beef capital

My Long Search for Beef in Cuba

n Cuba, items that are difficult or impossible to purchase are considered perdido, meaning lost. At the time of my arrival in Havana this summer, two of the most pressing perdido goods are toilet paper and beer. Visitors can still find these items in their hotels, but for Cubans, they’ve gone missing. Perdido. Eleven million people on an island with a toilet-paper shortage. Other unobtainables include soap, pens, smartphones, and credit cards—not that any American credit cards work here, either. The internet is also perdido: Only 3 to 4 percent of the population has access to the web. But of all the perdido things Cubans can’t get a hold of, the strangest—and most taboo—is beef.

Every person I’ve spoken to in Havana assures me that it is a greater crime here to slaughter a cow than it is to slaughter a person. All cows, they add, are property of the state. When caught cooking illicit beef, Cubans have even been known to commit suicide rather than face incarceration. Why is beef so precious to this country’s communist dictatorship? I’ve come here to find out. The answer, I suspect, must have something to do with endemic hunger and the desperation of continually fighting for survival. Or perhaps it’s an anomalous legislative side effect to five and a half decades of revolutionary idealism and trade embargoes, the sort of skewed reasoning that arises among mind-sets capable of ordering the execution of those with differing views.

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There’s more marbling to this story, however. The last time I traveled to Cuba, almost ten years ago, I’d been advised not to eat any beef. Locals told me that the beef served in restaurants came from the United States, and that it was of terrible quality. Some warned that it was contaminated; others said it was D-grade utility meat, or “cutter” beef, commonly used for dog food in North America.

Although I steered clear of any ropa vieja that crossed my path, it seemed unlikely that the US would be selling beef to Cuba, given the trade embargo that has existed between the two nations for the past 54 years. But since the American government started authorizing agricultural exports to Cuba in 2000, the island has brought in a staggering $4.7 billion worth of US-produced food, almost all of it by payments of cash in advance. The purpose of an embargo is to isolate and weaken the survival mechanisms of an enemy state through commercial policy. In this case, America is profiteering by feeding Cuba’s citizens. Few people realize it, but around one quarter to one third of Cuban food imports currently come from the USA.