By Claudia Gonzalez Marrero (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – Talking about veganism and vegetarianism as diets in Cuba includes different aspects. During these times of shortages, holding onto these nutritional habits presents a challenge and you need to improvise, exercise resilience, among other forms of social management.
From a dietary standpoint, vegetarianism is a diet that abstains from meat and fish consumption. The staples of this diet are grains, beans, fruit, and vegetables. However, veganism is a more radical movement that rejects the consumption of any animal products such as meat, but also dairy products, eggs, or more specific products like honey.
Although there are people who construct these lifestyles depending on the conditions around them, there are many different hurdles you need to jump in order to live a full life under the standards these diets demand.
Many Cubans note that getting a hold of food takes up a lot of their energy and everyday resources and so, it’s hard to adopt specific diets. However, vegan and vegetarians say that this is a creative, alternative lifestyle, that allows you to live a healthier life, and with a cruelty-free attitude. But it isn’t easy to stand by this decision.
Many people we interviewed say that they haven’t been able to find a stable supply of products in their day-to-day lives. “Finding food is exhausting and for me, a person with two diets [she follows a vegan diet and a medical diet because she has colitis], it’s a lot worse. It’s practically living just to get by, and you know what the best thing would be to eat, but you can’t get it because there’s nothing to be found,” a Havana resident called Maria laments.
Necessary products for a vegan or vegetarian diet (plant-based milk, nuts, grain) aren’t in steady supply on the national market, nor does the Government seem to be interested in making up this demand. At least not beyond the products needed for those who have strict dietary requirements (diabetics or celiacs).
“I buy oats, soy milk, grains at the MLC (US dollar priced) stores, but there isn’t a lot of variety, and when you do find them it’s only for a short while and supplies are sporadic,” a woman living in the capital says. “Before the pandemic, there were some small businesses that sold good-quality vegetarian food, but pretty much none of them are left now.”
Vegetarian food has appeared in Cuba almost organically because of severe shortages, which is why you hear phrases like “we Cubans became vegetarians in the ‘90s.”
After currency unification and wage reform in January 2021, prices and the availability of fruit and vegetables have fluctuated quite significantly. This is the reason some people wonder whether a vegetarian diet is cheaper.
“You can always become a vegetarian but being healthy and well-fed is a lot more difficult because of different factors. You can’t do this without putting in a lot of effort, because you don’t have the variety of foods you need so readily available. I would say that an average wage is entirely spent on food, but shortages and the crisis are not only affecting vegans or vegetarians, but everyone living here,” a Cuban explains.
She insists that, despite a developed community of Cuban animal rights advocates, very few of them evolve to vegetarianism. “Little information and scarce availability of food products are difficult obstacles to overcome,” she says.
Even though the people who choose these diets also have their own challenges due to severe shortages on the island, when you think about how hard it is to buy meat and the stress that this results in, it would seem like vegetarians and vegans have a priveliged advantage.
“Not at all. We must get by with the fruit and vegetables we find at the markets. It’s more elitist to be a carnivore than a vegan right now in Cuba,” Lidia says.
Gloria, another Havana resident, says that she doesn’t wait long in line because the crowds are almost always where products like eggs, cold cuts or meat are being sold. “When you take products out of your diet that are more expensive per unit, or when meat is getting more expensive by the day or is nowhere to be found, a vegan diet implies less stress,” she says.
However, removing animal products from your everyday diet doesn’t guarantee others are in supply. Most interviewees wish for corresponding government bodies to make national fruit, vegetable and legume production a greater priority. They believe shortages of these foods are outrageous, especially if you take the island’s climate and fertile soil into account.
Faced with shortages, our interviewees improvise with whatever they have. They make the products they consume at home: they make plant-based milks out of coconut, oats, or sesame seeds; hamburgers made with Swiss chard, beans, split chickpeas or chickpeas; rice or lentil croquettes. They say that they “don’t set their expectations high,” but do what they can with the products they already have available, thinking up what they can cook with them. “In Cuba, you don’t think I’m going to cook this dish and go out to find all of the ingredients in one day. It doesn’t work like that, even if you searched the entire city up and down,” Gloria says sadly.
Faced with obstacles because of shortages, our interviewees have found other ways to ease the absence of certain products. They exchange products such as milk for soy yogurt, for example, with friends and neighbors. They have also learned to process long-lasting foods, to pickle, sun dry, and vacuum pack them, so as to make sure they conserve what they are able to stock up on.
Up until today, there is no state-led program that recognizes the development of ethical eating – a diet that chooses foods depending on their environmental, social or ethical footprint – as a civil right. There are very few workshops, gatherings or scientific literature to promote or help people to follow this lifestyle and diet. CubaVegana is a Facebook group and collaborative space and experience, that promotes this lifestyle, sharing recipes and all kinds of information.
There are groups on Telegram such as “Veganismo en Cuba” and “Cubano Vegano”, that have over a hundred subscribers and information is shared daily. Members notify the group when a store in the city gets oats in, or a drugstore has the multivitamin supplement Polivit. Recipes are also shared, as are ways to help deal with nutritional problems. However, these groups have rocky dynamics, and they haven’t been able to set up initiatives that go beyond their daily actions.
False assumptions that mock or condemn this kind of diet are normally an additional source of stress for vegetarians and vegans.
“Social pressure in Cuba is latent on this issue, vegetarianism is something from outer space for ordinary Cubans. Personally-speaking, I’ve had some social interactions that have left me uncomfortable, especially during a time when I was mentally vulnerable, when I began to rescue animals in dire conditions and I was suffering another creature’s pain,” an animal rights advocate says.
“I became really depressed and felt awfully helpless when I realized the conditions of society today. But this just reaffirmed my decision, and I am proud of my willpower. Nothing is easy in Cuba, and relating with people who follow this lifestyle lifts my esteem.”
On April 10, 2021, the “First Vegan/Vegetarian Event in Havana” took place at the Molinos park facility inside the city, with a program that included cruelty-free products for sale (by projects such as Ollouro and Alabranto), the screening of films and conferences on permaculture, healthy diets, concepts and differences between ethical eating and yoga.
Even though many people attended with genuine interest, the workshop focused on the ethical stance of veganism without establishing multisector connections with similar groups or activists in the capital, which really limited its impact.
The event proves that projects of this kind don’t have what it takes to become sustainable projects in terms of programs, promotion or actions. “I don’t think that there are enough spaces for activism on the issue but bearing in mind that all of a Cuban’s energy goes into survival, we’re doing quite well,” Havana resident Maria says.
Testimonies from those who have joined the Food Monitor Program in Cuba, reveal that there are people in the country with the will to eat ethically, despite unstable access to products, the stress of getting them and preconceptions surrounding these kinds of lifestyles. But interest is greater in Havana and provincial capitals with a greater stream of tourism. Plus, given the limited offer of more specific products, purchases are mostly made at the US dollar priced stores at exorbitant prices, which also implies limited access.
Whether veganism and vegetarianism manage to be placed in the public arena as viable and informed options for Cubans, will depend on the Government’s will to support them (in terms of production, imports, promotion) and these groups taking a more active stance to defend their aspirations in Cuban society.
Food is a necessity, but it is governed by preference, and this can go hand-in-hand with ethical, religious, environmental, or health reasons. Some stances come from traditions founded in group identity, in the use, customs and symbolic preparation of food. Others are developed on modern principles, stemming from activism, and changing mindsets.
**This information forms part of a study of the field, being carried out in Cuba in March, April and continuing in May this year. The Food Monitor Program will soon publish these results and testimonies on its website.
**Interviewees’ names have been changed in line with the Food Monitor Program’s data protection policy.