Hey, “Mamá Iné”!… Are We Out of Coffee Too?
Hey, “Mamá Iné”!… Are We Out of Coffee Too? / Miriam Celaya
Posted on September 26, 2014
14ymedio, Havana, Miriam Celaya, 5 September 2014 — On Wednesday
September 3rd, the official press conveyed another grim announcement to
the Cuban people. Granma wrote: “The coffee harvest, newly launched in
the province of Guantánamo, in eastern-most Cuba, will be ‘small’, with
a decrease of 33% compared to the previous year.” The news adds to what
appears to be the new information strategy (Raul-style “transparency”?)
consisting in offering on newscasts on radio and TV, and in newspapers,
a trickling of notes, articles and reports that show some negative
figures on the Cuban economy, conveniently interspersed with other usual
triumphalist breath. As a common denominator, such reports also bring
proposals for typical solutions: calls for efficiency and “systematic
actions” to ensure increased productivity to compensate for the economic
debacle that is about to hit.
Thus, this crop will produce 342 fewer tons of coffee despite the
installation of “another seven ecological pulp-extracting facilities”
that will increase industrial performance to “reach 4.02 pounds per each
can that will benefit”, superior to the previous coffee harvest figure.
And, though we have not experienced severe weather to justify the lower
production, and though they do not offer details about possible causes
for the decreased harvest, everything is a prelude to coffee –as the
sugar crop in previous years – is another traditional economic line in
Cuba headed for extinction.
The Birth of a Tradition
Coffee is an essential component of our national culture, strongly
rooted in our consumption and traditional customs, both at the family
and at the social level since its introduction in Cuba in the late 18th
century by French planters fleeing from the rebellion of slaves in the
neighboring island of Haiti.
In the early 19th century, wealthy Cuban coffee plantations flourished,
especially in the southeastern part, contributing since then to the
economic wealth and to the development of another form of agricultural
technology in the country which became cemented definitively in the 20th
century, when coffee production reached its highest standards of quality
There were no neighborhood stores without the typical aroma stemming
from coffee grinders.
With the coffee boom and the reduction in prices, consumption of the
aromatic infusion among the Cuban population increased, including among
the poorest levels, replacing cocoa in popular consumption.
A recognition of the importance of this agricultural branch in the
history and cultural identity of the country was the recording of the
Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in Cuba’s
Southeast as a World Heritage Site in 2000, based on the specifics of a
tradition whose first material tracks, which are still preserved,
constitute “a unique example of pioneer form of agriculture” and
“substantially illuminate the technological, economic and social history
of the Caribbean and Latin America” (Proceedings of the UNESCO World
In recent decades, coffee, like all domestic products, has been marked
by the rapid economic decline and decay that is affecting the entire
Cuban economy. The causes are the same as the ones that ruined the sugar
industry and the rest of the national socio-economic life: political
voluntarism and extreme centralization of a totally unproductive and
The disaster has been gradual but steady, and it’s reflected in the
practice of coffee consumption and contamination of the product, with
additions to stretch it and cover at least the meager allowance of 115
grams (4 ounces) as the monthly ration, a 50-50 mixture of the lowest
quality coffee and green peas. The palates of millions of Cubans have
been corrupted with the resulting brew, to the point that many do not
know or have forgotten the true taste and aroma of the fragrant bean.
But Cuban coffee made its mark not only on tangible items such as
production and consumption, but it also etched and enriched our national
spiritual life via the most unlikely and varied artists and performers.
Thus, the green coffee plantations became an integral part of the Cuban
rural landscape, while in urban spaces coffee shops proliferated, and
there wasn’t a neighborhood store without the typical aroma from the
Poetry too, painting, and even music were inspired by coffee in some of
the best known works of Cuban art. Suffice it to remember the retro song
that the unforgettable Rita Montaner made popular in the first half of
the last century, with that refrain that became perpetuated in our
popular folklore: “Ay, Mamma Inez, Ay, Mamma Inez, all of us negroes
drink coffee,” flatly denying that principle that was both fallacious
and racist that once called the infusion “the black nectar of the white
Cuban coffee today
Today, coffee has become scarce even on the shelves of stores operating
in “convertible pesos” (CUC), in spite of imports of beans marketed by
French or Spanish companies and by Vietnam, which became a coffee
producer with the assistance of Cuban experts.
Today, coffee agricultural tradition is dying in Cuba. Perhaps it is
fortunate that UNESCO has recorded the ruins of our nineteenth-century
coffee plantations in the list of World Heritage sites. It may be that,
after the passing of the olive green plague, this will be the only
vestige left of what once was one of the finest.
Translated by Norma Whiting
Source: Hey, “Mamá Iné”!… Are We Out of Coffee Too? / Miriam Celaya |
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