March 31, 2011

Letter to the Editor: The real reason Cubans don’t live to eat

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To the Editor:

Re: “A Taste of Havana,” Arts, March 29

The piece begins with the question: “Embargoes, Fidel Castro and Miami’s Cuban sandwich. What else do we know of this isolated Caribbean island of Cuba?”

Clearly, the unfortunate answer in this case is: not much.

The author’s assumption that Cuba is “encased in a seemingly impenetrable bubble” stems from a limited, specifically American perspective. People from all over the world travel to Cuba regularly as tourists. Most are Europeans and Canadians, although tens of thousands are Americans, many of whom travel there illegally via Mexico or Canada, since the U.S. government still does not allow our citizens to travel to Cuba as tourists (the Cuban government, on the other hand, does allow them to enter). Also, Cuba trades with countries from all over the world and even imports food and other products from the United States. Americans wishing to visit Cuba legally may consider options such as study abroad programs, as well as religious and humanitarian groups.

The author, a self-declared “ardent foodie,” says he was “disappointed” by the food he ate, which he describes as “uninspired, monotonous, and highly predictable,” qualities that he nonsensically attributes to socialism. He wonders, “Where were the fragrant paellas, cheesy quesadillas, and stuffed empanadas I was salivating over … ?”

Where were they? Spain, Mexico, and South America, respectively, that’s where. Better luck next Spring Break.

Moreover, if, as the author states, “Cubans don’t live to eat,” it’s because they can’t. Quality food — or often, just enough food at all — is extraordinarily difficult to come by. Average Cubans simply do not eat langoustine, as the author and his friends did during their vacation; that is a luxury reserved exclusively for tourists, and in most cases is actually illegal.

The vast majority of Cubans earn pitifully small salaries that do not cover their monthly expenses, and they must therefore supplement their income to make ends meet. For example, by selling off extra monthly rations of staple items provided (albeit inconsistently) by the government, engaging in legal, semi-legal and/or black market private businesses or, commonly, by catering to party-going foreign tourists — like the author’s “motley crew” — who are eager to swallow rounds of “real” mojitos and think that smoking cigars and donning shirts bearing Che Guevara’s mug somehow lends them an authentic, insider’s view of a so-called forbidden place.

If the author had asked his hosts about the laws covering their business, he would have learned that they work under impossibly strict regulations. Their entire operation likely depends heavily on bribing both neighbors and official inspectors, who would have the power to have them shut them down for serving illegal fare or seating more than the permitted number of customers. This is by no means a reflection on their honesty or their good intentions. In any profession or walk of life, Cubans jump through tremendous, stressful hoops to survive from day to day — through circumstances unimaginable to many Americans.

I know Cubans who eat noodles with mayonnaise and tiny hot dogs for lunch every day during the week and eat luxurious chicken only on Saturdays. I know a Cuban who can’t afford a fuel pump for his ancient car (which he rarely runs anyway, because gas is more expensive per gallon than in the U.S.), so he siphons it with his mouth so the car will start. I know Cubans who have married Europeans just to escape their country. These are not extraordinary or unusual stories. These are average Cubans, the Cubans whose reality the author and his friends failed to capture.

Aside from an obvious lack of knowledge of Cuban history, culture, economics, or politics, perhaps the grossest miscalculation on the author’s part was the cheerful condescension that things in Cuba are the way they are because Cubans are “easily contented.” Why, then, are so many thousands of Cubans living in exile? Why, then, do the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) march every week in protest of politically motivated imprisonments? Why, then, are so many Cuban youths fed up with the five-decade-old Revolution under whose exclusive rhetoric they have been raised?

There are many avenues available for Americans to learn about Cuba in a meaningful way. We have professors and graduate students in our very own Department of Romance Studies who specialize in Cuban studies, and some of our courses cover fascinating topics relating to Cuba. I also suggest that the author, and The Sun’s readers, check out the Miami-based grassroots organization Roots of Hope, which maintains links between American and Cuban youths. Want to know what Cuban students think about their country? Take a look at the recent documentary The Grandchildren of the Revolution for starters.

Sun staff, I beg you to please display a little more professional prowess in selecting articles for publication.

And to the author, I’m a travel lover myself. I understand your excitement about visiting Cuba specifically, I really do. Maybe you can find time to sign up for a course on contemporary Cuba while you’re here at Cornell; I think you would find it fascinating. I applaud your “culturally humongous appetite” to travel somewhere “the more foreign, the better,” but next time you do so, please educate yourself about your destination first. I hope the next time you visit Cuba, you’ll do so with fresh eyes.

Ashley Puig-Herz grad, Romance Studies