Beef, what’s that?
"Chicken for fish and fish for chicken," it says on a beat-up blackboard at a butcher's in Veguita de Galo, a community in Santiago de Cuba. The products are due to go bad soon, and on the same board one can read, in large letters at the bottom: “Just 24 hours, NO REFRIGERATOR.”
"What came in?" Orlando, a 79-year-old retiree, asks Raphael, 81: "They’ve brought fish for chicken.” Orlando stares with resignation at the crowd gathered in front of the butcher's as he waits his turn.
After disappearing for months, fish has become part of the Cuban diet once again, with mackerel in Santiago de Cuba, and sardines in Guantánamo. The crowd anxiously awaits its 17 oz. They've gone a long while without fried fish.
It's the ongoing challenge of protein, as one might call the ceaseless struggle to integrate it into the average Cuban’s daily diet. The protein sector has been the hardest hit by the food shortages. Not even hard-currency stores are safe from the scarcity; previously stocked with chicken, turkey, offal and some sausages, now, to their customers' great dismay, their refrigerators have been empty for weeks.
The unexpected shift from fish to chicken, though mollifying many, is not expected to last. The government-regulated monthly dose of chicken had become the Holy Grail when it came to proteins in Cuba. It is the "preferred" meat of the younger generation - which knows nothing else. The fact that it is imported from the United States or Canada makes it a delicacy, as opposed to pork, more accessible and cheaper.
Never mind that this imported chicken is fattened like a pig, oozing with fat. Most Cubans eat the skin, make cracklings from the big ones, and use the fat to cook with. In fact, one of the most coveted varieties at shopsis “chicken carapace,” consisting of the bird's dorsal skeleton. There's no fear of high cholesterol. Once a month doesn't hurt. The poultry supply for the domestic market consists of hen, when it appears, so these chickens have no competition.
According to many, the sea has dried up - a national joke alluding to the absence of fish in shopping carts. The selection at state fish stores is disappointing: crab claws, fish croquettes and sausage. The little fish sold is left for the weekend, tench and catfish mainly, invasive species that have exterminated the native tilapia.
We are vegetarians by necessity. Rice is the dietary mainstay, accompanied by some other simple food, or eggs, when possible. Expensive meats are also exclusively weekend fare. It is not surprising that young people have poor eating habits. Their ignorance is such that many have never eaten shrimp or rabbit, let alone much-prized beef.
It was hoped that Cuba's recent accords with its powerful neighbor would improve this essential aspect of daily life, but so far things have been getting worse, a fact documented by a Cuban national who resides in Miami. Astonished by an empty refrigerator at a shop,all she could think to do was get out her camera and "I must put this on Facebook."