The Sin of the Flesh

Picture: Eddy Martín Díaz / Trabajadores

By Mario Valdés Navia

Now that the raise in wages is about to reach less fortunate pockets, there’s a growing concern regarding an inflationary rebound. Rather than a list of capped prices –which are liable to be circumvented in a thousand different ways–, what’s essential to avoid it would be to increase the supply of goods and services which will allow matching this sudden added demand. I dream about attaining that combination: higher wages with higher supply.

More than ever before, there’s a pressing need to liberalize goods and services which are artificially restricted by inexplicable prohibitions and monopolistic limitations. Some possible measures in the immediate term could be: reducing state sale prices (TRD shops, automobiles, etc); extending credit sales and online commerce; promoting the use checks and credit cards by Cuban citizens; and raising interest rates for savings accounts in BPA banks.

To that I would add the much-announced transferring of part of the domestic trade to state-run companies, self-managed companies, cooperatives and private businesses. This would allow the leasing and revival of thousands of empty and underused spaces of the Ministry of Domestic Trade (MINCIN) in grocery stores, shops and warehouses.

But since the systematic ingestion of beef is something I particularly yearn for because of my Sancti Spíritus background[1] –although I believe the rest of Cubans can also relate– I pray for the free production and marketing of beef. In fact, I believe the meat –that’s how we simply call it over there– is the protein source par excellence for a country like Cuba.

We should only remember that when colonists brought the first seed stock from Andalusia and abandoned them in this fertile soil, with no dangerous predators, the natural reproduction of hogs and cattle soon filled the hills and fields with wild herds that multiplied geometrically.

With cattle raising then being the mainstay of Cuban economy −between the 16th and the 18th centuries−, this caused that cattle heads wouldn’t even be raised in ranches. Twice a year, in the cattle lands of the landed aristocracy they would carry out the so-called monterías.

In these Antillean safaris, the selected animals were cruelly hunted[2] with the purpose of removing their hides and their main cuts, preserving them by smoking and salting them, and then exchanging them with foreign heretics in the busy fairs of contraband trade.

If we dig deeper in the history of cattle raising in Sancti Spíritus, we will learn that, in the second half of the 18th century, it was greatly benefitted by the production chain it was able to establish with the sugar cane industry in western Cuba and the Trinidad region. For that reason, the price of a head of cattle reached the astronomical figure of 32 pesos in 1780.

In that year, the jurisdiction had 336 breeding ranches, with 47,527 heads of cattle; although the owners concealed an extra 30% to evade taxes. The most damaging one was the tax of La Rueda de la Pesa, since it forced them to hand over a number of yearlings to the town hall for a communal stock. With that, the municipal government offered a year-long supply for the inhabitants, which numbered less than 10,000, with about 822,000 pounds of meat at absurdly low prices.

Proportionally, 1827 was the peak year for cattle production in Sancti Spíritus. There were 133,168 cattle heads in the region for a population of 42,204 inhabitants. This is more than three cattle heads per person (without fodder or electricity, in worse conditions than in the Special Period). So, if cattle grows so well in Cuba, why was its consumption controlled so much since the 1960s?

I confess the subject has proven difficult to grasp for me and I still have no satisfactory answer. I haven’t found a law or an explicit regulation which prohibits the free marketing of beef. Several factors had an influence, and I find that the repressive demands of the fight against outlaw guerrillas were the first to determine that farmers were banned from freely slaughtering their animals and established mandatory delivering of cattle to state-owned slaughterhouses.

Also, the extension of guaranteed mass consumption of beef opened the doors to its strict control. The 1960s were a time of equitable rationing of fresh meat, which punctually reached families every nine days (the novena) in two alternating categories (first and second), and it would generally be enough for two meals. At the same time, the consumption of canned meat grew –the so-called carne rusa (Russian meat)–, both for family consumption and on a social basis.

On the other hand, the illusory aspiration to turn Cuba into a world power in cattle production and a great exporter of dairy products, determined that sacrificing animals be restricted in order to have more milk –although bulls and yearlings were always sacrificed, not dairy cows. Thus, slaughtering cattle and selling and buying the meat became sins. We became worshippers of Vishnu.

In time, the prohibition made such a deep impression that, when the crisis of the 1990s arrived and many other bans were lifted –even the circulation of the dollar–, steaks remained in exile. However, since 2014, the cattle population rocketed in Sancti Spíritus with the establishment of new purchasing prices which allow reaching up to 7 CUP per pound if the yearling speaks several languages –let’s be reminded that anyone can sell pork to the State at 13.5 CUP– and the leasing of idle land to producers in order to raise cattle.

The fact is that the ban on selling beef, together with a quasi-European model of breeding, has slowed down production for decades. This is a good moment to break the restrictions and stop thinking so much about the walking catfish, the ostrich and the hutia for animal protein, when we can regularly enjoy a good ropa vieja.

Contact the author at: mariojuanvaldes@gmail.com

 

[1]Sancti Spíritus is historically the second-greatest cattle raising region in Cuba. Today, it’s the only Cuban province with more cattle heads than people.

[2]In order to preserve the skins, the leg tendons were sliced with a type of scythe and the animals were later finished off with a spear.

(Translated from the original)

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