Trading up

How lifting the embargo will impact American and Cuban culinary worlds

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Grace Boyle

On Dec. 17, President Obama announced a monumental decision for Cuba and United States relations in a speech on Cuba policy changes from the White House.

“We will end an outdated approach,” the president said, “that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.”

So after 53 years, the embargo on Cuba is about to be lifted, which has myriad implications for politics, culture, economics and more. But what we’re most concerned — and excited — about is the food. What Cuban traditions will infiltrate American cooking? Or, perhaps more relevant, what will we do to Cuban cuisine? Changes won’t come overnight, but it’s worth a look ahead.

Cuban food today 

A typical Cuban’s monthly salary averages 466 pesos (which equals about 22 USD a month), according to Cuba’s National Statistics and Information Bureau. When it comes to food, Cubans depend on specified rations mostly filled with subsidized food like rice, beans, sugar and coffee that they can pick up at bodegas where food ration coupons are accepted. Although there is a “black market” where the likes of gourmet food, cheese and meat find their way to foreigners and wealthy Cubans, the majority of food the Cuban population has access to is limited based on the embargo that has been officially in place since 1962.

Spenser Havlick, president of the Boulder-Cuba Sister City Organization, says that although food options are slowly getting better in Cuba, for the average family it’s still not plentiful and the options are narrow.

“Food is scarce,” Havlick says. “A typical Cuban family eats very, very simply with daily tortillas, rice and beans and when lucky, chicken that may have been sacrificed instead of surviving as an egg producer.”

In Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia, author Ken Albala echoes Havlick’s assertion of the simplicity of Cuban everyday cuisine, saying that Cubans eat rice for lunch and dinner almost every day.

Meat has always been in short supply in Cuba, and imports have been unreliable. But Cuban cuisine has largely been influenced by the cuisines of Spain, Africa and South America. Besides moros y cristianos (Cuban version of rice and beans), a sofrito (sauce), made of garlic, cumin, onion, green peppers, oregano and bay leaves, is most commonly found as the flavor base to enhance their rationed food. Easier found food like root vegetables such as yucca and plantains are also commonly found in Cuban meals to accompany the likes of empanadas, when available. When desserts may be created, you can find the traditional Cuban flan, tres leches cake or pastelitos (a baked puff pastry filled with a sweet filling like guava), alongside a cafe con leche.

There are various food markets in Cuba, and in the larger cities such as Havana and Guantanamo City, there are daily markets that are often situated under a makeshift shelter located in the same place every day. In this case, the food that’s available relies on the season with fruits, vegetables and a limited supply of fish or chicken.

Havlick describes “informal” or “spontaneous” markets that may also occur in neighborhood streets that offer the limited likes of cabbage, garlic and perhaps some citrus fruit.

“Once I saw a vendor in the shadow of the old Capitol building in Havana,” he remembers, “with three cardboard boxes of apples [with a Washington state label on the boxes]. They were sold very rapidly. I never saw them again.”

Smaller towns will have the occasional farmer-to-vendor markets, where you might see vegetables for sale right from their gardens, including green beans, corn, onions, taro root and coconuts.

Although there are no real famous food festivals due to the above mentioned limitations, Cubans in larger cities with more resources do still find the time to celebrate over their joy for music, whether it’s Havana Carnival in July with dancers, live music and street food like roast pork, or Havana International Jazz Festival, featuring infamous Afrocuban beats, Latin jazz and salsa music.

What may not be clear to someone with limited knowledge of Cuba and the effect of the embargo is that poverty is widespread and as Havlick remarks, “family eating is a private undertaking.” Although their spirits are not entirely broken, the storied and zesty Cuban food we might know of in the United States is largely found in a few upscale restaurants in Cuba that very few locals would step foot into, if ever.

Importing stipulations and U.S. and Cuban relations:

With the embargo lift, there is the consideration that perhaps we’ll see more Cuban food, spices and influence in the United States in the near future. To date, rum and cigars are the main sources of imports we see from Cuba. Some changes that are looking to be adjusted with the embargo lift for Americans returning from a trip to Cuba would be that you could return with up to $400 in Cuban goods, a quarter of which can be spent on alcohol and tobacco.

Nonetheless, since Cubans don’t produce nearly enough food even for themselves and their food supply is so limited already, a surge in imports from Cuba into the U.S. is unlikely. The numbers inversely point more toward a U.S. push of goods directly to Cuba.

According to the World Food Program, 80 percent of Cubans import their food. In 2013 alone, American firms sold $348 million worth of agricultural goods to Cuba, according to the U.S. Cuban Trade and Economic Council. Even with that import volume, estimates from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce place the dire cost of the Cuban embargo to the U.S. economy between $1.2 billion and $4.84 billion annually. A 2010 study by Texas A&M University calculated that 6,000 American jobs could be created by lifting the embargo as well.

The difficulties of importing lie with the current taxes and red tape involved in sending food to Cuba. If an agricultural or food producer wants to sell or import into Cuba, they have to get cash upfront from the Cuban government before they ship, and then the money exchange has to be handled through a third-party bank, which also extends many additional transaction costs. The barrier to entry is ominous.

Even if the influence of U.S.-imported foods will eventually aid Cuba, very little has actually taken place for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. There is still the requirement for obtaining a license from the U.S. Treasury Department, and there are just 12 categories whereby permission is given to travel to Cuba, which leaves us wondering when these economic and culinary implications are going to actually improve and take place.

This desire for change is important for economic and political standards between the two countries. There will be an economic uptick for U.S. food producers and farmers, and Cuba’s influx of quality and varietal foods will be monumental. The quality of life for Cubans would improve and many believe there would be steps to binding the severed tie that has existed for so many years.

Given the nature of Cuban day-today life and the benefits both countries will realize after the embargo is lifted, it’s easy to agree with the recent comments from Agriculture Secretary John Block: “We should have done it a long time ago.”

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