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American Journalist Marc Frank Discusses the Food System in Cuba

A man sells toffee coconuts in a street of Havana
A man sells toffee coconuts in a street of Havana. || Photo courtesy of YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images
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There’s a lot to learn – and unlearn – about Cuba. That’s a key takeaway from my recent trip to the island nation, as part of a people-to-people exchange with the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance (KFLA). During a packed 10-day adventure, our group met with a range of people across Cuba, including scholars and local experts. In addition to learning about Cuba’s diverse culture, we explored the country’s health, educational, political and agricultural/food systems.

Cuban Revelations by Marc Frank
#mustread || Photo courtesy of UC Food Observer

One of the most interesting individuals that we met was Marc Frank, an American journalist who has lived in Cuba for more than two decades. Marc writes for Thomson Reuters and the Financial Times. He is also the author of two books, the most recent being Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana, which examines the impacts of U.S. policies toward Cuba…and considers what the future might hold.

In preparation for the trip, I read a handful of books and numerous articles. Cuban Revelations was by far the most comprehensive and important. In it, Marc provides vital historical context for the Revolution and explores a wide range of social, political and economic issues, including agricultural reform. This book is a #mustread for anyone interested in Cuba.

Marc first traveled to Cuba in 1984, but his relationship with Cuba goes back further, through a family connection. He is the grandson of Waldo Frank, a prolific and well-known American writer, social critic and expert on Latin America, who wrote Cuba: Prophetic Island (1961), an early account of the Revolution and what its impacts might be.

In our discussions, Marc emphasized that he is not Cuban, although he is married to a Cuban and has a large, extended Cuban family. As an American, his experiences are different from average Cubans. He shared that as an American and a journalist, he has had material benefits (including access to a car and telephone) that most Cubans do not enjoy.

This is the third in a series about Cuba.

 

What’s it like to live in Cuba? How have your food experiences changed?

There are many things I appreciate about living in Cuba and there are also negatives.

I enjoy living without constant fear, though one does have to lock up. I enjoy the people, their complexity and warmth. I enjoy the challenge of understanding a different culture and politics. I love that I waste nothing and that I am not bombarded with sales pitches.

(Editor’s Note: Commercial advertising is technically banned in Cuba; read this piece from The Atlantic to learn how Cubans have devised work arounds. Advertising in Cuba is reserved for government purposes; billboards are used to convey messages about the Revolution, like the one pictured to the left.)

But living in Cuba sometimes feels like I’m living in a pressure cooker and constantly on edge. How much this is due to U.S. pressure and how much to domestic failures is always difficult to judge. It is frustrating to live in a country where there is no guaranteed supply of anything but the very basics, where one has to search the city to get simple things like dish washing liquid or cheese. It is depressing to witness infrastructure decay and so many young people throwing up their arms in despair and leaving for greener pastures.

(Editor’s Note: In addition to rice and beans, “viandas” are an essential part of the Cuban diet. “Viandas” refers to a range of starchy foods, mostly tubers and root crops. Viandas include yuca, sweet potatoes, potatoes, malanga, pumpkin, squash, taro and plantains. “Vianda” – derived from “viand” – can also mean “food” or “meal.” They are prepared in a variety of ways; they can be boiled or fried and are often served with a sauce. Tostones – shown in this photo – are viandas that are formed into balls and deep fried. Learn more about how Cubans are faring on the food front in this New York Times piece).

Cuban cuisine fusion: pork tip steak with green peppers.
Cuban cuisine fusion: pork tip steak with green peppers || Photo courtesy of Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket/Getty Images

Capitalist enterprises are gaining traction in Cuba. Is that evident in the food system?

By U.S. standards I see very little capitalist enterprise in the food system here. There are a few processing joint ventures and that is about it. The state owns more than 70 percent of the arable land and leases most of it to cooperatives and family farmers. They are now allowed to hire labor but acreage remains restricted. The state used to supply all inputs at subsidized prices and purchase 90 percent of output at fixed prices, then wholesale and retail the output. Under reforms begun six years ago the state said it would sell inputs on demand to farmers and allow them to eventually sell 60 percent or more of output on the open market. This has not happened and now the state, citing food inflation, is reversing itself and returning to the old model. Imported food is strictly monopolized by the state from purchase to sale.

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There are various statistics about what percentage of their monthly income Cubans spend on food. What are your observations? You live in Cuba…where and how do you secure your food?

I would say perhaps 30 percent of the population spends 70 percent or more [of their income] on food. 20 percent [of the population] spends 50 percent to 70 percent on their food, and the remainder somewhat less, though it is an important part of most family budgets. Remember, health and education are free, there are few taxes, entertainment is subsidized, etc.

I usually get up and drink coffee, bought for dollars or CUCS at a local state store. The sugar comes from my wife’s food ration. Then I have yogurt (delivered by someone to a neighbor who passes it to me) with honey (free from farmer friends) and fruit (bought at a local produce market). At work I have a few eggs as an omelet for a snack, and for $1.50 a lunch of chicken, rice and a vianda.

(Editor’s Note: CUCS is the acronym for Cuban convertible pesos, one of two official currencies in Cuba. U.S. dollars and Euros are also widely used.)

Dinner might be a salad, with ham from a grey market source (not directly stolen first) and cheese bought at a state store and an apple if I can find one – all with a dressing of olive oil, vinegar from a state store and spices from the USA –  or I might have fish from a fisherman friend, or pork from the market or chicken from a state store, sometimes with sauces from the USA, rice, beans, vianda, salad.

 

Urban agriculture is an area where Cuba has gotten a lot of attention. Is it as prevalent as those living in the U.S. might think?

Yes, though it does not make up the bulk of a Cuban’s diet. Surprisingly, food grown from thousands of urban gardens is cheaper than other produce. It is all organic. Actually, most food produced in Cuba has far less chemicals than in the United States. However, 60 percent of all food consumed in Cuba is imported.

Lettuce: Urban Organic Farm in Cuba
Lettuce: Urban Organic Farm in Cuba || Photo courtesy of David Schroeder​/Flickr/Creative Commons License

What are you observing about larger-scale agricultural production?

The state runs this through cooperatives to produce mainly rice, beans and potatoes, as well as export crops such as sugar, coffee and tobacco. The state provides the inputs, including seeds, fuel, fertilizer and pesticides, and then it purchases the crop. They have been putting more resources into these crops with poor results to date.

 

In your book, you discuss some of Cuba’s recent agricultural reforms, including the privatization of farmland. Are these reforms working?

Well, first of all the land is being leased, not privatized. And certainly that is an improvement over the state letting it lay fallow. However, reforms to date have not led to a significant increase in production.

 

You’ve lived in Cuba for a couple of decades. In what ways has rural life changed?

It certainly is improving, though it remains rustic. The state has at least tripled what it pays for output, though it is also charging more for inputs. Transportation, and in particular communications have also improved. Nevertheless, for young people it is hopelessly isolated and technologically backward and a severe labor shortage persists.

Rural Cuba
Rural life in Cuba || Photo courtesy of greensambaman/Flickr/Creative Commons License

How has the embargo – the bloqueda – impacted the food system?

U.S. sanctions are comprehensive and so impact everything every day. The Cuban command economy is comprehensive and also impacts everything every day. The embargo probably does the most damage.

 

What is your favorite Cuban food?

Kill a pig. Cook up the fat over an open fire in a big vat. Fry the ribs in it. Now for the slow roasted remains of the pig with all the goodies: rice and beans, yuca fried in the fat, salad…

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