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Intersections of Food Production/distribution and Broad Categories of Social Policy in Cuba

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Beginning with the revolution of 1959 and continuing through the “special period” of economic crisis in the 1990s, various social and geo-political forces resulted in policy reforms that substantially impacted both the production and distribution of food in Cuba. These changes were driven first by a sense of revolutionary responsibility to maintain the physical health of the republic, and later by the profound deprivation stemming from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Policies were designed to support the diversification and expansion of domestic production, regulation of supplemental imports, and the promotion of self-provision at the individual, community, and regional levels.

My original intent as a field researcher was to explore Cubans’ perceptions of the latter project, with a specific focus on the cultural function and significance of urban agriculture, as well as the ways it minimizes or exacerbates health and social inequities. Upon arriving in Havana, however, and observing the myriad ways in which those mandates have proliferated over the last three decades and have been threaded into the cultural fabric of the island, that interest was eclipsed by a desire to understand how all of this state intervention had impacted Cuban culinary traditions, and ultimately the formation of Cuban identity. The significance of this research lies in its attempt to redress the lack of international familiarity with Cuban policies related to food production and distribution, to validate or challenge the few (and largely anecdotal) reports of the success of the Cuban government’s efforts to feed its people even in times of severe economic hardship, to identify a potential alternative to global capitalist food systems, and to understand the role of cuisine in the process of identity formation.

This text comprises a series of brief essays, grounded in personal narrative, and highlighting different aspects of the relationship between food and social policy. For my purposes, “social policy” is broadly interpreted as a societal response to social needs, and is not bound by formal political systems. The intent is for these essays to be made more salient with the multi-sensorial experience of eating some of the dishes that symbolize the sociopolitical tensions reflected in Cuban history and culture. This curatorial decision is based in the opinion that reading about food is not the same as tasting, smelling, touching, or visualizing it. While I stand behind that choice, I would be remiss to avoid addressing certain implications. A quote from bell hooks’ “Eating the other: Desire and resistance” (1992) serves to clarify my authorial position:

“When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, and sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other…White racism, imperialism, and sexist domination prevail by courageous consumption. It is by eating the other that one asserts power and privilege.”

Perhaps this domination is unavoidable in such a project, but it is my hope that any valid concerns about my power and privilege as a white American preparing and commenting on the culinary traditions of a culture that is not my own are given credence, and perhaps mitigated in some way, through careful research and transparent integration of self.

I. On Urban Agriculture and Revolutionary Ideology

The first time I spoke to Orlando it was after midnight, and we were sipping rum on el Malecón, streaming reggaeton through the speaker of a cell phone with a cracked screen. We talked about our shared profession, social work, and he asked a lot of questions about my life in America. He explained that Havana was the farthest he had ever traveled from his home in Guantanamo. The second time I spoke to Orlando it was late afternoon, and we were walking along Calle 23, sweating slightly in the heat and humidity. He had recognized me and offered to accompany me on my return to the casa where I was staying in Old Vedado. This time, I was the one asking questions, mostly about his time in the capital, and how it differed from his home. He described Guantanamo as beautiful, but depressed, with few economic opportunities for a young professional. He was mostly happy to be in Havana, but he missed his mother and his younger sister. He talked about a recent visit, and the mango plant he had been gifted from his family’s garden, and invited me back to his apartment to taste what he described as “la fruta más deliciosa del mundo.” I declined his invitation, but expressed my interest in the garden. What he shared brought to life the impact of a long-term, large-scale government project to build an infrastructure of urban agriculture on the island, and to develop a revolutionary ideology along with it.

Beginning with the Socialist Revolution of 1959, Cuba pushed for industrial agriculture as a means to ensure food security. Along with other socialist countries, Cuba participated in the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA). Through this model of externally-assisted agricultural modernization the island received petrol, machinery, synthetic fertilizers, training, and pesticides, in exchange for tropical produce such as sugarcane, tobacco, and some fruit at more than double the world market price.

The collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991 meant an abrupt end to the support Cuba received for the maintenance of the country’s highly industrialized agricultural system. Both agricultural production and food availability fell to critical levels. Domestic production fell by almost 40%, food imports fell by over 50%, and the average caloric intake dropped by as much as 30% compared to levels in the 1980s. By 1993, the nation was on the brink of a food crisis.

In 1987, Cuba established the Food and Nutrition Surveillance System for monitoring and evaluating production forecasts, plans for deficits, adequacy and efficiency of rations, and promotion of nutrition education. The FNSS provided the infrastructure to implement a number of strategies aimed at achieving food security, including campaigns to promote breastfeeding and the consumption of vegetable-based protein.

In 1994, the Cuban government developed the National Nutritional Action Plan, with the following objectives: to increase and diversify national food production, import those foods required to supplement domestic production, and enroll people as activists through the promotion of self-provision at the provincial and individual household level. Urban agriculture – particularly gardens managed by individual families, neighborhoods, institutions, and municipalities– made possible the production of fresh food that was in amounts appropriate for the size of the population, and reduced transport costs and post-harvest losses. State intervention also allowed for important shifts towards health and social equity. It is my belief that these changes, along with the resulting social and economic benefits are in part attributable to the revolutionary ethic embedded in Fidel’s adage that “todos comen lo mismo.” Ultimately, they also made it possible for Orlando’s mango to be grown in a backyard garden in Guantanamo and transplanted to the balcony of an apartment in Havana.

II. On the Geographic and Cultural Distance between Cubans and Cuban-Americans

Growing up in Florida, I believed I had – simply as a function of geographic proximity – a more developed understanding of Cuba, it’s people, and it’s history, than the average American. After all, the state is home to 1.49 million Cubanoamericanos – approximately 70% of the total population of Americans claiming Cuban descent. I remember taking road trips to South Beach and strolling down Calle Ocho, but more than the Latin music pumping out of dance clubs or the smell of cigar smoke in Domino Park, I remember the food. Sumptuous and rich, the smell of roast pork and frying plantains floated through the air and seeped into every corner. Perhaps most notorious among the storefronts lining the streets and cafes with patrons dining al fresco was the Cuban sandwich.

When I shared these reflections with Zoila, our guide in Cuba, she squinted her eyes, tossed her high blonde ponytail back, and with a haughty laugh informed me that “A Cuban sandwich is any sandwich made on the island.”

The history of the Cuban sandwich, also referred to as a Cubano or mixto, reveals much about the cultural divergence between those who left the island upon Castro’s rise to power and those who could or would not do so. Historians lack consensus about the origins of the Cuban sandwich, though there is significant agreement that it was largely an American-born phenomenon. Some believe that it was a common lunch option for workers at the cigar factories and sugar mills of Key West and Ybor City, the earliest stateside communities of Cubans, established around the turn of the twentieth century (Stradley, 2004). Travel between Florida and Cuba, which was common at one point for employees in these industries, became increasingly difficult in the years leading up to the revolution of 1959. As large numbers of expatriates settled in Miami and other “exiled” communities such as Fort Lauderdale, New York City, and Chicago, variations of the Cubano gained a permanent place in the American imagination of Cuban culture and cuisine.

The sandwich is traditionally made with at least two kinds of meat – roast park marinated in mojo and sliced, glazed ham (though in Tampa, where there is a large population of Italian-Americans, the addition of salami is popular) – layered between two halves of a loaf of Cuban bread smeared with yellow mustard and lightly brushed with olive oil, topped with Swiss cheese and dill pickles, and then toasted in a plancha, or sandwich press. These are ingredients that would seem to suggest an environment of abundance, and – to Zoila’s point – would be difficult to find and/or expensive to purchase in revolutionary Cuba.

III. On the Biopolitics of Race in Cuban Cuisine

At one point during our two weeks on the island I had the chance to speak privately with Natalia, the woman who not only managed the casa particular in which we were staying, but who was also responsible for its architectural design. She had just finished watering plants and sliding the glass doors to the porch shut in preparation for an impending afternoon storm, and she sat down on the sofa to rest. I thanked her for her care, and commented on her talent as a chef. Natalia prepared breakfast for our group every morning; she was careful to remember who liked eggs, who didn’t eat meat, and who saved slices of guava and pineapple for snacks later in the day. I asked her where she learned to cook, and she told me about her grandmothers, one of whom was white, the other black. She described each woman in terms of the food items she could afford to have, whether lamb and vegetables or rice and beans. “Las cocinas de los negros,” she said with her eyes closed and a smile on her face, “tienen un olor particular.” When I asked her to clarify what she meant, she explained that, in spite of having access to fewer ingredients, dishes prepared by her Afro-Cuban abuela not only rivaled the other with regard to “sabor y amor,” but also, in some ways were made even more delicious because of the resourcefulness and innovation required.

In a country where the official state policy is that racism doesn’t exist, I was surprised to hear racial differences in cooking styles described so transparently. Perhaps that was naïve; culinary metaphors for the racial dynamics of the island – particularly the emphasis on mestizaje, or the ethnic and/or cultural mixing of indigenous, African, and European people – abound in Cuban literature, and can prove to be a useful tool for describing certain tensions and ambiguities. Ortiz (1975) relies on the symbolism of the familiar arroz congrí:

“In the dish of beans and rice, the grains, even though irregularly mixed and of diverse appearance, present the sight of a discontinuous coloration, except at a distance when the colors superimpose themselves upon each other and appear fused…But even this metaphor becomes invalid once one considers that, once prepared, the rice and beans can no longer recombine themselves in a new process of cooking.”

He sees the utility of this analogy limited by the permanence of the ingredients as representative of distinct racial groups, even after they are comingled. Allen (2011) may argue that this limitation does not represent a metaphoric failure, but rather constitutes “racial and sexual terror” and ultimately, the “discursive death of blackness.” Food therefore functions to essentialize and maintain different racial groups, while also serving as a vehicle for their hybridization in both symbolic and, in the case of Natalia, very literal ways.

IV. On the Role of the Media in Mitigating Economic (and Identity) Crises

I took to asking anyone and everyone I met for their opinion on the impact of state intervention on Cuban culinary tradition. Matt – a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, American who had been living on the island and working as a liaison with the travel company who coordinated our trip – offered little initial insight into my research question, but suggested I explore the work of Nitza Villapol. When I expressed that I had never heard of such a person, Matt explained that he had seen old episodes of a cooking show she hosted on el paquete, a collection of digital material from around the world that is distributed weekly on an underground market. A closer look into her life revealed a beloved public figure whose instruction proved critically important to the project of adapting Cuban cuisine in the face of severe deprivation.

Villapol, whose background was in nutrition and education, became a television host on one of the island’s earliest government-owned national broadcast channels. On her program, Cocina al Minuto, she taught her viewers how to prepare a variety of traditional dishes. She held this position through many of the political and economic transitions of the twentieth century, which caused drastic shifts in the ingredients available on the island. Before the revolution, markets were largely filled with produce imported from America; after the revolution, the combined effect of the embargo, Cuba’s participation in the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the Período Especial, a time of severe shortages of many common products. Daily caloric consumption was cut by almost a third, and the average Cuban lost about 20 pounds. Villapol embodied the idea of el arte de inventar, showing her audience how to use whatever they had at hand, and extolling the nutritional value of the locally grown and seasonal vegetables that were emerging in popularity through the development of a robust system of urban agriculture. One of her most famous recipes was a version of ropa vieja that utilized plantain peels in place of beef.

One historian, Suzanne Cope, explains that Villapol’s “beloved show and cookbooks helped shape the food, and through it, the culture of an entire country at a time of dramatic change.” The fact that her program, which was on the air for over forty years, and which is still available on el paquete for contemporary consumption, speaks to the iterative power of media in defining and defending a shared cultural identity through food.

V. On the Intersection of Urban Agriculture and Healthcare Systems

When I announced to my friends and family that I would be participating in a social policy course for which I would be traveling to Cuba for two weeks, I conducted a cursory survey of what my loved ones would like for me to bring back to them as souvenirs. My eldest sister’s request was for raw Cuban honey; she has become somewhat of an amateur collector of the stuff, and is endlessly curious about how ecological particularities produce such variety. I was directed by various residents of the neighborhood where we were staying in Old Vedado to visit some of the agromercados, or open-air markets stocked with local produce, in order to find what I was looking for. One rainy morning, I stopped by a few nearby markets and inquired about the availability of miel. At the third lot, I discovered a stand that was run by two older women, one of whom instructed me to wait while she went to the back to search for a bottle, while the other asked if there was anything else I was interested in purchasing. She seemed to be a yerbería of sorts – bundles of fresh and dried herbs covered the old, damp wooden table. While I examined the plants, she rattled off a list of their medicinal properties.

Yerberos represent, in some ways, an extension of the public healthcare system in Cuba: The Cuban National Taxation Office provides licenses to such individuals, who must pass a test in order to sell herbs; the Ministry of Public Health prints pamphlets and other reading material advertising certain qualities of some of the most popular herbs; the National Advisory Commission for Medicinal Plant Research partners with the University of Havana in order to publish a free online resource with the most up-to-date scientific information; the state owns medicinal plant farms which they rent to farmers for sale to state laboratories; and physicians refer their patients to yerberías for “green medicine” and other alternative health practices. As Marina Gold, a PhD candidate researching Cuban national identity, has written: “These were not spaces of opposition to state ideology. Instead, they were the frontiers of the Revolution, and through them people found their own ways to redefine their commitment to the Revolution.” It is my opinion that yerberos, though perhaps marginal within a larger conversation about food and social policy in Cuba, are significant enough to warrant inclusion in this text because they rely on state-sanctioned use of the robust and complex system of urban agriculture.


To appreciate every nuance of the ways that social policy in Cuba impacts people’s relationship and access to food is beyond the scope of this text. Rather, the intent behind this project was to illuminate the intersections of food production/distribution and broad categories of social policy, including the development of a complex urban agricultural system, boundaries around national identity, beliefs about race and racism, the role and reach of public media, and the determination of public healthcare. My hope is that these brief reflections will prove to be touchstones for future research into the richness of Cuban culinary tradition, and the ways in which it evolves in relation to dynamic social, economic, and political circumstances.

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Intersections of Food Production/distribution and Broad Categories of Social Policy in Cuba. (2019, Jun 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 19, 2022, from
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