Cuba is the most fascinating country to visit, and not due to embargo and disgraceful economic blockade imposed by imperialistic American Government but for its charm, beauty, warm hospitality, and pride of Cuban people to preserve their identity in spite of American failure to take down the Castro regime and impose its own capitalistic ideology to the nation who stands firmly to defend socialism and to protect the integrity of Cuban people.
Cuba is the largest independent country in the Caribbean which is located south of the U.S. and Bahamas, west of Haiti, and north of Jamaica. Culturally, Cuba is part of Latin America with its great diversity and multiethnic population. Economically Cuba faces a lot of obstacles and troubles due to continuous embargo, poverty can be seen in most areas of capital city Havana. But due to recent reforms introduced by President Raul Castro, Cuba is on the path of slow development to benefit country in long run with abundance of private sectors in hospitality and food industry, i.e private restaurants that target tourists. More and more Cubans could be seen running their own private AirB@B lodging that requires government licence to operate and more private food establishments, mostly living room of the houses that were converted into private restaurants, known as “paladar”.
But let’s talk about main reason why I brought up Cuba in my topic. It is about coffee, and how Cuba struggles to advance further into becoming great producer and exporter of coffee that once dominated the island before Castro’s revolution. Before I landed in Havana, Cuba last year (January 2016), I made some research to understand the ups and downs that rooted into Cuban coffee industry. Cuba started growing coffee in the middle of 18th century when it was brought by French farmers fleeing the revolution in Haiti. During that revolution the slavery in Haiti was abolished, Haiti became the first independent black state, and French colonists escaped to Cuba to seek refuge and establish settlement. Before French, in 1748 Don Jose Antonio Gelabert was credited as the first person who introduced coffee into Cuba, bringing the seeds from Santo Domingo. Having the most fertile soil and perfect climate to allow Arabica thrive, coffee flourished in Cuba and became one of the major cash crop for local farmers. Coffee produced in Cuba in those times had distinctive profile that perfectly resembles lush, elegant and aromatic flavor, according to my research. During 19th and 20’s centuries coffee production in Cuba increased, exporting about 22,000 tons of coffee per year by the mid of 1950’s. During the revolution that overthrew Batista regime, coffee industry in Cuba was nationalized and coffee production declined. Farmers lost their most valuable part to sustain economically, losing private land to the government nationalized industry. There were no incentives, no private land and opportunity to compete in the value chain of sustainability that would benefit farm owners to sustain the economic growth of coffee private sector.
When I came to Cuba my main purpose was to learn more about coffee sector, struggles and burdens faces this Caribbean island. I did not know what to expect, but eager to learn and be the part of ongoing specialty coffee revolution triggered me to take the journey and get first hand information I possibly could. All coffee in Cuba is controlled and exported by the government agency, Cubaexport, that was established in 1965 by the Ministry of Foreign Trade to regulate export of agricultural products produced in Cuba. I did not have a chance to visit milling, or washing station in Cuba, but what I was told that it requires special permission from the Department of Agriculture to visit government owned mills. I did not have much time going through the bureaucratic line of paperwork with long waiting time in order to make this happen. So, instead, I hired a taxi to drive me from the capital of Havana to the Cuba’s westernmost province, Pinar del Rio that not only known for coffee but for producing finest Cuban tobacco as well.
Rough and bumpy roads create some challenges getting to Cuba’s coffee farm area where infrastructure is poorly developed, and main source of transport locals relied on are mulles. The poor roads provide more obstacles for needed labor of Pinar del Rio coffee plantations. Driving about hour and half from Havana by classic American car of 50’s I finally made it and got heart broken of what I saw. The outbreak of La Roya (leaf rust – hemileia vastatrix) is dangerous and threatening that wipes out most coffee plantations in Cuba if not proper action taken to stop the spread and battle this dangerous fungus. Leaf rust was first reported in coffee producing nation of Sri Lanka back in 1867 that greatly damaged the productivity of country’s coffee sector. This fungus mostly attacks leaves with the symptoms of yellow spots that eventually enlarge in size. There are no organic materials/fertilizers available to fight the fungus but chemicals like fungicide, the toxic substance to kill the rust. Even though Cuba does not have private coffee farms or co-op and controlled by the government the disaster is unstoppable. As farmer told me that the use of chemicals is mandatory to fight leaf rust but results are less promising. And for this reason main varietal used at this moment in Cuba is catimor (cross between robusta Timor and arabica Caturra); and some robusta planted as well. Catimor provides resistance to coffee berry disease, but from the other side it requires a lot of fertilizers and have less interesting flavor profile that hardly applausable in specialty coffee market.
The new approach to reviving Cuba’s coffee market was taken by former member of British Parliament, Phillip Oppenheim, who provides his own financial assistance to reconstruct so called “specialty” coffee market of Cuba. In 2014 I have conducted an interview with Mr. Oppenheim about specialty coffee market of Cuba who stated that “The Cubans have taken some national measures recently such as raising prices and providing equipment – our project is due to start as soon as it is signed off and includes improved and new labs for testing and cupping, better logistics ranging from new vehicles to support for mule breeding, training programmes, nurseries and processing equipment from micro-depulpers up to large central depulpers – the final sorting and bagging plant is relatively new, so there is no investment planned for that.” I was eager to meet Mr. Oppenheim in Havana but due to schedule conflict we were not able to cross our path in Cuba.
The consumption of coffee in Cuba is higher but production does not meet the demand, and for this reason, what I was told, Cuban government imports coffees from other regions, like Guatemala and Mexico and mixes them with local coffee in order to meet the high demand for highly caffeinated population of Cuba. Cuba has a huge potential to get into specialty coffee market but lack of financial support and resources keeps pushing coffee production back not counting the widespread of leaf rust that requires more money to fight the disease, Cuban farmers or Cuban government cannot afford. If Cuba gets more enthusiastic investors like Mr. Oppenheim or NGO who are willing to invest, or perhaps take a risk to revive the coffee market of Cuba they can grow more and better quality of coffee then what we see now with possibility to bring coffee market of Cuba in front line with other major coffee producing nations. As Mr. Oppenheim stated: “Cuban coffee is sustainable as it is pretty much all currently grown with very low inputs and shade grown in forests”.
There are no specialty coffee shop in Cuba per se. Most coffee shops baristas do not have knowledge what it takes to properly brew coffee, or how to execute proper espresso extraction. Lack of internet access (with little availability and costly) makes it impossible for locals to be in line with westerners to grab more info needed to succeed as barista and do not take his profession just because it is regular job and not necessary requires more efforts or learning. As I was strolling from one cafe to another more I understood that proper training needed with possibility of opening the first specialty coffee school in Cuba. Poor performance, not clean equipments, lack of attention to coffee preparation makes Cuban coffee less attractive to specialty coffee folks or properly trained coffee palate enthusiasts. But perhaps with new opening frontiers and establishing bridges of mutual cooperation between U.S. and Cuba those difficulties will be easy to overcome. It would benefit not only western countries but would provide more benefit and create more jobs in Cuban coffee market where profession barista would be considered as more valuable assets to the economic growth of Cuban coffee industry with less young population trying to escape Cuba for better economic advantages elsewhere.
I encourage USAID, other European government organization to look no further but provide assistance needed in the agriculture sector of Cuba. Yes, you can help. Yes, you can provide resources needed to help struggling coffee industry of Cuba to take the first lift to the market of specialty. Make this happen, build the bridge of economic gesture and you will be rewarded. Great coffee does not just happen, and Cuban coffee should not be just “coffee that tastes like coffee”, it should stand for its unique identity as it used to be in old times.
Viva Cuba. Por libertad y solidaridad. Por unidad y prosperidad de Cuba