Rice, cigars and other notes from Cuba

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 164 views 

The first meal I ate in Cuba included rice. So, did the last meal. As did most of the meals in between during my five-day trip to Cuba. Rice is a staple food there and it explains a great deal about the Cuban culture and current relations with the United States.

As an Arkansan, I understand the importance of rice too. After all, Arkansas represents only 1% of the overall population of the United States yet our state accounts for 48% of all rice production. Rice is big business in Arkansas. Cubans want to import more rice.

This is something we should look into, right?

I want to thank the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce for sponsoring a trip to Cuba from June 3rd to June 8th. Our delegation of more than 50 people was officially conducted as a “People to People Cultural Exchange.” That was necessary because the United States Government does not allow tourist visas into Cuba. Since 1960, there has been an American embargo of Cuba. That embargo includes restrictions on travel in addition to the inability of U.S. companies to conduct ordinary business transactions.

Hopefully, that will be changing soon.

There were many things about Cuba that were not a surprise. Cuban citizens don’t have civil rights. When arrested, there is a presumption of guilt (instead of innocence) and you cannot hire a private attorney. There are elections, but you are not able to campaign for office by pointing out the weaknesses of your opponent. And, you don’t get to vote for President. Only the 609 members of the parliament get that honor. Also, I didn’t see anyone standing on a street corner bad-mouthing the Castro brothers. That would simply be unacceptable. The government controls the media.

Cubans still drive around old American cars that they bought in the 1950s. Cubans love their cigars and their rum. They love baseball and soccer. They love jazz. They love their families. So much so, that most homes include three generations of Cubans living together under the same roof. Cubans love their health care, which is socialist – like most everything else has been since 1960. Cubans are great hosts to the tourists from all the around the world that flock to their shores. These were all things you could learn without taking a visit to the island, though.

There were many things about Cuba that did surprise. Cubans are really proud of their health care system. They believe it is top notch. They boast about how the infant mortality rate is lower in Cuba than in the United States. There are 70,000 doctors in Cuba and the government exports their services to 69 countries around the world generating income for the country numbering in the billions. Because the system is socialist, doctors cannot have private clinics and must work for the government. Some doctors drive taxis on weekends to make extra money because their salaries are no different than anyone else. Still, they practice medicine because it is their “calling.”

Raul Castro has been encouraging private businesses in recent years. There is no comparison to the American free enterprise system, but there are now 190 private occupational licenses that Cubans can try to attain. These include driving taxis, repairing shoes and opening up private restaurants called Paladars. Our group dined at several Paladars and they approached the service and quality of any nice American version. And, they all served rice.

Rice – that constant in Cuba – marks the history of the country. Most of the restaurants are still owned by the Cuban government. The rice dishes there are mostly bland. However, the rice dishes at the privately-run Paladars are more exotic and bold. This is symbolic of the changing economy of Cuba. There is continuity beside rapid change.

One of the most surprising things about Cuba was the openness to the Catholic Church. It has not always been this way. In 1961, the Castro regime nationalized all religious property, including that of the dominant Catholic Church. Clergy were expelled from the country and atheism became the official law. But, now, some 50 years year later things are changing. People are allowed to worship again openly. Pope Francis will be visiting Cuba in September and Raul Castro recently stated that he is thinking about praying again.

The Cubans we encountered were proud and friendly. They can sense that there is a better way to do things and that economic reforms will bring them greater prosperity. They are hungry for the change. And, they are hungry for staple foods such as rice. Because so many basic needs are paid for by the government, a Cuban spends 90% of his personal income on food.

Cuba grows rice but it is not nearly enough to feed the 11 million inhabitants of the island. Therefore, Cuba imports 400,000 tons of rice each year. Most of the rice comes from China and Vietnam. The irony of this situation is stark. Due to the American embargo, it is very difficult for American farmers to sell rice to Cuba. All transactions must be done in cash – credit is not allowed. Instead of importing rice from the United States, Cuba gets it from a country that avows itself as communist (China) and a country that engaged in war with America in the 1960s and 1970s (Vietnam).

And, Cuba pays more for that rice because of the higher shipping costs. It makes no sense.

The embargo hangs over Cuba in profound ways. Every Cuban I personally spoke with believes that the American embargo only hurts the average Cuban – not the Castro brothers or the ruling class. Besides the need to import staples such as rice (and chicken), Cuba would like to export products to generate revenue. One of those items is cigars. Under a new rule, an American can purchase and bring back up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars. That is exactly what I did. But, why not more? Because the U.S. Congress made the embargo the law of the land and only Congress can fully normalize trade and relations with Cuba.

Probably the greatest myth of all that our trip dispelled was that Cubans cannot come to the United States. Cubans are now free to travel anywhere in the world that they can afford to reach. Many of them want to visit the United States. But, the American government has made that journey very difficult. A Cuban wanting to travel to the U.S. must pay a non-refundable fee of $160 CUCs (around $150 U.S. Dollars) in applying for the visa. That amount is equivalent to several months of salary for a Cuban. And, our government rejects a staggering 70% of the applications. The visa application fee is a much worse bet than gambling at a casino, of which Cuba has none.

Before departing for the Havana airport on our last day, I ate a few bites of rice that were offered at our very nice hotel buffet. I don’t normally eat rice for breakfast. In fact, I never do. But, this time I wanted a reminder of something. I wanted a reminder that Cuba is a country full of people with hopes and dreams. They know there is a better way of life to be garnered and they believe that someday they will get their chance to experience it.

As an American, I fully believe that it is time to move beyond the troubles of the past. Cuba is changing – slowly – for the better. In America, we have rights. We have the right to speak our minds in public. We have the right to run for elected office and to criticize our government. We have the right to make as much money as our talents and hard work will allow. And, we have the right to buy or sell our products to whomever wants to buy them … except when it comes to Cuba.

Due to the embargo, we do not have the right to sell Arkansas rice to a hungry Cuban people that wish to purchase it. We don’t have that right because decades ago policies were enacted that no longer reflect the current realities. But, I am hopeful that will change. I am hopeful Cuba will continue to change for the better and that the United States will decide to be part of that change.

They get some rice, we get some cigars. What could be more American than that?

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