Cuba: A Little Hunger and Lot of Poor Eating

Alfredo Fernandez

Panfilo. Foto:

HAVANA TIMES, May 2 — As a Cuban, I’m always surprised with the way my fellow citizens refer to hunger as a “thing of the past,” since we felt it sharply back in the 1990s. The fact is, however, that this isn’t always the case.

A brief review of that miserable decade reminds me that we used to eat bistec de toronja (“grapefruit steak,” consisting of breaded and fried grapefruit skins) as well as soy picadillo (the worst ground meat-like substance that any human beings ever tasted in the twentieth century, a “mystery meat” that survives up through today).

Some less fortunate individuals even got to the point of trying bistec de colcha de trapear (mop-tassel steak).

In the ‘90s we got used to cooking without oil — on those rare occasions when we did cook — sometimes without salt and using animal fat; bread was also scarce. In short, at times the Cuban diet reached extremely low levels.

Today it’s true that our normal food has reappeared, though not without much effort. One can commonly find oil, salt, an occasional chicken leg or a newly introduced ground-turkey product (which, though still expensive for workers, sometimes can afford the luxury of being edible). Oh, and some beans, which remain available pretty much all year round at the market.

Nonetheless, now it would be worth asking if the diet that we Cubans eat today is in line with the parameters accepted by the World Health Organization.

It’s no lie that the act of eating in Cuba has improved compared to the ‘90s. But to tell the truth, our diets are still very far from what’s acceptable. The low wages that Cubans earn make it impossible to balance their diets with fruits, cereals, fiber and protein, as can any worker earning an average wage in this world.

Without a doubt, Cubans today live in the “empire of carbohydrates,” with so much white bread and sugar at the center of our diets many of our diseases are caused by excessive consumption of these – oh, and of course those illness are still influenced by the nutritional deficiencies as a result of the mythic ‘90s.

Two years ago “El Panfilo” (literally “the simpleton”) — a resident of the Vedado neighborhood, with a few shots of rum already under his belt — had the audacity to interrupt a promotional video for the group Ogguere with his now famous call for “jama!” (food).

Many people around the world were astonished that in such a short time this unique video was seen by more than a million people on YouTube.

Yet and still, when I see my wages for the month and note that there’s nothing I can really buy with them, I always wonder: Did the hunger of the ‘90s ever end?


5 thoughts on “Cuba: A Little Hunger and Lot of Poor Eating

  • Alfredo, I would love to discuss this with you. Will be in Cuba week after next. Please email me if we might be able to meet. Admin [at] Muchas gracias!

  • Never-ending inventiveness, we live of invention

    There are lots of stories about what we ate during the so-called “special period” (economic crisis) that we could make a science-fiction or fantastic movie. We have the famous arroz microllé (oversized-after-cooking rice): a can of rice and two cans of water, rice increases greatly, it is only water though, five minutes later you are already hungry again.
    My grandma -who still cries over her white gold wedding ring which she had to sell to the government in a laughable price to buy toilet soap- had to buy tench oil or oil from any other fish smelling disgustingly. She poured the oil in a bottle and added a peeled orange to get rid of the smell, she did not accomplish it completely though. People also used coconut, goat or sheep oils, etc. We also had the plantain’s skin “mincemeat”, it was seasoned with whatever people found: garlic, pepper, onion, and so on and so forth.
    In deed, it makes us cry. Of course, we still don’t eat as we are supposed to! But the lack of information -maybe on purpose-, and the low salaries make us dependent on a faulty diet. These topics won’t be treated in the Round Table Talk-show, no even in the newscast, the people shouldn’t know too much.
    Meanwhile, we all know, others throw away food.

  • Elpidio, typically those medical students in Cuba from the US were either prior rejected by several US medical schools applied to or they lack the resources to attend the schools that accepted them. They come to Cuba because it is free and to varying degrees because they believe in the original intent established by these cuban schools in enrolling foreign students. To graduate doctors who would return to underpriviledged communities to practice medicine.They accept the cultural and language differences in fair trade for the education. Their personal sacrifices vary but nearly all look forward to returning to the creature comforts of the US. They leave Cuba as fully-licensed doctors and arrive in the US facing nearly two more years of requisite study and several board examinations before they can legally practice. I won’t debate the differences in the quality of the education in this space but no one will disagree they are better doctors after two more years of study in the US. Cuban produces fine doctors, especially if you are Bolivian, Angolan, or Haitian and your alternatives are scarce. But if I was Hugo Chavez, I would like my chances a whole lot better at the Mayo Clinic in NY or Johns Hopkins in DC. Too bad I guess.

  • this is a way to get down the cost of bread and improve public health. this has been done in australia and was my idea. wholemeal multi-grain bread. a mix of grains with the cheapest grains predominant. corn/maize bread is cheap but lacks some B vitamins and an all corn bread diet can lead to pellagra, a lack of niacin, B3. B vitamins can be added to corn bread. there are home bread makers made in china. that was one of my new product ideas years ago. anyone can make and sell bread if supermarkets have the flour, preferably multi-grain and maize flour. there are also made in china electric rice cookers with timers to cook soups and stews. i haven´t seen them in cuba. rice cookers with timers was also 1 of my ideas. another 1 was timer boards to switch off appliances and office lights automatically.

  • Como siempre en la vina del senor tiene que haber de todo para que exista diversidad de todo tipo, como el de este joven, no se si vive en Cuba, en Miami, en Madrid o en otro lugar del mundo, es irrelevante, lo mas importante, si vive en Cuba, es que en su comentario en Havana Time, refleja un odio, una frutracion personal y sobre todo una depresion, que preocupa.

    Todos nos podemos preguntar el por que de este compartamiento de un joven en Cuba, esto tiene varias expliaciones y todas comprensibles y reales, digamos:
    – Este joven ha sido totalmente copado por el ansia de consumo de todo tipo, desde la comida, que para el
    es una necesidad apremiante, no una necesidad fisiliogica, fijense que tiene el sindrome del bisteck, como si ese tipo de comida fuese la unica que se pudiese comer y la unica que alimenta con proteinas al ser humano en Cuba y en el mundo.

    – Este joven ademas, tiene el sindrome del traslado mental y fisico, es decir vive en Cuba, pero ansi encontrarse en lugares donde todo abunde en cantidades increibles o creibles, pero sin importarle si el puede o no adquirirlas, como le sucede a cientos de miles en este mundo, que viven en el mundo de la abundancia y mueren de hambre y enfermedades curables.

    – Este joven que nacio en la Isla, se crio en la Isla, con todos los ciudados habidos y por haber, desde la salud, la educacion, la proteccion contra violaciones de su integridad fisica y moral, hasta el actual momento en que escribe con frustracion y odio contra su pais y su pueblo, esta penetrado hasta lo mas profundo de su civilidad y hombria, por el pequeno pero destructivo gusanito del consumo, las ansias de riquezas, poder y sobre todo sobresalir por encima del pueblo que lo crio y le dio vida segura y amplia.

    – Este joven tiene otro sindrome de cuidado, y es desear ser o haber nacido en otro lugar que no fuese la Isla, digamos Estados Unidos, Espana, Francia, Inglaterra, Italia, etc, todos paises desarrollados, donde el piensa que hoy tendria una vida mejor que la de Cuba, seria bueno que le preguntara a los 20 millones de parados en Espana, si esa es la realidad de la vida en ese pais, o a los miles de Somalies, Sudaneses, Pakistanies, Afghanos, Libios, etc. si esa es la realidad de sus vida.

    No estamos criticando a este ciudadano cubano, simplemente estamos tratando de entenderlo, pues conociendo como esta el mundo, por ejemplo, en Cuba hay cientos de ciudadanos de paises ricos y pobres que estan estudiando medicina, porque en sus paises no lo pueden hacer, yo le preguntaria a este joven: – Que significa esto para ti y que explicacion le das a este hecho, de que ciudadanos de los Estados Unidos, tengan que venir a Cuba a estudiar medicinas, porque en su pais no lo pueden lograr??? Por favor respondete esa pregunta.

    No estamos criticando a este ciudadano cubano, simplemente estamos tratando de entenderlo, yo le preguntaria para que el se lo respondiese – Por que Cuba ayuda a cientos de paises en casi todas las esferas de la vida diaria, si de acuerdo con tu manera de pensar, en otros lugares del mundo se vive mejor que en la Isla??? Por favor respondetelo.

    Gracias Alfredo por tu paciencia y espero que el hombre de Galilea te de la luz que tu necesitas para que luches por tu pais y por tu pueblo con todas tus fuerzas, mas que por tus egoistas ambiciones personales.

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