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Cuban coffee industry has seen better days.

Cuban coffee industry has seen better days

The menu at El Patio Restaurant in the heart of historic Old Havana was certainly impressive - everything from filet mignon and fresh vegetables to Cuban-style guava and cheese dessert.

My friend and I had just arrived on a three-hour propeller flight from the Dominican Republic and would have eaten anything put in front of us. But after ordering one item after another, only to be told there was no food, we came to the sad conclusion that the only item actually available at El Patio that evening was coffee and milk.

Or so we thought. The ancient, bow-tied waiter, when he finally came around to take our order, quietly informed my friend that there was no milk in the house.

"No cafe con leche?" he asked incredulously. "OK then, cafe sin leche!"

Cafe sinn leche it was, and thus began our introduction to a country of 10 million coffee-drinkers who can't enjoy coffee with milk, even at one of the most expensive restaurants in Havana. Considering how fast the Cuban economy is sinking these days, it was a wonder we found coffee at all, let alone "leche."

What is particularly surprising about all this is that Cuba claims to be a coffee-exporting nation.

The Communist government, in a fat, 692-page book titled "Anuario Estadistico de Cuba 1988," admits on page 314 that the total area of land dedicated to culvivation of coffee declined from 181,500 hectares in 1970 to 137,000 hectares in 1988. Likewise, area actually in production has gone down, from 60,500 hectares in 1972 to 47,500 today.

But at the same time, the government also claims that in 1988, Cuba produced 28,801 metric tons of coffee, up from 19,742 metric tons in 1970. It follows that crop yield, or "rendimiento agricola" in Spanish, must have gone up accordingly, from 0.15 tons per hectare in 1970 to 0.40 tons per hectare in 1988. That means a more than doubling of the yield in the last four years alone.

So where's all this coffee going? It's certainly not being drunk by Cubans. Even the book admits that the total amount of coffee at the retail level was less in 1988 (22,400 tons) than in 1971 (27,100 tons).

Moreover, coffee - like all basic foodstuffs - is rationed and has been ever since the 1959 victory of Fidel Castro's revolution turned Cuba into an economic appendage of the Soviet Union. And the individual allotment of coffee is only enough to brew two cups a week.

Bumper Crop

Therefore, the bumper coffee crop must be being shipped elsewhere. The government insists its coffee export earnings have jumped from 143,000 pesos in 1958 - the year before the revolution - 51.8 million pesos some 30 years later. However, those figures are totally meaningless. While a Cuban peso is officially on par with the U.S. dollar, on the black market a dollar is worth anywhere from four to six Cuban pesos.

So where is Cuba exporting its coffee, if at all? The government certainly didn't shed any light on that subject. Despite five phone calls by Tea & Coffee Trade Journal and a personal visit to the offices of Cuba export - the state agency that oversees coffee, rum and fruit exports - no calls were ever returned, and no information was forthcoming. The president of Cuba export always seed to be in "meetings."

One Havana-based foreign observer has some ideas. The diplomat, speaking off the record, said the Cuban coffee program is a "disaster" and that far from exporting, Cuba is actually importing coffee to keep up with demand. He noted the failure of "Plan Turquino," a scheme which was to have brought thousands of young people to harvest coffee in the Turquino region of eastern Cuba. It seems that the youngsters weren't willing to leave the cities, and the plan died quickly.

Plan Turquino Lives On

Nevertheless, Plan Turquino lives on in the form of Cafe Turquino - an aromatic, tasty coffee liqueur bottled by the makers of Havana Club Rum and sold in the supermarkets for 14 pesos a bottle. The label says Cafe Turquino is "made with the most purified techniques in the Cuban liquor industry, thanks to a careful selection of coffee beans grown, picked and dried in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra."

If you can't find Cafe Turquino on your next visit to Cuba, don't worry. In the duty-free shop of Jose Marti International Airport before leaving, they sell something even better - nicely packaged 460-gram bags of Carocobello Cuban coffee for $5 apiece.

And you can always add the "leche" when you get home.
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Article Details
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Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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