Cuba: Coffee that Tastes Like Coffee

Yusimi Rodriguez

The El Aljibe Restaurant in Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — I’ve never understood people’s addiction to coffee. I love its smell, and I find it delicious with milk or cream, but it’s almost impossible for me to drink it by itself.

No matter how much sugar I add, there’s no way for it not to be unbearably bitter to me. That’s what I thought until this past Sunday. Now I think I might become addicted to that black nectar.

That evening, a few of my Havana Times co-workers and I met at the El Aljibe restaurant with two professors and several of their journalism students from the United States.

The students wanted to meet writers from HT to learn about our work on the website and our diverse vision of life here on the island.

None of the four of us who attended the meeting (Veronica Vega, Yasser Castellanos, Francisco Castro and I) had ever eaten there before – nor will we probably do so again.

Actually, we didn’t even know the place existed. Can you believe that I had to send an email to the US teachers asking for the address of a restaurant in my own country, in my own city?

Despite transportation difficulties, the four of us managed to get there on time. In fact, we got there too early, a half an hour early. When we have arranged to meet with someone from abroad, we Cubans do our best (more than usual) to arrive early.

Among us, foreigners are known for being on time (especially Germans). Perhaps it’s easy to be punctual in their countries, here it’s an odyssey. Because of this, if you have a meeting with someone from here and you’re late, you can expect them to understand and wait for you.

Sometimes the reason for our delay has nothing to do with transportation; but that’s our excuse, and the other person will believe you since transportation problems are our daily headache.

As it turned out though, the teachers and students from the US arrived half an hour late, when I was about to suggest we leave. In fact, I had already started doing something that’s become customary with me in the wake of some recent events in my life: speaking poorly of “Americans.”

El Aljibe

They arrived fearing that we had left and apologizing that their plane had been delayed. They had barely had time to drop off the luggage at their hotel before heading out to meet us.

In circumstances like these, sitting at the table in an expensive restaurant, one runs the risk of forgetting who you are. Since the food situation is so difficult for most Cubans, normally we wouldn’t think of going to a restaurant like this. But there suddenly appeared a noble soul that refreshed our memory. Who? Another Cuban.

It was the Cuban guide who accompanied the US group. He explained that everyone was going to get a welcome drink, adding that they could also have another included in the meal price.

I made the mistake of asking if the drink contained any alcohol, so the guide explained that the welcome drink was for the group (which didn’t include my friends and I). What was I thinking? This was a welcoming toast, and I hadn’t come from (or gone to) any place outside this country.

In the end, though the waiters also offered us drinks, but I didn’t want one.

Outside of this insignificant incident (and another one later on, when Veronica saw that the driver of the bus for the Americans, also a Cuban, didn’t wave back or respond when we thanked him for dropping us off in Vedado), the night was very pleasant.

Our hosts were friendly, young, and intelligent, plus each had sense of humor. They were eager to learn about Cuba: the society, sports, culture, fashion… and bad words.

We also liked the food a lot. The specialty of the place is chicken, but Veronica, Yasser and I are vegetarians. Nevertheless they prepared a rich dish of rice with vegetables for Veronica, while Yasser and I ate some wonderful black beans.

A mural demanding the release of the Cuban 5 at the El Aljibe Restaurant.

Just when I was thinking it would be worth returning to that restaurant if only for the beans, they brought us some coffee. I decided to try a sip of Yasser’s, which was a strong, frothy, very aromatic espresso with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Divine.

What’s rationed monthly in our neighborhood stores for the subsidized price of five pesos (about 25 cents USD), is one four ounces pack that obviously doesn’t last the month. Therefore people are forced to pay ten or fifteen pesos per pack on the black market, though this coffee has nothing to do with what I drank on Sunday at the restaurant.

What we get is a bitter drink that almost scratches your throat. It’s the chicharo (crushed peas) Veronica explained to me the next day.

Generations of Cubans have become so used to having this chicharo in their coffee. It’s to the point that when their cup doesn’t have any, they actually miss it.

It might seem that I’m using coffee as an excuse to criticize the government, that the writers for HT do nothing else, and that we spend all our time looking for something to attack.

But no. There are much more serious issues, more important demands to make on the government than to think about something as insignificant as coffee that tastes like coffee.

What happens is that when you realize you’ve never drank coffee, or quality coffee, in your whole life, and that your wage doesn’t permit you to buy it — much less consider inviting your family to a restaurant like El Aljibe even once a year — you wonder what you can aspire to in your own country.

I always remember that question Eliecer Avila posed to Ricardo Alarcon in 2008: “How long are we going to have to sacrifice?” Now I wonder: For what? Why did my parents work? Why do I work?

Some people might think that we Cubans are fortunate. We have the luxury of complaining about coffee when there are people all around the world who have to settle for one meal a day – if they’re lucky.

They would be absolutely right if the political elite in power hadn’t boasted for years with comparisons about our being at the level of developed countries…or if that same elite that demanded sacrifice and austerity in the nineties didn’t enjoy the privileges from which we are so far removed.

I don’t know if there’s true equality in any society on this planet, but they promised it to us. That was the society that our parents believed they were building.

I can understand that to achieve such a society it was worth giving up the freedom of the press, speech, association, and being subject to the leadership of a single party in the name of unity. But now that that bright future has faded on the horizon, what’s our goal?

Did I need a sip of good quality coffee to think about these things? No. After all, there are people who love coffee from the bodega, as well as people who don’t drink coffee. It’s a matter of taste.

But it happens that routine sometimes makes us forget that we’re second class citizens in our own country; that our aspirations are increasingly reduced to daily bread, and we’re used to it.

Something relieved me: I’m not going to become addicted to coffee like I feared on Sunday. This is for the simple reason that it’s going to be a long time before I’ll be able to afford the luxury of having coffee with the flavor of coffee.

7 thoughts on “Cuba: Coffee that Tastes Like Coffee

  • It’s no consolation, but recently multinational companies and coffee manafacturers in Germany (Mondelez, formerly Kraft Foods; and Tchibo) have been caught out mixing non-coffee products (malt, sugar, peas) into their bags of “ground coffee” and instant coffee powder, with these changes hidden in the very small print on the packaging. And they increased the price at the same time… I don’t know how many peas are added to coffee in Cuba, but “Onko”, a Mondelez/Kraft brand, which was formerly real ground coffee, is now only 88% coffee.

    (In Stalinist East Germany, as a result of the “world wide coffee crisis” in 1977, a product was introduced which was only 50% coffee, the rest was peas and sugar and malt; in West Germany at the same time something similar was offered, mixing coffee with malt or chicory)


    today’s situation, from German Telekom and tabloid paper Kurier:–billiger-ist-es-deshalb-nicht-so-abgebrueht-tricksen-die-kaffeeroester,8259702,8206084.html

    coffee crisis 1977:

  • Wittingly. Fidel snubbed every attempt by the US to improve relations. He did not want normal relations, preferring a state of war between Cuba and the US. This is not unlike the modis operandi of a wife beater. He keeps his wife locked up inside the house, tells her how horrible the neighbour are and she should never speak to them. He continually provokes the neighbours into arguments to keep up the external threat. The beaten wife cowers inside her prison house, not knowing where to seek help. Of course, the wife beater tells his victim he does this for her own good and how she would be nothing without him.

    The Castros have done the very same thing on a national scale.

  • Excellent point Griffin. When one volunteers (or is conscripted) for military service, you are compelled to give up these rights for the sake of the unit or the overall mission. The problem for the leadership is that they must continue to invent an enemy, especially if one does not exist. Marxists, therefore, are by definition, implored to seek a war footing in order to justify their totalitarian structure. The more sacrifice the better as Marxists also need martyrdom to motivate followers to comply with unjustifiable suffering. The Castros, wittingly or unwittingly, have played this strategy out to a sickening perfection.

  • I beg to disagree, Moses, re: “the cigars not made for export that most Cubans smoke…smoke like tar.” Actually, I am still smoking some Moyas from Granma (Bayamo) and some (Torcido?) Selectos from Holguin, and they’re not half-bad. Not like Cohibas, of course, but good enough for an everyday smoke. A few years back, n I gave some to my boss; later, when waxed eloquen about Cuban cigars being far superior to the Dominican and Mexican cigars he smoked before, it was hard to keep a straight face, but I did, as he puffed one of the Moyas I’d given him!
    As far as decent Cuban coffee is concerned, just like every other agricultural commodity in Cuba, you have to buy direct from a guajiro, not from the corner bodega. In that way, you cut out the middleman (or, in this case, the state bureaucracy).

  • “I can understand that to achieve such a society it was worth giving up the freedom of the press, speech, association, and being subject to the leadership of a single party in the name of unity.”

    There! Right there! That is the Big Lie of Marxism, that the people must lose all their rights and freedoms to achieve the mythical goal of socialist paradise. It’s a lie because the ruling clique keep all the priveleges and perks of power. It’s a lie because the standard of living continues to slip away and whatever gains made are short lived and illusory. It’s a lie because the rulers never had any intention of providing the promised benefits of socialism, only the eternal chains of totalitarianism.

    It’s The Lie the people are forced to repeat to themselves and even lie to their own children until they can no longer tell the difference between real coffee and bitter burnt peas.

  • Luis, the stars must have aligned because I find myself mostly agreeing with you. However, what I read between the lines is that the Castros can’t even get the little things right these days. Premium Cuban coffee in Cuba is good but nothing special when compared to other world-class premium brands like those from Colombia and Ethiopia. Yet, to the average Cuban, good Cuban coffee is beyond their meager budgets. The chickpea-blended coffee sold from the bodegas that most Cubans drink is horrible and not fit to be called coffee. The same story, by the way, goes for the world-famous Cuban cigars. They are priced way above the Cuban budget. The cigars not made for export that most Cubans smoke cost 1 Cuban peso each and smoke like tar. In the midst of an education and healthcare system that is increasing becoming more ‘third world’ and less worthy of the acclaim leftists such as yourself are so quick to espouse, the least the Castros and their failed socialist system should do is make good coffee cheap for the people.

  • “It might seem that I’m using coffee as an excuse to criticize the
    government, that the writers for HT do nothing else, and that we spend
    all our time looking for something to attack.”

    “But no. (…)”

    Dear Yusimi, yes. You are using coffe to do what you say you are not doing. You may think that since there are a bunch of readers who cannot interpret an article – let alone read between the lines – you may get away with it. This is not good, it’s dishonest.

    Anyway, if you were an engineer, you’d certainly understand people’s addiction to coffee. It doesn’t have to be Colombian-quality coffee, no. But we need it to get our work done and endure all-nighters.

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