Cuba’s Smuggling Train

By Fernando Aramis

Feranando Aramis
Feranando Aramis

HAVANA TIMES — I got to the house of Dargelo, my paternal cousin Barbara’s husband, at around 10 in the morning. The year was 1993. Out of a job and desperate, like just about everyone at the time, I told them I couldn’t take it anymore, that I’d lost the job I had selling pru – a beverage made out of fermented roots, popular in Cuba’s eastern provinces – because the owner of the business had decided to leave for the United States, via the Guantanamo Naval Base.

I told them that, luckily, I had saved a bit of money and wanted to invest it a new business. He proposed we start buying coffee at seven pesos the pound, in the municipality of Buey Arriba, where his cousins lived, to take to Camaguey, where it could be sold at 28 pesos the pound. I accepted immediately and asked:

“When do we leave?”

“Come early tomorrow, so we can leave at 5 in the morning,” he replied.

“What should I bring?”

“Find a bag.”

I went back home to get ready for the trip. The next day, we left early, before sunrise. Of course, we had to travel with help from the “yellows,” those public transportation inspectors who, at the time, worked at the entrance to every town in Cuba, wearing yellow uniforms and stopping all kinds of vehicles to ask them to carry the people traveling from province to province across the country. It was true torture, this. When we arrived at the Bayamo city exit, we got on a truck that was to leave us at the foot of the road that would take us to Dargelo’s family’s place.

From there, we had to walk a few kilometers, cutting across hills, to reach the home of Dargelo’s cousins. We arrived around noon. Exhausted by our walk, we collapsed onto the leather-backed stools like sacks of potatoes. After having a bite to eat, we went off to buy the coffee with one of the cousins. I had taken enough money to buy 40 pounds of coffee, and Dargelo bought 60. A friend who was the contact for the purchase of the precious beans also went with us, but only bought 20 pounds. After making the purchase, we went back to the house. The cousins were waiting for us with a bottle of chispaetren, an alcoholic  beverage people in Cuba drank, fermented with cow shit (hen

We drank until night fell and then went off to sleep, because we had to get up very early to take the coffee to Bayamo, the second odyssey. And the way back was longer, as we had to walk several kilometers extra to get to a place on the central highway that was a bit ahead a police check point, which went through everyone’s possessions to confiscate coffee. To transport coffee in Cuba was illegal at the time (it still is).

We left as early as we did our way there, but, this time, carrying the bags of coffee across the hills, always on the lookout for any cop that could turn up along the way. To ease the tension, we would tell the occasional joke to laugh at our predicament. We walked and walked and, almost out of breath, I would ask them:

“Is it far still?”

“We’re almost there,” they would reply. They were already experts in the coffee trade and had made the trip many times.

We finally got to the central highway. Lucky for us, a truck heading towards Bayamo stopped to pick us up. We got on the back and set off towards glory. Everything was smooth sailing until that point. At one point, the truck swerved suddenly and began driving down the wrong side of the road. We immediately realized the driver was drunk.

“Hey, let’s get off, this guy’s going to kill us all!” I yelled.

We yelled and gestured at the driver for him to stop the truck and we ditched him without a second thought. Luckily, we were already only a few kilometers from Bayamo. We began walking, the bags slung over our shoulders, down the side of the road, when we suddenly heard a police siren. Without even thinking, we dropped to the ground to wait for the patrol car to drive past us, but it never did.

“Made my heart skip!” we said, almost in tandem. This happened two more times before we reached Bayamo.

We arrived at around 6 in the afternoon. We couldn’t cut across town that early because of the police, so we decided to cross down the river bank, which, lucky for me, lead straight to my house. I said goodbye to my friends, but not for too long – we were only halfway through our journey. We had to get some rest that night to head out at 4 in the morning, running the risk of being caught carrying the goods, to catch the “contraband train.”

It was a train that left Bayamo, headed for the municipality of Florida, Camaguey that early. We met up at the train terminal at 3:30 am. The train was already waiting for us there. It was a small, four-wagon train. Honestly, boarding it made you uneasy. It had uncomfortable seats and, down the aisle, you could perfectly make out the locomotive and the machinist. Dargelo told me that everyone who traveled on that train was trafficking something: powdered milk, beef, pork, marihuana, coffee, which is why it was known as the “smuggling train.”

People caught that train because it was small and the police never inspected it. That is to say, we carried illegal materials and we could easily end up in jail. Before we departed, I thought about how need had put me in those circumstances, how I, a folk musician known in the town, had become a coffee smuggler. I personally saw nothing wrong with transporting coffee, but, for the law, I had become a criminal.

Suddenly, the train shook and started, waking me up. We set out, with hope and fear, towards Florida. What a journey was in store for us!


2 thoughts on “Cuba’s Smuggling Train

  • Thanks for sharing this story! Although I’ve tried to buy “pru” during trips in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012, and 2015, I was never successful. (though in 2010 I almost scored some from a stall next to the Bayamo rail yards). Once the embargo ends, I’d love to import some. I’m sure I could sell “pru” to some of the neurotic trust-funders in my area (SE VT) who are so obsessed with their health they might try any sort of exotic elixir even one which has such an “interesting” taste as “pru”! There’s a much larger market for the excellent Cuban coffee from Oriente. Although I’ve brought bags back from each trip, they only last so long, even when only brewing for special occasions!

  • Nobody .who was in Cuba in 1993, will ever forget the incredible stuff that went on

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