“Cafecito de Cuba” Isn’t for Locals

Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

Coffee for sale. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Today, I woke up really early in the morning and I stood outside my house. I could make out a lot of my neighbors among the pedestrians on the street already with a small jar in their hands, on their way to buy a little coffee. It’s the minimum dose you need to be able to make this addictive hot drink.

Around here, a lot of housewives make their daily living off of this small business. “It doesn’t give me a lot but at least my own coffee is free and there’s always a little bit left over to buy the silly things I need: garlic, onions, cumin,” Maria told me a few days ago, a very friendly old lady whose been working in this business for years.

I went inside again when my wife called for me. I had a cup of just strained coffee on the table waiting for me. My partner works her magic on mixed coffee that we buy as part of our rations, and I swear to you, it’s really good. She boils it in water and then takes out the remains, taking care to add just the right amount of water and sugar. I’ve tried to make coffee using this same method and I can’t; I make some kind of watered down coffee that is impossible to enjoy. However, when it’s “good” quality, I can make a decent cup.

It’s better to make the coffee in a twist on espresso maker, but the one we have is too small to use at breakfast time: it only makes two cups. I want to buy a bigger one but they are super expensive; the ones that make 4 cups go for around 200 pesos (10 usd) There’s always something more urgent to buy first (shoes for the kids, food, bathroom products) and I always put it off. The traditional 4 ounce bag of mixed coffee continues to bring to light my wife’s skill to get some taste of out of it.

Our blended coffee sold to Cubans in small packets on their ration cards.

However, our coffee is mixed so much that we don’t even know what we’re drinking. We’re told it’s chicharo (peas), however, the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t even taste like roasted chicharo. They must put some kind of bitter seed in it which, unlike coffee and chicharo, has the ability to fill the bag.

“Strained coffee” sellers also mix their coffee a huge amount: two pounds of chicharo and one pound of coffee; and in spite of that it still tastes like coffee and you can still enjoy its distinct aroma! This makes us want to ask the man at the bodega ration store two questions: What percentage of coffee does it have? And what do they mix it with? We Cubans aren’t told anything, coffee packets aren’t even labelled with the composition of their ingredients. Just imagine the nerve they have and complete lack of respect for the consumer!

A drugs expert who is frequently invited onto Taladrid’s TV program told us that us Cubans are privileged because they mix our coffee with chicharo. According to him, it’s better for our health this way. Maybe that’s true, but we Cubans don’t believe him because it seems too opportunistic so they can justify exporting the good stuff.

People have their hands tied behind their backs but they aren’t stupid. Our people will never be as cultured as Fidel said we would, but we have studied and we’re able to put two and two together. Cuban fishing boats go out into the deep sea to fish good quality fish that they then sell at foreign ports; then, with half of that money, they buy more tons of “low quality” fish (full of bones) and bring it to Cuba, to distribute it amongst the population with those miserable ration cards. And recently, we haven’t even got that because the government discovered that if they bought chicken instead, they’d save more money and that’s why they now sell chicken instead of fish. They pull such a trading manouevre and then on the other hand, talk about a healthy and balanced diet: it seems like blackmail to me.

We have an abnormal market. We produce and fish shrimp, lobster, snappers and many other kinds of seafood, but we export them all (what we don’t use for tourist consumption on the island of course) without national demand, that of Cubans, even being considered; we produce coffee to be exported while we drink chicharo or who knows what weird stuff they put in there; rolled cigars and cigarettes have been in shortage for prolonged periods while boats leave our ports full of this sought-after poduct which then go to every continent on the planet. It’s incredible! I bet this doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world, right?

Now we’ve been informed that they’re going to sell a container of Cuban coffee in the US with the special name “cafecito de Cuba”. I read it on Havana Times because this piece of news doesn’t appear on Telesur nor on any of our own media channels. Congratulations! I bet they’re happy because US citizens can finally enjoy the aroma of a good cup of Cuban coffee. However, when will we Cubans be able to enjoy such a privilege? How long will we have to keep drinking chicharo or roasted bitter seeds mixed with coffee as a sacrifice so we can export the “good stuff”?

Here, in my neighborhood there’s an old woman who is addicted to the bolita (a kind of lottery), coffee and tobacco. As she didn’t have enough money, she used to sell her own food, that is to say the products she gets with her ration card. When her relatives tried to help her, they told her off and asked her why she would do something so irresponsible and she used to say: “Everyone sells what they can, and as I don’t have anything else, I sell my rations.”

The Cuban government is like an addicted old lady because it sells to the rest of the world, not the surplus of what it produces after first meeting the demands of its domestic market, offering what we Cubans should be eating before anyone else to others and converting it into dollars.

I don’t think they do it because of common vices: these are “upper class vices.” The obsession of wanting radical socialism to work, with so much planning, without a decent and real salary, without incentives and without democracy, this has all become madness and an addiction. Believing that only they can govern the country and know what Cuba needs, without consulting any of us, is also a defect and one of the worst at that.

Nothing, when we find this out, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. How delicious that cafecito de Cuba must be! It’s just a shame that Cubans in Cuba can’t even take a sip.

6 thoughts on ““Cafecito de Cuba” Isn’t for Locals

  • Or ironically, the un-suppressible necessity of capitalism, growing in the dark if it isn’t allowed to grow in the light.

  • Chicory and Chicharos are not the same thing.

  • If u drink the right Cuban Cafe you will love it

  • Don’t be jealous of anyone drinking Nespresso. They might be using Cuban beans for one of their flavours, but nothing they make is any good. Not only will you be disappointed in the cup of coffee that you’ll get from a Nespresso machine, but if buying coffee off the libreta is your only recourse financially, you definitely don’t want to get caught up in any of the ‘pod based’ single serve coffee makers. The machines and the coffee packs are significantly more expensive. Your primary complaint about your moka pot was that it only makes two cups, well, Nespresso only makes one at a time.

    The best coffee on the planet is fresh ground Cuban beans. The issue is not their availability, but rather that their prices are out of reach for the average Cuban. The good Cuban brands sell whole beans (not mixed with anything) for $8-12 per kg all over the island. Of course, now you have to buy a decent grinder. How many Cubans can afford that, even if they could find one?

    If anything, what’s surprising about the Cuban whole bean sales, it’s that they aren’t taking advantage of the tourists more. People buying several kgs at a time know what they are getting, and know there is nothing anywhere near as good available in Canada at any price. Coffee snobs are used to paying as much as ten times those prices to still end up with coffee that is just OK compared to what you can get in Cuba. Visitors should absolutely be paying a lot more. More revenue for the country, and less strain on the local supply for the average Cuban’s morning cup.

  • Thanks for a thoughtful article. Upper-class vices points to something important and vexing. In both Marxist theory and western practice, we don’t know how to understand a professional class in economic terms. Stalin described, rather mystically, intellectuals as a kind of caretaker of the proletariat, maybe to the detriment of generations thereafter; the whole point of much U.S. innovation in what we call the sharing economy aims at reducing the incomes of professionals, the folks smart enough to see and manage the west’s complex systems but who, from a particular point of view, are becoming too expensive to hire. At the moment it appears the U.S. has taken the lead in undermining the economic foundations of the professional class. Perhaps the U.S. may the first to figure out who professionals really are.

  • Osmel has written an article which so accurately reflects the current life and conditions of the people of Cuba and the hypocrisy of the Castro family communist regime.
    Coffee can be sold to Nestle for export to the US, but Cubans are supposed to be content with chicory.
    I hope that some of those who contribute supportive views of the Castro dictatorship, note, inwardly digest and ponder upon what the pensioner lady said:

    “Everyone sells what they can, and as I don’t have anything else I sell my rations.”

    That comment is a true reflection of the consequences of a callous Castro communist regime which is not concerned about the people of Cuba, but is determined to maintain its tenacious and tyrannical power and control irrespective of the effects upon the people. In Cuba everybody is compelled to find something to sell – the mercado negra of the street is how the economy survives. Hence Raul Castro’s own admission on July 7, 2013 that:

    “Thus part of society has come to see theft from the state as normal.”

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