CAMAGUEY, Cuba — Beatrice Reyes surveyed the motley assortment of overly ripe fruits and vegetables as she prepared herself for another bout of predictable disappointment. Bruised mangos, papayas, beets, tomatoes and ears of corn in browning husks sat on a wood board, warm to the touch under the piercing Cuban sun. Reyes exhaled with a slight sigh and voiced the question that has become at once her earnest pursuit and her continued lamentation at markets and vegetable stands across this city. “Do you have cilantro?”
The produce vendor shook his head and recommended parsley instead. Reyes nodded, but she had already begun to walk away, her determination to acquire her favorite herb still firm.
For nearly two months, Reyes, 62, has searched the produce stands of Camaguey for cilantro, an ingredient considered essential in Cuban kitchens before the 1959 revolution, when food and other basic goods were still in ample supply. Recreating the dishes of the Cuba of her youth – Caribbean chicken soup, hearty rice and chicken stew, fragrant white rice and black beans – isn’t the same without cilantro, Reyes said.
“It makes the dish,” she said. “I crave it. The smell, the taste, the bright green color. It’s exquisite. But you can’t find it anywhere.”
As U.S. officials consider opening trade relations with Cuba, food remains scarce across the island nation once celebrated for its diverse and tasty Caribbean cuisine. A weak agriculture system and crippling low wages that make it difficult to purchase goods have become the legacy of decades of Communist rule after the 1959 revolution that toppled an American-backed authoritarian regime and its flourishing economy. The widespread food shortages make life challenging for Cubans, but they also threaten Cuba’s nascent bid to become a popular tourist destination for Americans with deep pockets. Despite Cuba’s famed beaches, warm weather and musical heritage, attracting moneyed visitors will require a lot more provisions than Cuba now has on hand.
“For the people, in a sad way, they are used to what they have and the rations,” said Jonathan Blue, chairman of Blue Equity, a private equity firm based in Kentucky that is researching market opportunities in Cuba for U.S. companies. “But there is no way with the tourism market, if it is going to quadruple or triple, by some estimates, they are going to have to increase those standards to the levels of other Caribbean nations if they want people to keep coming."
Cilantro or no, Cuba is better endowed these days with many food products compared with even a few years ago after a series of market-embracing reforms. A decade ago, Reyes would have been unlikely to find tomatoes or mangos for sale near her home in Camaguey, a sprawling city in central Cuba known for its agrarian roots and colonial architecture. The government’s decision in April 2011 to allow Cubans to open small businesses, including farmers' markets, bakeries, produce stalls and restaurants, made it easier to eat in Cuba.
But shortages on certain products persist, and staples such as vegetables, fruit and meat remain too expensive for the average household. Even luxury restaurants catering to tourists from Canada, Europe and Mexico have been known to run out of certain ingredients, signaling that Cuba must solve its food crisis before Congress relaxes travel restrictions, allowing thousands of new visitors from the U.S. to explore Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and other popular Cuban destinations.
Most of Cuba’s food is imported, and its state-owned farms are massively inefficient, providing less than 20 percent of the country's food needs and relying on outdated tools such as oxen dragging wooden plows. This makes food prohibitively expensive, with many people straining to properly nourish themselves in a country where the typical monthly salary is roughly $20 a month. Sodas, restaurant meals and desserts are considered luxuries. Families often dine on meals of fried eggs, rice and sweet bananas to fill their stomachs with affordable calories.
Cuba’s desperate demand for readily available food has caught the attention of agriculture giants in the U.S., which estimate they could earn $2 billion a year selling food to the island nation. Farming giants in Kansas, Florida, Missouri and Michigan have lobbied Congress in recent months to open trade with Cuba as President Barack Obama has vowed to improve relations with Havana after a decades-long embargo.
"We know that in the long run, the best outcome is open markets for goods, services, and capital between the two countries, because as Cuba’s economy is able to develop through more tourism, trade and investment, and as income increases for Cuban citizens, there will be an even greater need for U.S. food and agriculture products," Devry Boughner Vorwerk, chairperson of the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, told members of the Senate agriculture committee last month. The recently formed coalition is made up of dozens of agricultural trade organizations and companies that want to easily export goods to Cuba. "Our industry is poised to capture the current and future growth potential in the Cuban market, but unless the policies change to provide us a chance to compete, U.S. farmers, ranchers, and companies will continue to sit on the sidelines while our competitors gain first-mover advantage," she said.
Food became particularly scarce in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago. During the so-called special period, basic staples such as rice and beans were hard to come by. Parents warned children to keep pets indoors, lest some desperate neighbor turn the family dog or cat into dinner. In subsequent years, Cuba slowly recovered by investing in its humble agriculture industry and purchasing food on loan from Europe, South America and Mexico.
For years, Cubans could only purchase goods from the government, and stores were known to run out of food by midmorning. You had to show up early if you wanted to buy an onion or some chicken breasts, Reyes said. “Many people took their chances buying food off the black market. Beers, cakes, bread, meat. But you had to do it with people you trusted. You never knew who was watching, waiting to report you,” she said.
Since the government began allowing Cubans to make a living in the food business, finding basic ingredients, as well as prepared food, has become easier. Camaguey’s historic downtown, once a half-empty business district selling Soviet-era refrigerators, televisions and other aging goods, has recently taken on a new life, with colorful, privately owned businesses promoting deals on ice cream, pizza, Cuban food and other dishes.
La Isabella, an Italian restaurant offering Spanish wines, lasagna and flan -- Cuba’s popular caramel-custard dessert -- had a waiting list of more than 20 names on a recent Saturday night, as North American tourists dined alongside local residents. The bistro had a cinematic theme, with guests sitting in director chairs outfitted with the names of movie legends.
Erik Castillo, 44, opened his produce cart two years ago after saving up money to purchase a wheelbarrow. He pushes it around Camaguey’s dusty roads most mornings, before settling on a shaded corner with good foot traffic. He purchases vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, lettuce and green beans from a government-owned supermarket and then resells the produce in residential neighborhoods for a slight profit. He could rarely afford to buy vegetables for his family in his previous job as a mechanic.
“I’m not doing this to get rich, of course, but it’s a little extra money in my pocket,” said Castillo, who lives with his parents, wife and three children. “Whatever I don’t sell, my family eats. My daughter asks for carrots when I come home.”
But while there are now more places to buy food, certain products are still hard to come by, whether at the market or in a restaurant. And when supplies run out, it can take days to find them again. The corner store is out of cola for more than a week. A cafe runs out of bread for toast and sandwiches. The popular bar has only one kind of domestic beer.
At the Pizzeria Centro Comercial La Caridad, a state-run restaurant on the edges of Camaguey, a handful of families waited more than an hour for a table on a recent afternoon, lining up outside as temperatures hovered in the mid-90s. The pizzeria outfitted with plastic chairs and tables is popular for its low prices --- a small cheese pizza costs roughly 50 cents and a plate of spaghetti costs about $2 – and its air-conditioning, a rare commodity in Cuba’s year-round tropical heat.
Inside the pizza joint, a menu detailed what was still available: Cheese pizza, fresh juices or soda. “You don’t have any more of that ham pizza?” a patron asked. The waitress shook her head. They had ran out days ago. “What about the spaghetti,” a woman asked. But that had run out, too.
“We have lived like this for so long, no one complains. They say, well, it could be worse, because it was at one time,” said Manuel Mora, 56, as he stood outside the pizzeria, waiting for a table with his wife and two small children. “And you say, ‘Well, what if we had food from the United States?’ But who could afford that? We need money, jobs first. Then we can eat like the Americans.”