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Cuba’s Ration Booklet Nightmares: Coffee

22 / septiembre / 2023

It’d be great for Cubans if it started raining coffee. Coffee and a lot of other things. But the beverage, which is essential for many (so essential that it’s the only thing lots of families have for breakfast), is the latest thing to go missing.

It’s been a long time since most Cubans have drunk a good cup of coffee. Of pure coffee, without substitutes, nor it being too watery.

An ounce of coffee (from the bodega store, or roasted and ground by private sellers) sells for over 30 pesos on the street; a pound of coffee beans over 300 pesos; a cup of coffee costs more than 20 pesos; and a 1 kg packet of Serrano coffee (made in Cuba), for example, sells for over 20 MLC (magnetic dollars and well over 4000 pesos according to the exchange rate on the illicit market).

The monthly 115-gram bag of coffee cut with chickpeas that sells for 11 pesos via the rations booklet hasn’t be seen in Cuban homes since May 2023. Very little has been said about a possible replacement for the months it’s been missing. It could end up like so many other things here in Cuba (foods for special medical and children’s diets, pounds of rice and sugar): “If it didn’t come in on time, don’t wait around for it.”

Anything but coffee

In mid-August 2023, the Ocho Vias coffee roasting plant, in Havana, began to produce fish croquettes. This is the way they’re trying to make revenue so they can pay their workers, who were dedicated to industrially processing coffee up until a month ago.

During July 2023, 14 coffee roasting plants in the country turned off their machines after the raw materials ran out. The last tons of coffee were barely enough to complete rations in May; what is still owed to the Cuban people won’t be recovered until the Cuban coffee beans are once again available, which is harvested between September and January. Half of the composition of Cuban coffee being sold in bodega stores is pure coffee (the other 50% is chickpeas). Sometimes what is sold and blended is imported from countries such as Brazil and Mexico.

The CubaCafe Company announced on its Facebook page that, given shortages of raw materials, they are still using the machines to make “toasted meal, cornflour, riceflour, croquettes and croquette fillings, as well as packaged products on a small scale (popcorn, sesame seeds, peanuts).” Even though some people applauded the diversification of fabrication, other Internet users have shared their wish for coffee to be produced again.

However, “imports aren’t an alternative,” given “financial problems,” CubaCafe’s technical director, Daniel Davis Hernandez, said in an interview with Trabajadores newspaper.

During the first semester of 2023, less than a third needed to compliment national production could be purchased abroad. Covering the rations and the rest of demand depended upon these imports and contributions from Cuban coffee farmers, whose harvests were down around 10% of what was expected. The next harvest is uncertain, even though the “low guarantee of supplies and resources” doesn’t bode well for yields.

Even though the small quantity of coffee included on the monthly rations doesn’t meet the Cuban people’s expectations and needs, it helps millions of families get by. Now not even that is being met on a regular basis.

Camaguey writer Pedro Armando Junco pointed this out, a few days ago: “What we never realized was that this small packet of Hola! coffee that we’d get once a month complimented the coffee we’d have to hustle on the street. Not having it for a full trimester, there has been a deficit that has not only shot up the cost of underground coffee, but has also meant that it can’t be found anywhere right now.”

It said Hola! and adios

“The standard six-cup coffee maker (designed to strain 30 grams of coffee at a time) needs 300 milliliters of water, if you put in more, you’re risking the quality and taste of the final cup,” Suleika Gonzalez Mendez, a quality technician at the Cabaiguan Roasting Coffee Plant suggested in a Cubadebate article.

Ada Maria admits that it doesn’t filter properly, but it’s worst not to have any. “When I don’t drink coffee, I have a headache all day,” a retired 71-year-old teacher says.

To save the little coffee she has left, she never fills the coffee receptacle of her six-cup pot, and she filters it with very little water. “I’ve been told to put marbels in the water, but I’m scared they’ll explode,” she says. “My coffee maker already has a hard time filtering a what is more split chickpeas than coffee.”

The composition of Hola! coffee is no secret: 50% coffee and 50% substitutes (an official euphemism to cover up the chickpeas). Some people buy the beans and roast it with pumpkin seeds.

You can find Hola! coffee in an unlabeled packet, because printed bags are often imported too. Even though this may pose a safety risk, most Cubans barely notice this detail.

Ada Maria says that she’d rather have it no matter how it’s packaged, but she admits it’s “crazy” to eat a food without product or nutritional information.

“Cubans are used to eating anything, even if we don’t know what we’re drinking or eating. There is no room for rules when you’re in need,” she says.

Faced with coffee shortages, some private businesses are announcing that they are buying it “in bulk” in buying/selling groups on social media or on Revolico. Not only can you find packets of Cuban brands Cubita, Serrano, Turquino, Arriero, Indiana, Regil, Caracolillo or Monte Rouge, but you can also find others that come from abroad such as La Llave, Testa or Motta. Printed or unprinted packets of Hola! can also be found for over 70 pesos. Other bigger transparent packets – or in other food packaging -, of one pound of coffee can be found for 300-400 pesos.

Ada Maria doesn’t even question the composition of these packets of coffee that can even be packaged in spaghetti packs. “What for? If I get picky, I won’t drink coffee and I won’t get rid of this headache,” she says.

A recent TV report says that the coffee harvest in Cuba (that began in September 2023) will be lower than what was expected and is one of the programs with the most delays in Cuban agriculture.

Shortages of supplies such as plastic bags means the amount grown in nurseries is limited. Empty areas in coffee plantations is another reason why the yield (200kg/ha) of coffee (the raw beans that has gone through the washing, cleaning, threshing and classification process) is way under the global average (800-1400 kg/hectare).

While she waits for a neighbor to invite her over for the first morning coffee, at almost noon, Ada Maria reads in the newspaper that approximately 400 billion cups of coffee are drunken every year, which makes it the second most important beverage in the world.

“Europeans are among the top consumers of coffee, with Nordic countries consuming the highest quantities. Which is very interesting because none of these countries produce coffee beans,” the article adds.

While the Finnish are drinking their three cups of coffee a day, Cubans like Ada Maria are wondering if they’ll ever taste – or remember – what it is to savor a good cup of coffee.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.
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INFORMAL FOREIGN EXCHANGE
MARKET IN CUBA (REAL TIME)

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1 EUR330.00 CUP
1 USD315.00 CUP
-5
1 MLC280.00 CUP
-5
Calendar iconCUBA
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