By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES — When I was small, many a time I would quit playing with my friends to go be with my grandfather. Every day, he would meet with other old people from around the neighborhood, after lunch, to speak of his experiences.
His stories were delightful. They would speak about the things they missed from the days of capitalism, without failing to mention the things they didn’t like. Beef was a recurrent topic of conversation.
A neighbor of his named Amador was the man who slaughtered cattle in the neighborhood. “He would pay to do this and could sell to anyone, but the butchers bought nearly all the meat. This happened all of the time because people didn’t have much money.”
That’s how they would recall the days of unregulated meat sales. They would also mention that you could eat a whole bull if you felt like it. The farmers would split all the meat amongst themselves, because there were no fridges like today and it wasn’t was easy to sell off the meat, knowing the neighbor would do the same thing when they slaughtered their cattle.
Cattle raising was a prosperous business in Cuba when the revolution triumphed. Cuba had a significant mass of cattle, above the number of inhabitants. Today, it’s less than half that. The agrarian reform was radical and anti-market. The measure was more populist than it was strategic. Of course we needed an agrarian reform, but it had to be well thought out. It needed to contribute to agricultural development, not destroy the sector.
Hundreds of thousands of hectares that were nationalized ended up covered with marabou brush. Cattle was exterminated indiscriminately because of poor management practices and the politicization of consumption. I’ve spoken with people who studied at people’s army schools in the 1960s, with Soviet teachers and military personnel from the time, and they all mention the excessive amounts of beef and horsemeat eaten at those centers where thousands of people studied. They were sick of meat. Some meat was also almost certainly exported.
When the cattle population declined and they became aware of the critical situation they were in, they decided to prohibit the slaughter of cattle and to criminalize the practice. Farmers, who were not in the least bit responsible for the drop in cattle population, paid and continue to pay for the government’s mistakes.
If a farmer slaughters one of his animals, he will be punished more severely than if he killed his spouse. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the owner or a thief that kills the cow, as the government sees it the same, they’re both criminals. The cows are nominally theirs, but the State is the true owner. If a calf is born and you fail to report it on time for them to mark it, a livestock inspector will apply a fine of 500 or 1,000 pesos, whatever he decides. The same thing happens if you fail to report changes experienced by the animal at the livestock registry office.
Till recently, there was a ministerial resolution that was so abusive it was difficult to believe. If a head of cattle was stolen from a farmer, the next day a livestock inspector would come along and apply a 500-peso for failing to take care of the animal. Luckily, it was repealed.
I am convinced such strict and abusive controls over the livestock sector holds back production instead of encouraging or protecting it. Many farmers I know aren’t expanding their production, more out of fear of these controls and penalties than their real capacity to do more. Not being able to eat or sell the meat from your own cattle is also a de-incentive. If a head of cattle breaks its neck, the State company comes along and takes the meat and doesn’t even let the farmer have a taste.
These prohibitions also have another negative effect. Crime syndicates devoted to the theft and slaughter of cattle have formed and no one knows where the situation is heading. Here, where I live, they operate so smoothly the authorities can’t dismantle them, and they’ve been operating for years.
Small-time cattle thieves steal the animals when the farmers let their guard down at the grazing fields or corrals at night. Then, they take these and hide them up on the hills. The farmers go in search of the cattle but they almost never find anything. When the thieves find out things have quieted down, they sell the cattle to the ringleaders, who send people to slaughter them and transport the meat to underground fridges at ranches that act as fronts. Then, a discrete network of re-sellers sell the meat at other locations. The meat is sold to people they know and, since it’s a small quantity compared to the demand, the price is high and the meat hard to get.
Horses are stolen by a similar network. No sooner has someone dropped their guard than a young man mounts the horse and gallops away on it. Horses are almost never slaughtered because people pay a lot for live horses to use them for horse-driven passenger vehicles. A mediocre horse goes as high as 10,000 pesos. The next day, famers are asked for a ransom of about a third or half the value and the owner prefers to pay it rather than have to buy a new horse at full price. This happens where I live every week.
People are afraid they will start kidnapping children and asking for ransom, as they do with horses. If you turn in the messenger who asks for the ransom, they burn your house down or kill all your animals in the corral. Not long ago, a cart driver irate over the theft of his horse killed the person who asked for the ransom with a machete. It’s a truly disquieting situation which stems from the prohibition on the slaughter of cattle.
All the while, eating beef continues to be a highly expensive and dangerous treat. It is seldom sold at hard currency stores and, when it is, at a price that even foreigners find exorbitant. Only those who have private restaurants and receive tourists, like the one in Old Havana Obama went to with his family, can afford it. The people have to content themselves with soy mincemeat fattened with ears and tripe. It makes your stomach turn, but it has protein and the calories needed to show the FAO that Cubans are well nourished.
I believe we won’t be seeing unregulated beef for a long time down the road traced by the Party “guidelines.” Nothing suggests a sensible policy aimed at livestock growth in Cuba. Even if this came to pass, experience tells us that they will simply export the meat or offer to the tourists they plan to receive from the United States. It will only become available to the people if we become consumers after a capitalist turn, within or without the revolution. That is the only way our work would be paid fairly, our money would be worth something, and we would cease to be seen and treated as a burden on the State.
At least hope for such a change remains as hope is that last thing you lose. All the while, we better look after the cows and keep our hands off them, so as to avoid going to jail and have a bit of patience and confidence a better future will come. There’s no other alternative; the die have been cast.