A Lot of Food for Thought

By Neil Melancon, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation

Today was a travel day, starting with a three-hour journey from Vinales to Havana. Two of my shirts and a pair of socks got into the laundry and weren’t ready by the time we left. It’s possible I might get them back if someone from the tour company passes through there in the next couple of days, but otherwise, adios.

We made a quick pit stop on the way to Havana, which was an interesting snapshot of life there. It was a restaurant/bathroom stop, not unlike anything you’d find in the US… except for the bathrooms themselves. Many of them in Cuba have an attendant and this one was no exception. She was doling out toilet paper to everyone and apparently, being extremely stingy (read: three squares per person). After a person was done in the women’s restroom, she would have to fill the toilet with a bucket before flushing.  

A side note: many, many toilets I’ve encountered do not have a seat and you’re expected to make do with the porcelain rim. My suspicion is that this is designed to make men and women more socially equal in this worker’s paradise, by making the seat up/seat down gender issue moot. I have not confirmed said suspicion at this time.

Anyway, unbeknownst to us, the bathroom attendant had already been tipped by our tour guide Wendy, a common practice. She then went around asking everyone for money and made quite a bit more before we realized what was going on. At least we got to enjoy a scenic view of the lake nearby and an unusual mimosa tree species, which Randy Bracy, a nursery owner on the tour, said he’d never seen before.  

While we were waiting on the bus, I also got a chance to speak with our Cuban translator, Gretyl, a bit more and she is fascinating. Only 28 years old, but completely fluent in English and has visited the U.S. She gave me a great insight into the intergenerational changes occurring in Cuba. Essentially, the generation of her grandparents still venerates Fidel. “They sleep at night with his portrait,” she said. Her parents pay lip service to the government, but have become disillusioned as the cracks began to grow. Her millennial generation is seeing all the potential in this new economy. She was very worried about Trump’s speech in Miami because it might drive away business. “Fortunately, the changes weren’t a big deal,” she said. I had to agree—tourists were everywhere. Three million were on the island in 2016 (Cuba’s population is 11 million) and it’s expected to break that record this year. Tour member Mark Tassin, an LSU ag econ teacher, put it best.

“We’re pandering to the Florida crowd because Florida is a song state in elections,” he mused over cervezas at the Hotel Nacional’s bar after dinner later that night. “We’re missing a golden opportunity here.”

Sugarcane grower Rodney Simoneaux agreed.

“We’ve got nothing against the Cuban people,” he said. “They’re great.”

The sticking point is no foreign investment is allowed in Cuba right now. They’ve only just begun to allow private ownership of homes. However, Raul Castro has said he will not run for re-election, which opens the presidency up and as we saw in 2016, elections always bring changes. Interesting note: Cubans vote for delegates in the Communist Party, who then elect the president. Seems like the Electoral College functions pretty much the same way.  

We did tour an animal genetics lab today, the *deep inhale* Centro De Investigaciones Para El Mejoramento Animal de la Ganaderia Tropical, or CIMAGT for short. Founded in 1970, it supports both breed development and preservation of native breeds. We watched a short film on the native species of cows, pigs, rabbits and sheep and why they felt compelled to preserve the genetic lines of them. The cows were bred to both withstand the climate there, as well as provide milk and meat alike. They seemed very interested in Louisiana’s work in that area, especially as it related to beef production. Under the current system, each child is guaranteed a liter of milk up to a certain age, so ensuring cow milk production is crucial to their current system. 

CIMAGT does do in-vitro fertilization and has done cloning in the past. More than 2,000 AI technicians work in Cuba, which is probably equal to what we have in Louisiana. However, the facilities here do not look like they’ve been updated much since the lab opened and while they’re doing good work, I think they could definitely stand for some one interchange with U.S. facilities. They do have partnerships with both the University of Georgia and the University of Kentucky, but with our similar climate and proximity, a working relationship with LSU seems like a no-brainer. 

It all comes down to the embargo. I wonder if we could negotiate lifting it for allowing private investment from the U.S.? The people here, especially in the rural areas need everything. Even in the cities, Home Depot could make a killing. Greatly told me she’s remodeling her bathroom and even though she’s saved the money, she can’t find tile. When she does, she won’t get a choice in color, shape or even pattern. Louisiana is sitting pretty to manufacture all of that stuff for Cuba and even where we don’t, you can bet a whole lot if it will come out of the mouth of the Mississippi River on its way there.

The group also had a long conversation with Manuel Padilla, the Secretary for International Relations for the Cuban Association of Sugar Technicians. I also spoke with Ed Reeves, the current mayor of Plaquemines and a retired land manager for A. Wilbert Sons. He said he wasn’t worried about Cuba dumping sugar on us, even if they do put all of the fallow land back into production. For one, it’s unlikely it would all go back into production, as that sugarcane land was sent to the Soviet Union at a high premium. Two, sugar would have to compete with Mexican sugar to get into the U.S., and even then, would have to be sold at market prices, not fixed, common economy prices.  

So, mostly a travel day today, but a lot of food for thought. Speaking of food, I highly recommend Cafe Laurent. Six floors up, it offers a commanding view of the city and the Gulf, while the food is out of this world. We were served vegetable soup, an appetizer of bruschetta, tuna and fried cheese, I had the meatballs for an entree. Finally, chocolate ice cream and a scone were for dessert. I also recommend El Ajibe for lunch—they serve goat cheese ice cream there, the first I’ve had since Istanbul. Worth the price of admission alone.