Cuba: Health, Nutrition & Culture
July 31 – Aug. 4, 2019
At 3:45 a.m. on Wednesday, July 31, 2019, a contingent of sleepy yet expectant SNEB members and conferees gathered in the Orlando Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress lobby to meet Chris Cloonan, who would be our guide in Cuba. Aside from Chris, who had studied and traveled extensively there, this was the first trip to Cuba for the entire group. Many of us had long been interested in visiting this island country to learn more about its tangled history with the U.S. and other nations. Curiosity about events and people (the Bay of Pigs, the Spanish-American War, Casa Blanca, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevarra) as well as a deep interest in food, nutrition, and health care systems served as motivations to sign up.
How did the tour come about?
When then-SNEB president-elect Jennifer Wilkins learned “her” conference to plan was going to be in Orlando, the proximity to Cuba immediately sprang to mind. Organizing a post-conference educational tour for SNEB members seemed like it might be of interest to our Society, and appropriate given the range of issues we address. With this in mind, Jennifer proposed the idea at the conference planning meeting held at the 2018 annual conference in Minneapolis. Fortunately, several members of the University of Florida faculty attended, including Karla Shelnutt, who quickly spoke up: “I know someone in Florida who has organized many food, agriculture, and nutrition tours to Cuba!” With that, an idea that may never have gotten off the ground suddenly took flight. Alex Thor of Thor Expeditions worked with Karla, Jennifer, and SNEB executive director Rachel Daeger on an itinerary and before long we were recruiting participants. By the signup deadline, we’d exceeded the number needed to fill and the trip was a go!
A brief overview of our tour with reflections from participants follows.
Day 1 | Havana arrival
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
After a smooth two-hour flight, we arrived at Jose Marti Airport in sunny Havana and met our Cuban guide, Elier, and intrepid driver, Diego. They would be with us every day from early in the morning until well into the evening after dinner.
Our tour began at Revolution Square La Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, a focal point of the Cuban government, featuring some of the most iconic images in Cuba and the site of speeches lasting several hours given by then-president Fidel Castro. Several of the beautifully restored cars from the 1960s serving now as taxis were lined up in the square with drivers waiting to take passengers into Old Havana.
From Revolution Square, we were treated to an extraordinary visual spectacle known as Fusterlandia, named after Jose Fuster – one of the most celebrated artists in Cuba. His tile mosaics have transformed the homes and surrounding property walls of a formerly impoverished neighborhood into a dreamy folk art kingdom.
Before sitting down to lunch – the first of many delicious and generously portioned meals – we heard from Eddy Fernandez, president of the Federation of Cuban Culinary Associations, who provided an introduction to the Cuban Culinary School and an interactive demonstration of how to prepare two Cuban staples – Cuba Libre and Ropa Vieja (“Old Rags”) made with shredded beef and highly seasoned with garlic, onions, peppers, herbs and spices, wine, and tomatoes. SNEB president-elect Pam Koch assisted with aplomb in pouring a Cuba Libre and Julie Plasencia was a cooking demo pro following verbal instructions to prepare the Ropa Vieja. As the aroma filled the demo room, our stomachs were growling. Fortunately, lunch soon followed and we all got to try that very Cuban dish.
After checking in at Hotel Capri and having a brief rest, we gathered in a hotel conference room for a presentation on the land, agriculture, and cooperatives in Cuba by Dr. Ricardo Torres, professor of economics and Cuban economy at the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy. We heard much about the food and agriculture system of Cuba, including what major crops are grown in Cuba, what is imported, exported and how Cuban agriculture acquires essential machinery.
Dinner on our first evening in Havana was at Carlos San Cristobal’s Paladar San Cristobal. In Cuba, “Paladars,” homes turned into restaurants, were recently approved by the Cuban government and seen as exemplars of an emerging private sector in Cuba. Paladar San Cristobal, set in an early 20th Century mansion, is considered one of central Havana’s best restaurants and hosted President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters Sasha and Malia for dinner in 2016 during their visit to Cuba – the first time since 1928 that a sitting president had set foot in the Caribbean country.
We left the restaurant, happy and satiated in so many ways, and several of us were asking, “How can tomorrow possibly top today?”
Day 2 | Havana
Thursday, August 1, 2019
After enjoying the hotel’s amazing buffet breakfast that catered to a wide range of tastes and preferences, we started the day with presentations from Juan Jose Leon Vega, ambassador from the International Affairs Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, and Ernesto Pelegrino Cardosa, an advisor on international affairs from the Ministry of Agriculture. Both government officials helped us understand how the loss of trade with Eastern and Western countries decades earlier has impacted agriculture, food security, and public health. The history of agricultural reforms that was summarized into an hour presentation was at once fascinating and complex.
Armed with a better understanding of the land, agriculture, and farmer cooperatives, we ventured out of the city to Finca Vista Hermosa – “Beautiful View Farm” – located in the Guanabacoa neighborhood of Havana. This 165 acre farm, as diversified as it was beautiful, sold goats, lambs, beef and cows’ milk, rabbits, pork, and a wide range of herbs, vegetables, and fruits to the government. Once the required governmental quota is met, the farm can sell any surplus to restaurants and in area markets.
In 2018, Slow Food Cuba launched a network of “slow farms” to support and promote small, diversified agroecological farming throughout the island.
Finca Vista Hermosa was the inaugural farm in the Cuban Slow Farm Network, which is working to increase the visibility of and support for agroecological farming in Cuba. In this capacity, the farm demonstrates and exchanges best practices, promotes agritourism, and has a strong agroculinary program.
We sampled a farm-to-table cocktail, Vista Hermosa, made from juice extracted via the traditional trapiche right in front of us from sugar cane grown on the farm and mixed with Havana Club rum. Delicious! We were happy recipients of the farm’s culinary program when a lunch feast was served in the farm’s open-air pavilion, including Cuban staples such as whole roast pork and moros y cristianos (“Moors and Christians,” referring to rice and beans). Adding to the cultural experience, we were treated to some very danceable music performed live for us by Quinteto Agranel.
Back in Havana we got a glimpse into Cuba’s excellent healthcare system with a visit to the Cardio and Cardiovascular Surgery Institute. We met with the hospital director who led us on a tour of the facility and provided an overview of health care and surgical care in Cuba. The head dietitian also came, speaking with clarity and pride of the nutrition services the Institute provides.
Dinner that evening was at El Ajibe, a family style restaurant located in the outskirts of the city. As with all our meals, the food was beautiful, delicious, and abundant. After dinner, we observed the Cañonazo Ceremony that occurs nightly at 9 p.m. in La Cabaña fort. In this theatrical show, actors dress in full 18th Century military regalia, march through the fort to a platform, and re-enact the firing of a cannon over Havana harbor – a ritual that used to signify the closing of the city gates.
Day 3 | Havana
Friday, August 2, 2019
On our third day, we did a walking tour in Old Havana learning from our guides some of the history of the city, four plazas, and the cathedral. After taking in some of the beautiful architecture, we gathered for lunch at a local paladar, Habia Una Vez (“Once Upon a Time”) where most of us sat at a table in an old Pirate Ship inside the restaurant.
Before joining the group for lunch, Sara Elnakib visited Old Havana’s first mosque, built in 2015. Mezquita Abdallah is tucked away in a walkway of Calle Oficios. She observed Friday prayers where approximately 75 men and 30 women worshiped, among them Cuban Muslims as well as asylees from countries like Yemen.
After Chris spoke to us about the reality of grocery stores in Cuba – that they are typically understocked and may receive large shipments of very few items – we were intrigued, to say the least. He was able to adjust our itinerary and squeeze in a trip to a grocery store, apparently the largest in Havana. Just as Chris had described, single items, such as one brand of vegetable oil, filled an entire aisle. This is where we truly understood the impact of the embargo on Cubans’ lives and appreciated the abundant variety and choice we experience in U.S. supermarkets.
In the afternoon we were set loose with our CUCs, the currency foreigners use, to shop at a large market called Mercado San Jose. The variety of artworks, crafts, and food was astonishing.
The afternoon was capped with a one-hour lesson in classic Cuban salsa dancing in Club Salseando Chévere at Parque Almendares, one of Havana’s most popular open-air discos, where a mix of Cubans and non-Cubans come to dance salsa.
To get to dinner that night our group was distributed among about a dozen classic cars that caravanned us to see El Cristo de la Habana near the home of Che Guevera, and then on to dinner at Paladar Atelier. More great food and another live band that seemed to have been asked to play just for us.
After dinner, the more energetic among us went to hear live music and to try out the new dance steps we’d learned earlier at Fabrica de Arte.
Day 4 | Vinales
Saturday, August 3, 2019
The trip flew by and before we knew it we were starting our final day. This time we ventured further away from Havana into the Pinar del Rio region of Cuba.
Our first stop to visit Finca Marta was inspiring, nourishing, and informative. Our host, PhD agronomist and farmer Fernando Funes, shared his story of how he brought his land back into production after it wad been abandoned for 18 years, labored for months to dig an eventually productive well, and now serves as a center of innovation, technical support, and encouragement for farmers across Cuba who are interested in agroecological methods of farming. The farm was exquisitely designed, a perfect combination of beauty and productivity.
Though we had eaten our usual ample breakfast at the hotel and had plans for lunch, none could resist the beautiful brunch that Fernando’s wife Marta prepared from products of the farm.
From Finca Marta we continued west to the Viñales valley, a Unesco World Heritage site. The Sierra de los Organos of this area near the western end of the island is a stunning “karst landscape encircled by mountains and dotted with spectacular dome-like limestone outcrops (mogotes) that rise as high as 300 m.”
Viñales Valley is considered a “living landscape” rich in its small-scale tobacco farms, traditional drying techniques and hand cigar rolling. Tobacco grower and cigar maker Farmer Benito could have come straight from the set of a John Wayne movie. With all of us looking on, even taking video of him, he demonstrated how to roll a perfect Cuban cigar. And then, of course, how to smoke one.
Lunch (already?) was once again abundant and delicious, and belied any understanding of food scarcity we had. The open-air paladar was part of Finca Paraíso, which we were able to walk after lunch and take pictures of the surrounding limestone outcomes and mountains. Production was varied with everything from tobacco to sugar cane, black beans, lettuce, and other organic crops.
On the long bus ride, Chris provided a terrific overview of Cuban history and how the political and economic actions of nations including the U.S. have impacted this island country.
Instead of traveling west to Pinar del Rio, Karla Hanson opted to spent the day at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana in Old Havana. The modern Cuban art was vibrant and moving, like these two dramatic paintings by Nelson Dominguez-Ofertorio circa 1990 on the left and La ofrenda del coronel circa 1993 on the right.
Our final dinner was another feast with live music at Restaurante Antojos back in Havana. It was a great opportunity to reflect on what we’d seen and learned and how our experiences will help strengthen SNEB.
The next morning we left early for the Havana airport and enjoyed some of the best coffee of the entire trip. We departed with so many memories and new things to think about and learn.