A bit of coffee early in the morning, or any time of day, took root in Cuban culture centuries ago, making a little cup of steaming, aromatic "black nectar" an expression of Cubanness for ages, and this remains so wherever there are Cubans, from Finland to the Maldives.
The greatest Cuban of all, José Martí, in his beautifully poetic prose, once defined coffee, which he loved: "Rich juice, mold fire, without a flame and without burning, enlivens and accelerates all the agile blood in my veins. Coffee has a mysterious connection to the soul; it prepares the limbs for battle, and for the race; it cleanses the spirit of humanity; it sharpens and heightens the capacities; it lights up the inner depths and sends fiery and wonderful concepts to the lips."
Let us fast forward to today's Cuba and consider a hypothetical dialogue that might actually take place anywhere on the island: "Ah, Felipe, you came at a good time. I'm going to bring you a little cup of platanillo that I just made," Teresa tells her uncle, who has come to visit her. "Platanillo?" he asks. "Well, look, they haven't had coffee at the store for a while, so you've got to live by your wits, you know, to trick your stomach into thinking we're drinking coffee," his niece replies, resigned.
This could be happening right now somewhere in Cuba, especially in Holguín, where, lacking coffee, people are preparing hot platanillo teas as a substitute, as the fictional Teresa says.
What is platanillo? Matico, a wild yellow-green shrub found all across the island, with a peppery scent and producing pods containing small fruits. Its scientific name is Piper ossanum. On the island it is abundant, from Pinar del Río to Camagüey, and in the East there is another variety called Piper aduncum.
It grows in almost all of Latin America, where it is used for everything from relieving hemorrhoids (in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Jamaica, and Guatemala) to dying clothes. And now, in socialist Cuba it is also used to make "coffee."
Independent journalists from Holguin explain that to brew this unique coffee the pod is opened and the beans are removed and dried in the sun. Then they are put on the stove, roasted, ground, and used to cook up something resembling coffee.
A platanillo breakfast"for the children so they can go to school"
Luisa Martínez Silva, a resident of the Holguin municipality of Antilla, expressed her indignation: "That's what we're giving the kids for breakfast so they can go to school." Though platanillo grows freely in the wild, Luisa grows her in the yard of her house to play it safe.
Now let's read a paragraph from a story out of Sancti Spíritus published in the newspaper 14yMedio after talking with Lismary, a 32-year-old resident of this town.
"A neighbor told me," explained the young woman, "and I rushed to the store, but as soon as I saw the color of the powder, I was suspicious (...) it looked very black, as if it were burned. When I opened the package (...) it didn't smell like anything, maybe a tinge of burned bark (...) my grandmother was dying to have a cup and when I gave it to her she immediately said that it 'didn't taste or smell like coffee.'"
The complaints are leveled against the state-owned Torrefactora de Cabaiguán."What are they adding to coffee in Sancti Spiritus? Coal, dry firewood, burnt coconut shell?" wrote Luis Ernesto on the Internet, another local resident. Nobody knows what the hell they're putting in it, but it tastes like crap. You don't think it's platanillo?"
Lavazza buys Cuban coffee and GAESA makes millions
While Luisa grows platanillo to feel like she's drinking coffee, Lavazza, the Italian coffee brand that, along with Starbucks, and Folgers, is one of the biggest in the world, has just rolled out La Reserva de ¡Tierra! in Madrid , "a premium and sustainable high-quality organic Cuban coffee (...) that will be distributed exclusively by Espressa Coffee & More (...) containing beans grown by 170 farmers in the provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Granma."
This story was reported by the press from the Spanish capital; that is, Cubans cannot drink the delicious Cuban coffee, but GAESA exports what little is produced, adding to its millions in overseas accounts.
This is what is happening in a country that in 1830 was the largest exporter of coffee in the world, and in which coffee had become almost a ritual, like tea for the English, though on the island it was enjoyed several times a day and without much ceremony.
And in Cuba everyone drank it, rich and poor alike. The catchy tango-conga by Eliseo Grenet that Rita Montaner sang said it all: "Oh, Mamá Inés, all us blacks drink coffee." Who ever would have thought that Cubans would no longer be drinking it?
Coffee was discovered by chance about 1,200 years ago in Ethiopia, where monks observed that goats were more energetic when they ate some small berries similar to cherries, which they called "the Devil's fruit."
After coffee was brough to Cuba in 1748 by Frenchman José A. Gelabert, in the Havana area of Wajay, and until the early years of Castroism, the country exported premium coffee that was highly prized on the world market, particularly "mild Arabica bourbon" beans, boasting an incomparable aroma and flavor, harvested in the Sierra Cristal mountains, where a special microclimate favors the production beans of the highest quality.
In 2000 UNESCO classified the "archaeological landscape of Cuba's first coffee plantations" as a World Heritage Site.
From May to October there was no pea coffee at stores
Returning to today's Cuba, from May 2023 until mid-October not even roasted coffee containing peas was delivered with the groceries included in the rationing book. It should be noted that the International Coffee Organization (ICO) states that mixtures consisting of more than 5% of other beans do not constitute coffee. In Cuba, the mixture is 50% peas, and no one knows whether that percentage is even higher.
The last straw is that ordinary Cubans cannot even enjoy this concoction anymore because it does not "show up" at stores, a 115-gram bag of Cubita coffee costs too much, and on the black market a pound swallows half a month's wages.
What a contrast! In 1958, the parents and grandparents of Cubans today drank, on average, 828 grams of coffee per month, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. That is, almost two pounds. A cup of that delicious aromatic coffee, at any neighborhood locale, (I remember the Oquendo brand), cost just three cents!
Today, every consumer "has the right" to consume one eighth of a pound, because what one gets is 57 grams of coffee, and the rest of the 115 grams is peas, or God only knows what else.
Coffee yields in Cuba are, perhaps, the lowest in the world
Before Castroism, Cuba produced about 60,000 tons of coffee. After the imposition of Communism, production plummeted. Today, the country produces between 7,000 and 10,000 tons per year, and rationed domestic consumption is 24,000 tons. There is no money to import and cover that shortfall; not even half.
One of the primary causes of this is distinctly "revolutionary." The yields of the island's coffee plantations are ridiculously low: 0.18 tons of coffee per hectare, when the world average does not fall below one ton per hectare.
In other words, Cuba, once a coffee-growing powerhouse, today produces less than one fifth of what the world's coffee-growing countries normally obtain per hectare. I do not think there can be lower coffee yields on the planet than the ones under Castroism.
Finally, to better appreciate this disaster, this detail is worthwhile: the Castro regime's propagandized "Coffee Development Program" calls for producing 30,000 tons of coffee by 2030. That is, 70 years later, to produce half of what the country did in 1960! Please!