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Liz Neumark Headshot

A Taste of Cuba

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Cuba transitions from reality to memory as cell phones, blackberries, and wifi become operational again. I am back home on the mainland USA, lush landscapes and abundance. 8 hours ago, the ocean breeze in Havana, the patchwork of dilapidated (and occasionally restored) houses, grand old American cars and soviet bloc mini-mobiles, and the inquisitive faces of an eclectic looking population had me riveted. Spending time in Cuba walking around, talking with people, soaking in every morsel of information in a non-stop attempt to synthesize some sort of understanding from the conflicting messages about politics, life, and expectations is a full time preoccupation. It is a mosaic of hope and despair, revolutionary goals successful and failed. It is impossible to engage in conversation about their life without thinking about our own. The definition of 'freedom' becomes complex and subjective, as does the truth. What you see is not as it is, especially here.

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It has been a whirlwind 2-½ day trip to the forbidden Island; a stones throw yet a universe from our shores. I have rarely taken a trip that has generated so much fascination amongst friends and family. It is a mythical almost mystical destination that evokes all sorts of comments and questions: Why are you going? A humanitarian mission. Be prepared not to find anything to eat; I brought sardines and tuna and never opened a can. But mostly, I heard the sound of envy in their voices. There are not many places left that are off limits with the history and controversy of Cuba.

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Coming from a culture that encourages, in fact idealizes, political debate, the desire to engage every willing adult in conversation about Fidel or Raoul; the likelihood of economic change; or their opinion of the revolution is an exercise in futility. The answers are oblique and conflicting. No one really says concisely what he or she thinks, though they try to provide helpful information. And the cycles of change in the country have each made way for a new plateau culminating in the landscape of uncertainty that exists today.

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Viewing food as the filter, the contradictory nature of Cuban society becomes evident. I could see, touch, taste and talk about food - the other gauges of Cuban status quo; politics and opinions were simply not discussed, though it is clear to see the high unemployment, difficult living conditions and prohibition against public debate. One man said to me "11 million inhabitants, but 1 million voters. What does that say?" When I repeated this to another Cuban, he scoffed and said that the government knows who votes and who does not - therefore, everyone votes. Food as a social barometer is more accessible.

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Ration books are ubiquitous but so are markets open to anyone who can afford their contents. I visited one large supermarket expecting to see empty shelves. It must have been a good day, for though the shelves were hardly teaming, they were not spartan either. A surprising range of canned veggies and fruits (I did not have to bring sardines from home); an aisle filled with beverages (including tempting little vintage glass bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola with cane sugar, not corn syrup); a smattering of cheap plastic home goods; meat (chicken, pork, turkey) but little fish; Heinz Ketchup, American inspired cereals, condiments, several brands of oil and vinegar, boxed milk (I did not see fresh milk); precious cheese products and a good assortment of rice and beans but no fresh produce except for some sad bags of imported apples. Cubans are now permitted to shop here with 'convertible pesos'.

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I have heard conflicting accounts of agriculture in Cuba. I saw a smattering of community gardens and am told that the government wants to encourage urban gardening - reminiscent of our victory gardens. I am told this is a growing movement. I saw few farms from the air coming in and going out - certainly not enough to sustain an urban population of 2 million Havana inhabitants and am told that most farms are in a different part of the country. I saw few greens but was told that there are more in the winter season. Prices were posted in each market, but it is said that the actual prices can vary. I was told that vendors ran these stalls, not by the farmers themselves. Market meat vendors had product, the overwhelming local favorite being pork. Cubans feed their pigs well, and the pigs nourish them in turn.

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There was little fruit. Mango, papaya, pineapple, lemons and oranges were market staples. We were served watermelon at the hotel though I did not see any for sale (was it local?) I saw some beautiful grapes, pineapples and star fruit in one market, a complete surprise. The markets were more abundant than my expectations (zero) but upon reflection, given the climate and abundant space - shockingly empty. The only green - cilantro (different looking from our own), cucumbers and some sad looking cabbage, that was being shredded to order. The fruits we ate however, were not the Caribbean juicy flavors I remember.

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Bread was very simple. Upon reflection, the lack of pastries and bread must stem from the lack of ingredients - flour, milk, and eggs. I was told that some bread arrives piggybacked on flights from Spain. I did not see any bakeries though I did pass a bread-rationing kiosk.

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I looked for, but did not see much in the way of street food. There were dozens of small cafes and tiny food shops with windows open to the street. Selections were limited - simple sandwiches (uninspired white bread) with ham and cheese, hot dog/sausage looking items, and beverages. There was the occasional food cart. I was able to buy a USA apple on the street for 35 peso's (about 50 cents). There are several one off trade agreements that result in an odd assortment of USA products for the Cuban consumer.

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Our meals were good and reflected the local diet with the standard imported canned products (canned peaches and pears for example) it was the quantity, not the ingredients that distinguished us from the local population. What I was offered in 3 days were the equivalent of rations for a local family for 3 weeks. Fried plantains, rice and beans, rice with beans, roasted chicken, ice cream (a luxury), baked fish (though what type was never specified) were consistent staples. Dinner one night was at La Covina de Lilliam, the best garden paladar in Miramar section of Havana. For a few hours, it did not feel like the same Havana we saw by day. The octopus was a standout, as were the dips, the yucca fritters and the only home baked rolls I saw the entire visit. To my surprise, there was chard (roasted till crisp and used as a garnish to a plate of beef) and fresh basil. A stunning paella, with lobster and shrimp (along with chorizo) and rice, was delicious.

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We had a tasty lobster, shrimp, chicken and "steak" platter and pizzas again the next day at a roadside café/restaurant next to the large supermarket. It was hardly a tourist's destination and a meal for 6 (with Cristal beer and soft drinks) came to 45 converted pesos.

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I missed green salad and relished the sliced tomatoes (not bad at all), the occasional shredded lettuce and sliced cucumber. The bananas were flavorful. The orange juice was sweet. The coffee was awesome. The mojitos were ubiquitous and the Cuban rum, sensational. Sugar was everywhere in everything, followed closely by salt. Pork rules and every inch of every slaughtered pig are consumed. Pork fat is particularly loved - and in spite of high fat, high sugar consumption, I saw little if any obesity. There are no McDonalds - a very good thing.

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The meals were a backdrop to conversations about Cuban life, whether with fellow tourists or locals. There is a generation that understands the accomplishments of the revolution and one that does not. There is a sense of pride around the free health care system and the literacy and academic access. There is a collective sentiment about the 'rich' who fled after the revolution. The gaps between social classes are far narrower than it is in the US. It is almost easy to admire the spirit of socialism and state commitment to equality and common good.

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But there are mysteries - who goes to the markets and whose culinary intake is restricted by the ration book? The inequities are hidden in plain sight. After 3 days, I am hardly in a position to know any answers and can only begin to be able to ask the right questions. The romantic sway of the Cuban culture - the mythology of the revolution, the struggle of the Cuban people to survive, the alienation of the new generation (who does not share the ideological tug of the past and only knows the post Communist era deprivation) - leave a powerful need to go back and see more, taste more, listen more. It is a deeply complex country where liberties are sacrificed for equality that is at time elusive and at other quite palpable. The embargo should end and in trading goods and services we can trade ideas on what are the real components of freedom; what is worth sacrificing, what is abundance and what is equality. I admit to being seduced by the dream of the revolution but not its legacy.

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Cuba will stay on my mind as it makes me think about who we are as much as I struggle to understand who they are.

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