A Journey to the Enchanted Land of Havana’s Food Fairs

“It is preferable to socialize poverty than to capitalize on wealth.” – Fidel Castro

Vicente Morin Aguado

HAVANA TIMES — As if by magic, something of an “enchanted isle” tends to appear in Havana on the last Saturday of every month. This time around, the magic domain emerged on Zanja, between the streets of Belascoain and San Francisco, where a row of covered stands offered quality food in Cuban pesos, next to some pastry stands, several clothing outlets that survived the catastrophe that befell the sector and something like a dozen trucks loaded with farm and livestock products.

For a few hours, the old buildings in this part of Havana shone amid the improvised, multi-colored tents, marked with the distinctive sign of each establishment that had set up shot at the fair. As these were food establishments, however, we saw the habitual offers one finds at cafeterias and restaurants and their unalterable prices, decided by the State. A man holding a slice of pizza and beer in his hands said:

“We’re Cuban. We like the outdoors, meeting with friends, yelling at a friend who’s walking by so he’ll come over. It’s nothing new, but it’s a slight change of routine, at least! Like that old story about a man who tells his wife they’ll be eating out that night and then takes the dinner table out to the patio.”

I was able to confirm the truth of the words spoken by this man when, that day, I saw the tents of El Italiano and Las Avenidas, two restaurants present at the fair. An employee of the former, outside the locale, would tell the curious: “If you want any of our products, head on over to the fair on Zanja, we’re operating there today.”

The “main course” for the average, troubled Cuban, however, were the products being sold directly from trucks.

“Tomatoes at only three pesos the pound!” This is what one vendor was yelling while one of his colleagues announced the sale of black beans at 10 a pound. Tomatoes are never less than 5 pesos the pound and beans tend to fluctuate between 15 and 18 pesos at farm and livestock product markets, where the intransigent vendors make no exceptions.

The humble clothing of these would-be vendors, the way they stood at the back of their trucks next to the heaps of products, clearly indicated that they were not the typical, heartless vendors one comes across at the market. The man selling black beans told us they had come from the province of Matanzas. When someone asked him why they didn’t come more often, he replied:

“It’s an exception. Our work is the land, sowing and harvesting crops. We can’t come down here, that’s what buyers are for. They take our crops and sell them.”

State propaganda vilifies intermediaries, always laying the blame on them for the high prices at markets. Manuals of political economy, Marxist ones in particular, explain in detail that profits are a needed offshoot of the production process, the only one capable of generating value.

The socialist system in power turns to scapegoats when it is forced to acknowledge its failure. Another strategy is to cover up the problem and manipulate people, as they do in the “enchanted isle” we may run into once a month and think that such “abundance” could one day be extended and become a daily reality.

In the normal markets pork goes for 40 pesos ($2 USD a pound).

The afternoon begins to settle on the ten blocks of road cordoned off by the police at Zanja. One can still buy sweet potatoes at one peso the pound and, to everyone’s surprise, a stand selling pork (leg and pork chops, but no other cut) at 21 pesos the pound has propped up. One has to buy the meat as is, bone and fat included, without complaints – one is already getting plenty if one considers how much this meat costs beyond the promised land near month’s end.

Most of those present at the fair will have to cross the improvised borders of this 10-block isle and return to their daily reality, to the signs announcing pork at 40 pesos the pound and the indolent faces of the vendors.

As the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end.”
Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]

One thought on “A Journey to the Enchanted Land of Havana’s Food Fairs

  • “It is preferable to socialize poverty than to capitalize on wealth.” – Fidel Castro

    Well he certainly did that! Fidel managed to destroy the wealth of the Cuban nation while making (almost) everybody equally poor.

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