Will Beef Ever Be Eaten Freely in Cuba Again?

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

Foto: Liset Cruz
Photo: Liset Cruz

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.

Photo: Angel Yu
Photo: Angel Yu

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.

Photo: Matthew Siffert
Photo: Matthew Siffert

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.


16 thoughts on “Will Beef Ever Be Eaten Freely in Cuba Again?

  • January 19, 2019 at 9:59 pm
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    May make a little more sense to limit the number of working years for working livestock . Perhaps work them a few years then, before they are to old and tough , butcher them for meat. It’s both stupid and cruel and add wasteful, to work an animal until it is old and then let it die of overwork, old age or disease.

  • August 24, 2018 at 9:12 pm
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    Simply because animals (cows, beefs and horses) that do services to the man (transport, tractor in the fields, milk for children and pregnant woman) are not alowed for eating. Only those who are not helpful to the man like pork, chicken and fishes. And that makes sens.

  • May 28, 2017 at 12:23 pm
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    We should eat beef and I would like say that we must avoid any kind of meat . Be Vegetrian and be with Nature . Thank

  • February 19, 2017 at 12:10 am
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    Why would the government make it illegal to kill a beef cow to butcher
    it for the meat? The law it doesn’t make any sense! What are the
    purpose of beef cows supposed to be if you’re not allowed to eat them?

  • January 18, 2017 at 12:38 pm
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    I oppose the Castros for their tyrannical dictatorship imposed upon the Cuban people for 58 years. However, Fidel Castro deserves all the credit for leading the revolution to overthrow Batista. It’s what he did to the Cuban people after that mitigates that credit completely.

  • January 17, 2017 at 7:30 pm
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    Yes it is painful. Every time I come across an armchair Bolshovik sipporting the Castro dictatorship it blows my mind. You excercise rights denied us Cubans on the Island, and have no understanding of what it means to have those same rights denied.

  • January 17, 2017 at 7:27 pm
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    Well, certainly he was not born in Cuba so….

    Regardless, he eliminated one tyranny and replayed it with another. One with no hope in which a person would risk death on the high seas to escape. I should know, my childhood was spent under the dictators thumb.

  • January 17, 2017 at 4:49 pm
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    You’ve misdirected my comment.

    Whether Castro was a better, or a worse, leader was not the argument.
    I refer to my comment:
    ” ..He had the balls to stand up against the injustice that he saw, and defeat it….”

    Could you have done that?
    Could you have done better?

    WHY DIDN’T YOU?

  • January 17, 2017 at 4:41 pm
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    “…Fidel Castro lead a revolution …”??
    Fidel Castro LED a revolution …LED!!!
    Lead is a fine word, use it if you mean “to lead”( pronounced LEED);
    or, “..an ounce of lead..” as in a bullet;
    but the PAST tense ( as in, before right now) of the verb
    “to LEAD” – as in, the opposite of “follow”,
    is LED!!!
    This is so frustrating !

  • May 22, 2016 at 11:27 pm
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    Excellent article obviously written by one with full knowledge. There are those who will endeavor to belittle it because the problems in the cattle sector of agriculture have arisen under the ‘socialismo’ of the Castro family regime.

  • May 21, 2016 at 5:20 am
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    Defeating the Batista dictatorship was a good thing. Replacing the the tyranny of the Batista regime with his own tyranny did not make Fidel a better man, just a better tyrant. It is debatable as to whether what Fidel did was an improvement overall.

  • May 20, 2016 at 9:43 pm
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    Why do people like you consider that the choice for Cubans is between two dictators? Fidel Castro lead a revolution under the pretense that it was to free the people. It was only after the revolution that he declared it to be communist having deceived Camilo Cienfuegos, Huber Matos and others who were opposed to communism.
    Of course as an obvious supporter of the current repression in Cuba you object to those who support freedom for Cubans, freedom of expression, freedom of the media and freedom to have multi-party elections. But you seek freedom of expression for yourself whilst arrogantly demanding that the author of the article “be quiet’.
    The article is a fair description of the position regarding cattle in Cuba.
    Dictatorship is detestable whether by Batista or Fidel and Raul Castro.

  • May 20, 2016 at 4:43 pm
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    Obviously, you would prefer to be living under the Batista type of government. Fidel Castro did not.
    He had the balls to stand up against the injustice that he saw, and defeat it.

    Whatever complaints you have against the government, what have you done to improve the situation? If all you intend to do is whine and complain, then admit that Fidel is a much better man than you are, and be quiet.

    Otherwise, grow a pair and do something effective.

  • May 19, 2016 at 9:10 am
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    When I lived in Cuba I used to have a “friend” who sold beef to me. He would sell me a bag of meat weighing 5 kgs. for 15 cuc. I would marinate and grill the red meat on the patio of my casa particular until the owner told me to stop because the smell of the grilled meat reached the house of CDR and she questioned my house owner about it. Because the meat was a little tough, I started to cook it in a pressure cooker smothered with onions, carrots and even potatoes when I could find them. I was living in Cuba but I was determined to live like a Yuma. I had to get used to the clandestine nature of the beef – buying transactions. My seller would come by after dark and whistle outside my gate. I learned to recognize his signal. He would then toss the bag of meat over the wall between the street and my front garden. The next morning, like clockwork, he would stop by to collect the 15cuc. All was well for a while. I can’t describe how disappointed I was to learn that I wasn’t buying only beef from my meat dealer. In fact I was eating horsemeat most of the time. Yuk!! All’s well that ends well however. I stopped buying meat from this guy. After all, he was lying to me. Not long after that he went to jail for trafficking in stolen red meat. I heard he got a 7-year stretch.

  • May 19, 2016 at 8:23 am
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    ….don’t you know? Its just another capitalist plot. Whenever something doesn’t work the Castro’s will blame the embargo or the CIA.

  • May 18, 2016 at 5:06 pm
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    Excellent article exposing not merely the folly of the Castros policy, but their sheer stupidity. Foreigners travelling around Cuba will have seen a few scrub cattle with horns indicating age wandering around on land reverting to bush, they reflect the members of the Communist Party of Cuba who similarly wander around attending non-productive meetings in towns which although not yet reverting to bush, are along with Cuba’s infrastructure, deteriorating.
    What happened to Fidel’s beef program. He employed Dr. Reginald Preston from the Rowett Research Institute at Aberdeen in 1961 to develop a beef program. Dr. Preston’s particular expertise was in feeding grain (barley especially) rather than grass to cattle although they are ruminants. Fidel was interested in feeding sugar cane by-products. An agricultural station was established just east of Havana. Where are you now Reginald – what and where is the beef?

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