(The story of how beef turned into an exotic event in Cuba)
‘How´d you like your beef, sir, medium, rare or well-done?’ ‘Oh, My!’ Is this real?´ Even though, eating beef is a rarity, a luxury and, beyond all comprehension, an exotic event in Cuba, was it always like that?
The Conquistador found little gold in Cuba by 1500´s. Nevertheless, Nature provided with a bigger treasure: the coasts, the woods… the land! Villages were founded. Forests were cleared out. Different crops were tried and cattle were introduced. Camagüey, the cattle land of Cuba for the last 500 years, based the burst of the local economy on beef. Herds were driven to the coasts repeatedly to be slaughtered and the meat was later smuggled through the pirates. Thus, beef turned into the gold of Camagüey. Back then, beef was not a rarity for the villagers… and the exotic thing was how we traded it.
With the years, cities grew, millions of African natives were shipped in, and Cuba transformed into a slave society. Beef was only for the white and rich. Then, we suffered two wars, when eating only was a luxury for many. Most of the cattle fed both armies or died when the fields burned as part of the battle drama.
The 20th century arrived with a heavy influence from America. It was through King Ranch of Texas that good cattle were re-introduced. No Hereford, Angus or Jersey cattle were brought, but the Brahman, ideal for tropical areas due to its thick skin, where no tick can get through. The ‘Cebú’, as we call it, established its empire in the Cuban countryside. If there was beef to eat, those were times of plenty: ´times of fat cows’. So, when some corrupt government turned things difficult and the viruses of society sprung (unemployment, inflation, scarcity…) people used to call poverty ‘times of slim cows’.
By 1950’s, with a population of six million, there was almost a cow or a bull per person in Cuba. This was not a fair country to all its citizens though. Successive governments allowed huge money laundry from American Mob for hotel and casino business. The country’s economy had been also drained by American Trusts. Fresh meat flooded the butcher’s shops everywhere, though. Sadly, many people had a beef with Mr. Cash and only American tourists, the middle class, any people with a decent job and farmers could put a steak on the plate regularly.
Between 1956 and 1958 Fidel Castro was in the mountains of Sierra Maestra leading a Revolution against all forms of explicit abuse by Batista’s Government. Fulgencio Batista had been put in power by the American interest through a coup in 1952, and was enjoying the juicy steaks of power served on the thick gravies of corruption. He was too indulgent with mafia projects, allowed ministers to pocket the social program budgets, and gave limitless freedom to the military, which tortured and assassinated thousands of our youngsters. People wanted, that is to say, needed a change. In this context, Fidel’s project for a new country seemed very appealing. And the Cuban Revolution triumphs in January 1959.
The first Agrarian Reform happens and the ranchers are the first in losing out. They packed their bags, withdrew all their money from the banks… and freighted cargo planes to fly the stocks north, into Texas. Many thousand heads were shipped south to Venezuela as well. In the mean time, Cuba’s new leadership sends expert ranchers, loyal to the Revolution, into Canada where new stocks for breeding were bought. Cuba, now with a national centralized vision, encouraged itself to develop dairy cattle as a priority over the already existing beef cattle. The country needed a lot of energy to maintain their plans for free healthcare, free education and subsidies, which definitely enhanced the population growth, and it seemed that this energy had to come from sugar and milk. Huge state-run dairy-cattle farms were developed in the form of Cooperatives, especially designed for mass milk production. In only a few years, every kindergarten, school, hospital and senior-home got enough milk for every breakfast. Children under seven and senior citizens over sixty got a litter of milk daily, at the cost of $0.25 local money. It is only that, in Socialism, the government is the absolute administrator, manager, distributor and trader for every aspect in the national economy. Therefore, the Cuban State passed to own the farm, the cow and the milk!
Nevertheless, beef cattle were never disregarded. After the ups and downs in the Cuban economy during the 60’s and 70’s, meat productions experienced a rise. By the 80’s, every citizen could get from the local butcher’s shop up to four pounds of good beef a month ─ amounts that were controlled by ration books─. Also, every restaurant showed beef in the menus at this time. These were, for a while, ‘times of fat cows’ again.
The incredible shift occurred one morning. People awoke with news of the collapse of European Socialism. The regular Cuban never imagined that our economy was such a fraud. Mass productions had been supported by huge subsidized imports from the former USSR, and our industries were not efficient precisely. We plunged into the “Special Period” (the Lean Years) of the 90’s. Cubans, then, had only three major problems to sort out: breakfast, lunch and dinner! People struggled with 18-hour blackouts, huge inflation, no transport, no jobs that would put the bread on the table… What bread, for Christ sake?! It is here when lots of these peaceful pacers, cows, started “accidentally” charging against the knives of some locals around them.
The government began a crusade to stop the number one criminal activity among Cubans, in order to keep the precious milk providers. Beef black market was as pursued as narcotics would be in other countries. To steal and illegally slaughter a cow gets you longer sentences than most of felonies in Cuba. Twenty to twenty-five-year sentences are easily dropped on perpetrators. Be aware, buying unofficial beef gets in jail too. And for the last twenty years most of Cuban, pork-eaters or forced vegetarians, dream of a good beefsteak!
Today, all Cubans going abroad: refugees, skilled workers hired overseas, nationals married to foreigners or else… they all come back with detailed descriptions about butcher’s shops where tons of beef hang; stories about how big the beef casserole they prepared one weekend was…
Now, I am at this restaurant, about to have a juicy piece of imported Uruguayan beef my Canadian friend is treating me for… What an exotic chance! And my answer to the waiter is: ‘I am not a “medium”, but I sense some “rare” vibes over here’… ‘Just bring it big, so when I finish it I could rub my Cuban belly and say to myself: “well done”, Rog!’