Desde Dentro de Cuba.

Distribuido por Cuba Free Press, Inc. -

June 3, 1999.


HAVANA - It seems like something out of a science fiction movie but real personal tragedies show what it is all about. Some months ago the Cuban media reported on the death of 15 Cubans who died as a result of food poisoning. The small town of Manguitos in Matanzas Province became one huge funeral procession in the style of the cities in Algeria whose populations were massacred by Islam fundamentalists.

What happened in Manguitos literally involved some real, honest-to-goodness bombs. The total unavailability of the traditional dishes of Cuban cuisine is something that is never far from the mind of today's Cuban. The "paladares" (small, more or less improvised restauraunts set up in private dwellings) no longer serve good, traditional cooking. Tradition and good taste have been banished from the paladares" by the Ministry of Internal Commerce.

In their stead is a surrealistic system of meaningless terminology applying to otherwise unrecognizable food plus a redefinition of what constitutes food fit for human consumption.


Clara Dominguez went to the fish market in her neighborhood and saw some croquettes that looked good. She thought they would do just fine for lunch that day. A day later she was in the plastic surgery and burns unit of a hospital. When she had placed her croquettes in oil to fry them, they exploded with enough force to cause her second degree burns on her face, neck and chest.

She had bought her explosive croquettes at an outlet where they buy the dough ready-made and simply shape it into croquettes and then bread them. The authorities centered their investigations on the factory where the dough is produced to be sold to other enterprises that are part of the government's distribution chain. The factory that prepared the dough in question is located in the municipality of El Cerro and makes enough to prepare 150,000 croquettes daily.

Director Alberto Manzano of the Provincial Enterprise for Food Preparation told the Havana newspaper "Tribuna" that he didn't know exactly why the croquettes had exploded. "It could be that kneading could have left cavities from which air had escaped when the croquettes were fried. Others believe that it could have been due to contact with uncultivated yeast or else the quality of the raw materials."

Laboratory tests done during the month of December detected lack of hygiene and non-compliance with the technological process in two Havana factories involved in the production of foodstuffs. According to Maria Ester Zuaznabar, director of the Foodstuffs Control Laboratory, those who prepared the raw material for croquettes were instructed to pay greater attention to the preparation of yeast and make sure that the equipment was kept clean.

However, the problem of the exploding croquettes which began at the end of last year has yet to be solved and consumers continue to be hurt with the government authorities having done nothing about it. Modernization of technology would mean expenditures in hard currency and the government says it does not have the wherewithal.

Clearing up the mystery would be too onerous for a bureaucracy with very little sense of responsibility. What it boils down to is that Cuba is not the United States, France or Spain and the people of Cuba are not foreign tourists.

With the new millenium almost upon us, eating has become a dangerous occupation in Cuba. For example: "Textured and extended picadillo" (ground meat) usually is usually made out of banana skin, no less; substances called "cerelac" and "fricandel," skinless dog, yogurt made from soya, "coquicol" means cabbage on cabbage (stuffed, I would imagine), "cuy estofado," a term which defies translation and many others which seem to belong to the far-out cuisine of a human colony on Mars.

This radical change in the Cuban diet seems to be part of the regime's anti-crisis response to the specter of generalized starvation that first loomed in the early nineties. In 1991, "option zero" dominated the government's dialectic. There was talk of "returning" to the mountains, of loincloths and primitive agriculture.

The panic caused among the populace by this "Cambodia strategy" scenario was such that the government abandoned it and launched another in its stead: Substituting the traditional dishes of the Cuban diet with concoctions such as those indicated above as well as incorporating new elements into the diet which had not before been considered fit for human consumption.

Although the new policy has accomplished some of its ends it has also left the health of hundreds of Cubans permanently damaged. The role of the "picadillo de soya" on the virtual epidemic of optical neuritis that took place at the beginning of this decade has never been made known.

The Cuban government media has never publicized the cases of food poisoning due to the sale of spoiled foodstuffs or the deaths brought about by the ingestion of alcoholic beverages distilled without proper supervision. The toll must be horrendous. But the statistics would undoubtedly be considered subversive propaganda.

Ariel Tapia, Cuba Free Press

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