The image of cows cropping on fields is not often seen on while traveling in Cuba. You can see some fields with cows on it along the roads, but they are not an important part of the landscape. Neither it is frequent to see beef on the tables of Cuban people, although they have not lost the liking for it.
In fact, Cuba has developed a complex regulatory and cultural relationship with cows. It has become a paradox that fascinates foreign journalists:
Why is beef so precious to [Cuba]? I’ve come here to find out.
-Adam (writing for Vice News)
Cows in the Colony
Cows always played an important role. Historian Hugh Thomas argues that cows played a key role in the colonisation of Cuba by Spaniards. They roamed wild through the country, destroying the agricultural production of native peoples, leading to famine and conquest.
Early during the colonial epoch livestock breeding was an essential economic activity in Cuba, until it was displaced by tobacco and sugar cane cultivation, although it did not disappear completely. According to an official census, in 1946 there were more than 4.1 million cows, while the human population was 5.5 million people. In the late 50s the rate was almost one cow per person.
In these years meat and milk production was the second biggest activity for the Cuban agro-industry, only surpassed by sugar producing. Livestock was mostly Creole, zebu, or a mix between both, and in many places fed on cane or honey produced during sugar manufacturing.
After 1960 following newest developments of agricultural research, sugar cane and its derivates started to be used even more for livestock feeding; thousands of veterinarians and cattle technicians had been prepared, genetic projects had been developed (such as the improving of zebu cattle with Holstein from Canada), and methods like artificial insemination. A little more 5.7 million of heads were reached in 1970, but later the number diminished. In 1990 the national herd was of 4.8 million heads (80% belonged to public companies), and the population was of 10.6 million people. Official numbers show that in 1989 there was 800,000 dairy cows and 600,000 bulls.
During all these years, until the early 90s, Cubans received a certain amount of beef every month for a very low price established by the “supplies booklet”.
Cows in the Special Period: the crisis of the 90s
Then came the crisis of the 90s, and already in 1992 the milk production was reduced to a half of what was produced in the 80s. The meat was also reduced, and beef became more difficult to find. Then, as well as in other areas of goods production, the black market flourished. To combat the black market, the state stepped in with regulation.
Among others, laws mere made to:
- make breeders who lose a cow pay fines (500 pesos)
- imprison those who keep cows illegally (up to three years)
- imprison those who buy meat of illegally sacrificed cattle (three months to a year of prison)
- punish those who steal and slaughter cattle illegally (four to ten years of prison).
Cuba’s Penal Code dedicates an entire chapter to the “illegal sacrifice of bigger livestock and sale of its meat”.
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.
-Adam (writing for Vice News)
There have been and still are a lot of laws that try to contain the smuggling, but they cannot solve the problem. The reason is that smuggling and other illegal activities are not the problem itself, but the expression of a problem: the lack of supply.
Beef in Cuba today
Nowadays the only ones who receive beef officially are children, pregnant woman, and people on medical diets. It is sometimes served in hospitals and kindergartens. In markets that sell it in CUC it costs from 9 to 11 CUC a kilogram, and it is said that on the black market prices are around 2.50 CUC, at least in Havana. Cubans can consume it by one of these means, or in a restaurant.
There is still a short supply, it still is expensive, but Cubans do not give up, even when beef has not been freely sold for decades. In 2010, by official reports, there were 3.9 million heads of cattle. There lived 11.2 million Cubans in the country, according to the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI). The population of humans has increased, but the size of the herd has not.
Recently, Cuba has been receiving beef from the United States, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, and Paraguay. Maybe from other countries as well. There are rumours about the quality of this 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.
-Adam (writing for Vice News)
Concerning the national production, some think that the solution lies in giving more freedom in actions to the private breeders and making them feel like the livestock is “really theirs”.
Not so long ago, a cattle breeder asked himself, why cant he have the same freedom as a pork breeder. Unlike beef, the supply of pork in the country has been increasing. “Are porks better than cows?” this private breeder asked. All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
Meanwhile, Cubans keep calling beef “the forbidden meat”, or “paddock chicken meat”, among other code names.
Cubans sincerely want the national production to increase someday, but meanwhile they use every opportunity to get it and enjoy it in any form. And they conform, according to their budget and likings with pork, chicken, ram, rabbit, or fish from time to time.
Ropa Vieja o Rabo encendido?
Yet Cuban culinary identity is still strongly beef based. The recipe of the traditional “ropa vieja” is very well known: ripped beef with onions, garlic, red wine, dry wine, tomato puree, marjoram, and cumin. Very simple.
But in some parts of Cuba it is possible to get (legally and at affordable prices) the ingredients for a dish with a little aggressive name “Rabo Encendido”, which means “Tail on Fire”. Many Cubans like it, especially along with a bottle or a few of very cold beer.
The principal ingredient is an oxtail, and the rest (remember that in Cuba all the ingredients are not always available, so Cubans tend to replace some with others or leave some aside) are the following: two bell peppers, one onion, garlic, a cup of tomato puree, olives, capers, two sausages, vinegar, white or dry wine, laurel, marjoram, cumin, oil, pepper, and salt.
It is cooked on a slow fire, and served with rice, vegetable salad… And a very cold beer.