HAVANA TIMES – Thanks to a friend’s text message I was able to be present at the corner of Obispo y Mercaderes, Old Havana, where members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the world’s largest organization for animal rights, spoke on veganism. This is the organization’s first visit to Cuba.
To the surprise of passersby on the crowded pedestrian boulevard, two girls took off their green robes displaying bikinis with designs that imitate vegetables. While people stopped, peeped, many men directed lascivious looks and even compliments; they distributed kits promoting the vegan diet and talked about the possibility of eating without animal suffering.
The concept of PETA is summarized in that these creatures are vulnerable to pain and have autonomy, so “they are not ours to use as food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation or for any other reason.”
I hadn’t intended to write a story on the visit, I was very interested in exchanging criteria with people more radical than I in their diet, because for almost 25 years I have been a lacto vegetarian. I had to wait until the flow of cameras and microphones slowed to approach the girls and two other activists. With one of the girls, being a Puerto Rican, I was able to speak in Spanish.
I was accompanied by my husband, my son, and a friend, also vegetarians. We explained the disadvantages of distributing recipes whose ingredients are not available to most. From my own experience, I know that the biggest taboo regarding this subject is the myth that vegetarians do not enjoy food.
Traditional Cuban cuisine does not conceive of the absence of meat. The economic uncertainty itself has turned the presence of animal fiber into the goal and symbol of social status.
It is fair to point out that in the Special Period crisis of the 1990s the government opened vegetarian restaurants and sold leaflets that disseminated the nutritional values of non-omnivorous food, but the majority of the population interpreted it as a strategy to justify the crisis, not as a sensible option.
Currently in Cuba there is no vegetarian menu in any institution, not even in hospitals. Cancer patients are not induced to go without eating meat. Even the World Health Organization’s confirmation that consumption of processed meats is a cause of cancer has not changed the nutritional focus.
Regarding a decision to dispense with dairy products, there are no substitutes here like almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, rice milk…
The PETA members reacted in consternation when we explained that in the 1990s people hunted domestic cats to eat. There is no doubt that with respect to veganism, this is a very inhospitable context. One of the most common resources for invoking prosperity here is the sacrifice of animals as a religious offering. Rituals are becoming more public and expanded these days.
The average Cuban does not delimit between joviality and partying, between candor and ignorance. It is easy to be polite to foreigners, with half-naked young women, but to make such drastic reforms to avoid animal suffering…. Near to where they were promoting veganism, a man exhibited two sausage dogs with clothes, forcing them to a long stillness, to charge for the attention of tourists.
Nevertheless, the members of PETA were happy with the welcome they received. Being the first vegetarians they met in their visit, they included us in a small report. There were several young people in police uniforms around, but their attitude was also respectful.
Alex Bezjak, a Colombian-Canadian and member of PETA, explained that in Canada the conditions in which animals are “consumed” are horrible. He noted that animal protection laws do not involve these beings, who grow up in cages where they cannot even walk. Many pigs die of thirst during transport. As part of an initiative called The Save Movement (he told us that that name can be searched on the Internet), he and others stand in front of the trucks that transport pigs and force them to stop. They give animals water, with the premise that if they cannot save them, they at least mitigate their suffering.
We agreed that on their next visit, they will have our support to provide vegan food to people with ingredients available to the average Cuban.
For my part, I decided to eliminate dairy products (already quite sporadic) from my diet. Veganism seems to me a viable and much more humane option.
PETA’s brief visit to our island shows that Pope John Paul II’s exhortation is being fulfilled: “That Cuba will open up to the world and that the world will open to Cuba.”
Along with the compulsion of this openness, and the frivolous curiosity it brings, also enter representatives of much more noble causes. For them, our gratitude and our welcome.