It is only 8am but already the heat in Havana’s old town is oppressive. I join the back of a queue of around 30 or 40 people outside a crumbling colonial townhouse, which is doubling as a makeshift butcher’s shop. I’ve come here with two local women: Ana Olivia, 30, and Maria, her 65-year-old mother, who are waiting for their ration of pork. They know it could be a few hours before they get their hands on it, but if their family is to eat, this is how the day must begin.
Since May, Cubans have been suffering from desperate food shortages, with people forced to wait for up to five hours a day to collect their rations of meat, poultry, eggs, rice, beans and other staples. President Trump’s decision to tighten America’s economic sanctions against Cuba, including restricting American tourism, was the catalyst for the current crisis. But Cuba’s economy was already in a parlous state. In the 2000s it had become reliant on aid, in the form of subsidised fuel, from Venezuela. After the collapse of Venezuela’s state oil company in 2014, the aid dropped to less than half of what it had been at its peak. The upshot is that Cuba’s government is running out of money to pay for food, two-thirds of which is imported.
Most working-age Cubans don’t have time to queue, so many of the people outside the butcher’s are, like Maria, over the age of 60. I had met Ana Olivia a few days earlier – she’s a cleaner at the hotel I’m staying in. I’m in Havana to research a book of recipes from grandmothers around the world, and Ana Olivia, once she learnt about this, enthusiastically volunteered her mother. Apparently she’s a great cook, who, usefully in these straitened times, “can do everything with nothing.” She also looks after Ana Olivia’s nine-year-old son, Hector.
But when I asked Ana Olivia if she thought her mother might teach me one of her signature recipes, she clammed up. Closing the door to my hotel room, she told me she’d like to help but is worried it might put her job at risk. The government doesn’t like people to reveal too much about the harsh reality of everyday life, she says. I reassured her that I wouldn’t mention it to anyone else at the hotel and she agreed to introduce me to her mother on her day off.
I’d made a faux pas when I’d met Maria earlier that scorching morning, by handing her a bunch of flowers. She accepted them politely although was evidently confused by the gesture – I learnt later on that essentials like food and sanitary products make better gifts right now.
We get chatting to one of the other people in the queue, a wiry 87-year-old called Isabel. This is the second day in a row that she has waited outside the butcher’s. “I can’t continue like this much longer,” she says. “I don’t have children to do this for me and I am not in a good condition to wait in line for hours for a pork chop every day.” She hasn’t eaten meat or eggs in three weeks and has been subsisting on beans and rice flavoured with sugar.
It takes three hours to get to the front of the queue. The pork – enough for just one family meal – costs 200 Cuban pesos or $4. This is quite expensive if, like Ana Olivia, you earn just $13 a month, and if it weren’t for me they wouldn’t be splashing out like this. Our pork bagged up, we walk to join a queue outside another shop so that Maria can buy some black beans. Pastel-coloured vintage cars speed by, spewing exhaust fumes into the oppressive midday heat.
I’m exhausted, although probably not as tired as the elderly women towards the front of the queue, who are sitting on old crates. Maria leans against a wall, wiping the sweat off her brow. “The state gives us very little,” she says. “Today we can have 5lb of rice per person for the month and 8 ounces of beans per person.” This does not even stretch to three days of meals. Each person is entitled to just five eggs a month.
I spot some people jumping the queue. Ana Olivia rolls her eyes. “They have money, or they know the person behind the counter.” Three ladies in front of us gesticulate angrily at the queue-bargers, then go back to talking about politics and despairing at how little milk their growing grandchildren are entitled to. The scene reminds me of “Dirty Havana Trilogy”, a novel from 1998 by Pedro Juan Guttiérez, a Cuban journalist. It recounts the adventures of Pedro Juan, the author’s alter ego, as he navigates a gritty life in Havana in the early 1990s. “If you’ve got money, there’s no reason to stand clutching your ration book and cooling your heels for two hours,” says Pedro Juan before pushing to the front of the line for a bottle of rum. The book is banned by the Cuban government.
After two hours, we reach the front of the queue. Maria passes her ration book through the prison-like bars of the tiny shop window, and receives her prize in return. The shopping done for the day, we head for the outskirts of Havana where Maria, Hector and Maria’s husband, Juan, live in a one-bedroom bungalow. It’s 2pm by the time we arrive, and the five of us manage to squeeze into the compact kitchen. Maria starts to prepare lunch, which is to be a traditional meal of pork, black beans, plantain and rice.
Juan thinks the food shortages in the 1990s were “much worse” than they are now, blaming Ana Olivia’s petite frame on her malnourished childhood. But he “can see it becoming the same with the situation in Venezuela and with Mr Trump in power”. He and his wife are scared that their grandson won’t have enough to eat. “[Ana Olivia] has always been flesh and bone but we don’t want the same for Hector,” says Maria, shaking her head as she tends to the pork, which is sizzling in vegetable oil. She adds soy sauce, vinegar, vegetable stock cubes, sugar and dried herbs.
“Cuban mothers and grandmothers have to become magicians. We find food where it isn’t.” This means rustling up ersatz ingredients at a moment’s notice. “If a dry wine isn’t available, OK, then I’ll use vinegar. If fresh tomatoes are too expensive, then I add a little sugar for sweetness. Often, we are out of oil so I use the fat that comes from the frying pork to then cook the beans or the rice in for more flavour. It becomes an experiment of sorts.”
Hector, who has been helping Maria stir the pot, is keen to tell me how much he likes his gran’s cooking. When we sit down to eat, I can see why. The pork is tender and the beans are packed with flavour. Maria is indeed a wizard in the kitchen.
I meet Juana Maria, 89, in a queue for vegetables in the old town. She used to have a pet chicken, which laid a couple of eggs a week, but it’s just died. She invites me to her flat in the suburbs. When I arrive, Juana Maria is boiling stock from the chicken’s carcass. I can hear clucking: it turns out that it’s coming from the flat upstairs, which, like Juana Maria’s, is no bigger than 60 square metres with a narrow strip of a balcony. Her neighbour lets her share the eggs.
Juana Maria was in her early 20s when Cuba’s revolution started in 1953. Before then, she tells me as she fries an onion for plantain soup, “we had access to everything.” A plantain cost one peso, or two cents. “Now a very small one is never less than three pesos – the equivalent of $3.” Her husband was a revolutionary who took part in the rebel attack on the presidential palace in 1957. They would eventually divorce due to their divergent political views. “He was married to the revolution, but what has the revolution done for us?”
Shaking her ration book in frustration, Juana Maria explains that almost everything in her fridge is a black-market find: “things fallen off trucks, stolen things, smuggled fish and questionable lobster.” She gets them from a friend of her daughter’s, who brings them to her flat. “He knows I cook for the family.”
Soon her daughter, Lidia, who’s in her 50s, and granddaughter, Manuela, in her 20s, arrive for lunch, as they do every day. We sit down in the living room, which is crammed with bric-a-brac and religious icons, and tuck into our soup. Somehow, Juana Maria has managed to turn just three ingredients – a plantain, chicken stock and an onion (she adds gouda when she can find it) – into a delicious, hearty meal. I’m surprised to learn that it’s not traditional Cuban fare, but a Juana Maria original. “The only good thing to come from our food problems is abuela’s [granny’s] soup,” says Manuela, smiling.