Eating Ice Cream and Drinking Soda, a Difficult Mission in Havana

By Irina Pino

A private cafe where there are always soft drinks.
A private cafe where there are always soft drinks.

HAVANA TIMES — I go to Old Havana quite often to see a friend and colleague of mine from HT. She brings her laptop and I bring my external hard drive. We look for a quiet place where we can exchange films, literature and news articles whilst we talk about the things that interest us.

We normally sit in a square or in the lobby at the Hostal de Los Frailes, where we can stay for a few hours where nobody will bother us.

When we decide to eat something, we just have ice cream and a soda. However, the difficulties we face trying to find them is the stuff of first-class comedy, as what happens to us at state establishments is truly incredible.

Our favorite soda is the Cuban cola and we both like chocolate ice-cream. But it’s a real mission to find them together. I don’t know if it’s just pure coincidence that all these establishments have warm cola, and where you can find a cold one it costs 1 CUC.  We’d searched small bars and cafes for over an hour without being able to buy a cold can of cola. No lie.

Ice cream is a whole nother story. Sometimes there aren’t any spoons, or you can’t simply change a 5 CUC bill and you have to pay in exact cash. Most of the time, the ice cream is melting or shopkeepers are unable to sell it because they don’t have codes.

We’ve experienced the same in Vedado too. The other day, I was walking with my friends and we came across a gas station store where they had ice cream. However, they couldn’t sell it because that had just been fumigated and they had to wait 45 minutes to enter. Is it really convenient to fumigate during working times? Money is being lost, but who cares if people are still being paid the same salary even if they don’t sell?

Then, after we got to a “Rapido” fast food locale my friend asked, “Do you have any spoons?” She was shocked to hear they had, and said ironically, in disbelief: “They have spoons…” The shop assistant smiled: “Yes, we have spoons but they’re going fast, so hurry up and buy your ice-cream. Today’s your lucky day!”

It’s useless to complain to employees, they treat you like a stray dog or they tell you where else you can go to buy it. They also protect themselves by saying that the ice cream has just arrived, or that the freezer doesn’t work properly plus a million more excuses.

The real reason you can’t find these things is because there’s a catch. Soda is sold to those who have restaurants or cafes first. They then sell it for a higher price and always have stock, even if you go late at night. State employees get their cut and everyone’s happy. There’s no set price either, and prices vary from 0.65 cents to 1 CUC or 30 CUP for a can.

Almost melted, Nestle ice-cream isn’t a safe bet anymore. Sometimes the tub is missing a few spoonfuls or it’s like stuffed ice-cream.

Are we going to have give up eating ice cream and drinking soda? This in itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s probably a lot healthier to leave the house with fruit juice and bread in your bag. But fruit doesn’t taste the same and bread, if it’s from the bodega ration stores, is sour.

So, how do we stop these irregularities from taking place? By getting rid of the employees? I’ll leave that, my dear readers, up to you.

22 thoughts on “Eating Ice Cream and Drinking Soda, a Difficult Mission in Havana

  • Ben, you seem to have a serious cognitive problem. When the topic of the website is Cuba, and the topic of the essay is buying ice-cream in Cuba, you can’t stop making irrelevant comments about the USA. What you are displaying is not merely a difference of political opinion, but the psychological dysfunction called displacement.

  • I guess that accounts for the 20 Trillian Dollar US National Debt. Money well spent would you say?

  • The poverty rate in the US is at 15.1% of the population. Food stamps are available for anybody earning less than 130% of the poverty level, which is a gross monthly income of $1276 for a single person. Anybody with a only a part-time job would qualify for food stamps, as do most college students.

    By comparison, the average monthly income in Cuba is $20. Beyond the meagre rations which only last for 2 weeks out of the month, food is more expensive in Cuba than in the US. Only the ruling elite and those few with good tourism jobs can afford to buy the food they need in dollar stars.

    So yes, all your weak sarcasm aside, the capitalist system in the US, along with the generous welfare programs it pays for through taxes, is far superior to the miserable Cuban system, where the ruing elite live like kings and the rest of the people live in squalor.

    Or maybe you’re right, the US system is worse, which would explain the tens of thousands of US balseros paddling to Cuba.

  • Usual drag in the dead cat stuff about the US. It is repetitious and boring. Cubans would consider themselves lucky to have food stamps. Try an old age pension of $8 per month.

  • I am certainly not trying to imply that. Only the best and brightest can and should go to Harvard. I don’t believe in equal outcomes. I believe in equal opportunity. I don’t want it to be simple. I want it to be fair. Simple begets mediocrity. Competition begets excellence. The Castros have created a system based on making everyone equal but it ends up making everyone mediocre.

  • I wonder whether it is possible to relate your views to the Cuban Old Age Pension of $8 per month? With the GAESA subsidiary shops selling Nestle ice cream for $1.35, how does a pensioner in Cuba get to eat ice cream?

  • Only if they have the academic background/grades to accomplish that. Don’t make it sound like anyone can attend Harvard solely if they “desired” to do so. It ain’t THAT simple.

  • Wonder no more!!!! They can buy “ANYTHING” they want with their EBT “credit cards.” Thats right, can u spell welfare fraud??? The liberals have really made good use of Americans’ tax dollars.

  • So happy to hear that they’re getting enough to eat. And that they’re getting some ice cream. I was wondering what other sources of money they had access to. Do you mean welfare? I’ve also heard about food banks. Does that help? .I can certainly see why you would recommend this system to the Cuban people. So superior.

  • Do you know Ben if the position is similar of the Isle of Man? It appears to be just as relevant as the US.

  • The statistics I read tell us that 45.7 million Americans are receiving food stamps. That’s “receiving”, not “living on” food stamps. Most of these people also have other sources of money. But whether they spend the stamps on vegetables, meat, or ice-cream, food is far less expensive in the USA and of better quality than the food found in Cuban ration grocers.

  • WTF does that have to do with this thread? Yes, there are poor Americans. No news there. Here’s the difference. Any one of them, even if they have a divorced African dad and a white mom and were raised by elderly grandparents, can go to Harvard Law school and become President of the US. That’s the kind of opportunity that simply doesn’t exist in Cuba.

  • The “socialist system” won’t survive without a Castro in charge. Because of the Castros overstaying their welcome, the Cuban people have grown to associate their way of life with the Castros, and Fidel in particular. Most Cubans couldn’t care less about socialism but they do have a kind of “Stockholm syndrome” type of loyalty to the Castros. Once the Castros are gone, new ideas will surface and those who would keep the status quo will be overrun. I am NOT suggesting that Cuba will race towards wide-open capitalism. But I do believe that the current economic model is all but dead. The ‘cult of personality’ is fatally strong in Cuba.

  • I was reading awhile ago that there are currently 50 million people in the US living on food stamps. I wonder if they buy ice cream with those stamps. Or do they buy potatoes and some vegetables instead. Just wondering.

  • I agree with you the Castros must go, but even without them, if the totalitarian socialist system remains unchanged, then the Cuban people will continue to suffer.

  • Same difference. …..

  • Get rid of Marxist socialism. Shortages & corruption will always result from centrally planned economics.

  • I have a solution, but anyone trying to implement it would go to prison.

    All that Cuba has to do to become a country in the first rank of nations is to not send people to prison for trying my solution.

  • What on earth is all this about then? is everyone on the fiddle?

  • One of the mysteries about ice cream in Cuba is why Nestle which is the largest food company in the world is permitted to produce its own brand of ice cream and to distribute it in vehicles openly promoting the product. At El Rapido locations there are Nestle freezers also promoting the product. In our town delivery is a bit patchy resulting in a frequently empty freezer, so I guess that the inefficiency of the GAESA subsidiaries is infectious. The recipe used by Nestle for their ice cream in Cuba appears to differ from that which they use internationally, but its advantage is that it is safe for visitors to consume as no tap water is involved.
    The grey uniformed fumigation teams are pretty assiduous in their work and often arrive without warning, leading to sudden relatively brief ejection from ones home. The puzzle is why the concentration is upon fumigating homes because as almost 100% have slats, the mosquitoes can enter freely and the mosquito larvae require water which means that they breed outside. In Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada which suffers regular infestations of voracious “mossies” it is the streets, gardens and parks that are sprayed.

  • Irina, i really appreciate how frustrating this search is. However , as an economist I have a solution, but it may not be a happy one in the short run. Don’t trust anyone who tells you it’s easy

    Perpetual shortages were common to the Soviet economy too. When prices are fixed , if more people want to buy at that price than there is supply, the pressure will lead to the creation of a shadow market, just the way you describe. However when Russia prices were freed in 1992, everyone could find ice cream but many couldn’t afford it. It took a long time.before they could.

    When you have perpetual excess demand like that, what incentive I there to replace spoons ? The Soviet Union had more metalworking industry and made pocket spoons and forks so you could bring your own!

    New small business have the motivation. to do better, but would have to have markets to buy what they need. If they don’t they will just end up reselling state cola and such things for more So. Cubans need to discuss: how important are regular supplies to them versus lower shop prices, but these great hunts

    On fumigating : I don’t know how it can be done. In light of the Zika threat you should be glad it is,though here too nothing comes free.

    I hope you’ll provide your own thoughtful answers Changing the system is really a challenge. Not every Cuban wants the same. Some will see themselves as losers. How can that be handled?. There need to be serious discussions with good information of course.

  • Get rid of the Castros and the ice cream and soda will return.

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