trading goods with the rest of the world. As I started writing down his words, he insisted I not link him to that quote in any way. "We live in a dictatorship, remember," he pointed out, offering me another rum.
What he'd said seemed innocuous enough—but the anxiety I saw in his eyes that night, an anxiety that I saw reflected over and over as I reported this story, was a fragile reminder that Cuba remains a part of the world where you cannot speak openly about democracy or freedom. The revolutionaries and freedom fighters had ostensibly liberated their people from the shackles of oppression and imperial capital, yet here they were, 55 years later, an isolated island autocracy spending billions on food, much of it from its main enemy, with an impoverished populace—despite having access to free education and health care. Cubans are "liberated" to the extent that they are forbidden from traveling, nervous about speaking their minds for fear of government reprisal, and not just suffering from malnutrition but incapable of even procuring their beloved beef.
To them, moringa is nothing compared to bistec de palomilla. Cubans describe themselves as "carnivorous" people; they want beef more than any other food. But even sadder than the government's attempts to replace steaks with fruit rinds and root vegetables is the fact that there's no milk for children. This is what happens when all the cows belong to the government—and the state is an authoritarian regime whose guerrilla leaders ate all the cows and made their own laws.
"Life is meaningless without ideas," Fidel once declared. "There is no greater joy than to struggle in their name." It's a glorious sentiment, yet Cubans today face an incessant parade of state-sanctioned tribulations—few of which seem all that meaningful. You can be killed for speaking out; no wonder you can go to jail for slaughtering a cow. Fifty-three hundred dissidents were arbitrarily detained in 2013 alone. Those who become too successful in the private sector can still find themselves being summoned to a meeting with government representatives. They are given two choices: hand over the business to the state or go to prison. That's what la libertad means in this Kafkaesque never-never land, a place where people still risk their lives at sea trying to flee the ideas Fidel and Che fought for so valiantly.
The supermarket itself is rather bland, kind of like a tropical Costco, but with an odd assortment of imported specialty items, everything from wheels of raw milk French Comté cheese to 270 CUC bottles of Spanish Ribera del Duero wine. The frozen-goods section is full of chicken from the United States. There are also, despite a ten-minute line at the butcher section, a few cuts of beef for sale. From Canada.
So where's the American beef? For the entire duration of my trip, I haven't come across any certifiably American beef at all. There are only two places it could possibly be: in the state-run restaurants operated by the big hotels and the government (unlike paladares, these restaurants don't have to go shopping at Palco—they get their food delivered directly to them from government warehouses) or in certain tubes of beef picadillo. That said, the ones that I find at a local Miramar bodega on my way home list the ingredients' provenance as Mexico.
As I speak with some Cuban friends during my last night in Havana, they inform me that beef isn't the thing to be avoiding at Cuban restaurants these days—it's chicken. In the end, Wright was right: America only ships poco poco beef to Cuba. The reason why it's hard to find stats is that they export way less beef than they do frozen chicken. Anyone with an internet connection, even one as shaky as the Hotel Nacional's $22-per-day Wi-Fi signal, can easily find out how much American pollo pollo Cuba brings in. The answer is a lot—a whopping $762 million worth of it over the past five years, most of it coming from Tyson Food, the single largest meat company in the US. So that's where the beef is, I realize, looking out at the endless waves lapping their way northward to the Florida coast, 90 miles and an entire ideology away.
Topics: The Do It Well and Leave Something Witchy Issue, Cuba, beef, Cuban beef industry, trade embargoes, perdido, Havana, Alimport, Patrick Symmes, Dick Tracy–style food gangsters, Cafetería 5ta y A, McDonald’s, communism, capitalism, Black Market, Casa Miglis, Tyler Wetherall, Chicken