Story and photos by Claire Hoppens
Just before Christmas I traveled to Cuba with some particularly adventurous members of my family. The trip was a gift from my aunt offered years ago with the understanding that, if the United States were to lessen the trade and travel embargo, we'd visit before too much of the authenticity of Cuba was lost to heavy tourism. (We didn't account for the rest of the world, which has been largely free to travel to Cuba for decades, and for the seemingly inextinguishable spirit and culture of the country. If it's been dampened by foreign influence or benefited from the influx of visitors, I wouldn't know either way.)
Before departing I spent my time reading about a particularly focused piece of Cuba's past and present economy: agriculture. Agriculture that, due to trade limitations, the collapse of the Soviet Union and all the other hindrances that prolonged isolation can cause, was still operating without pesticides or chemicals. Cuban agriculture has long been, and largely remains, "natural."
Below are some resources I used to better understand the state of Cuban agriculture and how it may be impacted by changing relations with the U.S.
"Organic Farming Flourishes in Cuba, But Can it Survive Entry of U.S. Agribusiness?" - DemocracyNow.com, published June 2015
"What Cuba can teach America about organic farming" - A compelling six minute video from PBS Newshour, published June 2015
"The farmer who's starting an organic revolution in Cuba" - The Guardian, published August 2015
"A Rush of Americans, Seeking Gold in Cuban Soil" - The New York Times, published June 2016
"Cuba's sustainable agriculture at risk in U.S. thaw" - The Conversation, published March 2016
Cuban honey was a topic all its own. I recommend, "Cuba's organic honey exports creates buzz as bees dies off elsewhere," published by Reuters. According to the article, all of Cuba's honey can be certified organic. That, and it's their fourth largest agricultural export behind fish products, tobacco and drinks.
On the contrary, dairy, once a point of pride in Cuba, is on the decline. In, "Cuba's dairy industry, once touted as a success, is struggling," the author describes Cuba, particularly Fidel Castro's fascination with dairy: ""Fidel Castro “wanted to have better cheese than the French, better milk than the Dutch and better chocolate than the Swiss,” said Regina Coyula, a historian. “He said Cuba would make better ice cream than Howard Johnson’s,” the now-defunct U.S. chain."
These worlds collided on the breakfast table. Each morning our AirB&B host laid out a colorful, generous Cuban breakfast complete with fresh rolls, Cuban coffee (a small amount of concentrated coffee and a heavy pour of steamed milk), meats and cheeses, ripe fruits and fresh-squeezed juices. Each morning I was amazed by the depth of the coffee, the floral bite of the honey and by fruits that would never grace my own table, plucked from piles at open markets every few days.
If you're planning on traveling to Cuba I recommend you get lost in some reading. But don't stop at agriculture. I didn't spend enough time researching more basic things like internet availability, currency exchange or safety of the drinking water. There are abundant resources out there, especially as travel between the U.S. and Cuba ramps up. I recommend a visit with an open mind and eyes.