In the months leading up to my trip to Cuba, I was curious about the quality of meals I was going to have during my time there. My fear was that the best Cuban was not to be found in Cuba but in the U.S. in cities like Miami, New York or Union City, N.J. (known as “Havana on the Hudson” because of its high concentration of Cuban immigrants). Stories from friends who had been to Cuba before did nothing to abate my concerns. My friend Anna, who traveled to Cuba in January of 2016 as part of her MPH program, came back with stories of all her meals consisting of rice, beans, salad and meat. Personally, I live for black beans and rice but having it every night on vacation sounded tiresome to me.
How can a nation that gave the world the mambo, the daiquiri, cigars, prima ballerina Alicia Alonso and writer José Martí not have a rich culinary tradition? The answer is intertwined with the socialist regime established following the Cuban revolution and the economic reforms implemented after trade ceased between Cuba and the Soviet Union.
On October 14, 1960, the Cuban government under Fidel Castro nationalized all private business and banks, making private enterprise on the island illegal. This of course included farms, grocery stores and restaurants. In addition, the government had closed the door on trade with other nations with the exception of the Soviet Union, which became Cuba’s main trade partner (until 1990 when the Soviet Union withdrew its subsidies and trade agreement). Food and manufactured goods from several nations, including the U.S., ceased to be imported. Monthly rationing of food and other household products was also introduced as way to equalize resources among the population, though over time a black-market for goods also emerged. The rationing was on top of a monthly salary (which was an average of $24.33 in U.S. dollars in 2014). The limitations on trade, the government takeover of business and the implementation of a ration system restricted food choices and made traditional Cuban dishes rare.
Following the withdrawal of the Soviet’s financial support of Cuba, the Cuban economy tanked. Rations were scaled down even further and the Cuban people were at the brink of starvation. However, out of this economic crisis known as the “Special Period,” economic reforms started to take place beginning with the legalization of small businesses such as paladars, home-based restaurants, in the early ‘90s. In the 25 years since the first reforms started taking place, the Cuban government has introduced more economic reforms, albeit in a very controlled manner as to not to disrupt the socio-economic plateau among the Cuban people. The five most transformative economic development for the island that arose after the Special Period—IMHO:
- The legalization of U.S. currency. In the years following the Special Period, U.S. currency brought in by foreign travelers and family members living in the U.S. provided a jolt to the Cuban economy. By 1999, the influx of U.S. currency exceeded the profit made from sugar exports, a leading cash crop for Cuba.
- The introduction of the convertible pesos (CUCs) in 1994. With the introduction of the CUCs, Cuba became a dual currency nation. Cubans still use the peso monetary system that Castro established when he took over the island. That peso is only worth one-fourth the value of the CUCs. CUCs were introduced to be on par with the dollar or Euro in value. All foreign travelers are required to exchange their currency for CUCs.
- Trade agreements with foreign nations. This development is particularly critical considering that Cuba was reliant on one nation for its trade for nearly 30 years. Having learned their lesson the hard way, the Cuban government now has trade agreements with many nations, with the exception of the U.S. Even without a formal trade relationship, products like Coca-Cola® and HP Sauce™, a product of H. J. Heinz Company, can be found in Cuba. How so? Coke products are distributed by its Mexican division and HP Sauce™ is exported by Heinz from its factory in the Netherlands.
- The ongoing legalization of private businesses. This includes the small to mid-size businesses of Cuban nationals and limited enterprise by some foreign corporations, often in partnership with the Cuban government and with careful vetting.
- The resurgence of tourism. Tourism, which was virtually non-existent through the first three decades of the Castro regime, was reinstated in effort to replace the loss of income from the dissolution of the trade relationship with the Soviet Union.
Despite all the economic reforms, Cuba remains a socialist nation committed to the idea that resources should be distributed equally among its citizens. However, from what I observed, the reforms have created a class system of sorts that I’ve broken into three distinct groups.
- Cubans who do not work in the tourist trade. These Cubans primarily receive the average wage in national pesos and are reliant on the rationing system and the black market for food. They rarely if ever dine out as it is unaffordable.
- Cubans who work in the tourist trade. These include waiters, bartenders and drivers whose salaries are augmented by tips paid in the higher-valued CUC currency. As a result, people who work in tourism on the island tend to be most highly compensated, out-earning those with professional degrees in fields such as medicine or engineering. While they are reliant on rations, they can afford to buy food items in addition to their allotment. They may occasionally dine out as well.
- Tourists who fuel the Cuban economy by spending their coveted CUCs. Most private restaurants cater to their needs and are seen as incredibly affordable. One restaurant we ate at, where men were required to wear jackets, had osso buco priced at $6.50 in U.S. dollars and filet mignon for $12.90.
Considering all the changes that Cuba has under gone in the last 58 years, the answer in regard to the quality of food can be convoluted. Is it possible to have a quality meal in Cuba? The simple answer is yes, but it’s really contingent on who you are and what resources you have. It should come as no surprise that the best meals we had were at privately owned restaurants, though I will admit that the buffet at the government-owned hotel I stayed at wasn’t bad. Like any good restaurant, chefs at the private restaurants were more creative in their execution of meals and presentation.
As far as my concern that I would not be able to find Cuban food as good as I’ve had here in the states, I am happy to report that I did have some good authentic Cuban meals during my time on the island. My son would even go as far as saying that he finally had Ropa Vieja that was better than mine. However, the ability to access good Cuban cuisine—whether it’s prepared in the home or at a local restaurant should be accessible to all Cubans. The ability to achieve that has been much too slow in coming.
I am not in the habit of adding footnotes to my blogs. At the same time, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I’ve committed all these dates to memory. But I am pretty well-versed in Cuba’s recent history so I knew the narrative that I wanted to write and the opinions I had formed from my visit. Among my sources is my favorite on Cuba by Tom Gjelten, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba. It is the best book about Cuba’s history that I’ve read to date.
Also, if you are wondering about the featured picture, it’s not a Costco but a modern Cuban grocery store. I am not sure if it is a designated ration center or meant for the more prosperous Cuban. I was stunned by its presence.
 Tom Gjelten, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), 233.
 “1989–1991,” Cuba-Soviet Union Relations, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuba%E2%80%93Soviet_Union_relations
 Richard E. Feinberg, Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2016), 25.
 Richard E. Feinberg, Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2016), 27.
 Cuban convertible peso, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_convertible_peso