In the ‘90s, a poem satirized the disappearance from Cuban tables of several agricultural products.* Its author never signed the friendly verses, but the caustic style pointed directly to a well-known writer. Those were the years when CAME [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or Comecon] was going to hell in a handbasket along with the socialist camp, and our navels were painfully close to our spines. Food seemed to have gone into exile, leaving us a poignant reminder of its sweetness.
The sweet potato, banana and yucca returned later, when the social explosion of 1994 forced the government to open the demonized free markets. At their stalls we found varieties of tubers that had regularly graced the plates of our grandparents, but at a price that didn’t match the symbolic salaries we received. Still, they were there. By “squeezing our nickels” we could have a smooth puree of malanga to introduce a baby to solid food.
While these indigenous products were returning, some foreign ones arrived to replace the domestic. The hotels began to buy oranges and mangoes from the Dominican Republic, flowers from Cancun, and pineapples from other islands in the Caribbean. In the kitchens, it was common to find imported lemon extract replacing the lost citrus used in sauces and marinades. Sugar was brought from Brazil and a package of frozen carrots was easier to find than the lanky ones that grew in our own dirt. Only the guava found no competition among the misguided imports and stood—with dignity—as a replacement for all the other lost fruits.
For me, the ultimate was when, a couple of weeks ago, I received my quota of rationed salt and noticed it comes from Chile. I can’t manage to reconcile our 5,746 kilometers of coastline with this white and blue packet transported from the South. If our sea is just as salty, what happened to its minuscule crystals that no longer come to my salt shaker. It was not mother nature—we can’t put the blame on her again—but rather this dysfunctional economic system, this production inertia, and the tremendous underestimation of everything native and domestic that is embargoed to us. Neither has it been the blockade.
Now, we would have to rewrite the sarcastic poem about the extinct products, and add a brief and missing monosyllable: salt.
The yucca, that came from Lithuania
the mango, sweet fruit of Krakow
the yam, originally from Warsaw
and the coffee that is planted in Germany.
The yellow malanga of Romania
the honeyed Moldovan sweet potato
from Liberia the fine-textured mamey fruit
and green bananas grown in the Ukraine.
All this is lacking and through no fault of ours
for to fulfill the food plan
one wages a fierce intense battle.
And now we have the first sign
that the necessary effort is being made:
There is food on television and in the newspapers.
CAME/Comecon: Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Founded by Stalin in 1949 with the Soviet Union and five Eastern European countries, it was eventually expanded to ten full member countries, including Cuba, which joined in 1972.
Social Explosion in 1994: The “Maleconazo” which was a protest/riot on August 5, 1994, along Havana’s waterfront seawall, which is called the Malecón.