“For me, no one can get me to quit this bad habit, I’ve tried vegetables and beans,” intones the troubadour Ray Fernandez in one of his songs. The main character in this song is named Butcher, and he spent ten years in prison for the theft and illegal slaughter of cattle.
Despite the legal prohibitions on the island that govern the raising, slaughter and sale of cattle, and the recent declarations by the World Health Organization about the carcinogenic properties of red and processed meats, Cubans do not seem willing to give up the dream of a steak, a hamburger or a nice hash on their plates.
This week, the official press reported the findings of a report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Backed by more than 800 studies conducted by 22 experts in 10 countries, the entity classified the consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The classification of processed meat was stricter; it was stated to be “carcinogenic to humans” and placed in Risk Group 1, along with tobacco, asbestos, arsenic and alcohol.
At the close of 2014, the island had a little over four million head of cattle. The severe drought in recent months has caused the mass death of hundreds of thousands of cattle throughout the country, so that figure may be less at the end of this year. The number still falls short of the six million animals that existed in 1959, which at that time was one head per capita.
The progressive deterioration of cattle ranching in Cuba came along with the overvaluing of beef among diners. “Here people dream in red,” jokes Migdalia Fuentes, a retired doctor who specialized in oncology. “The tradition of eating meat is very difficult to eradicate, because for decades it has been the ideal food, the dreamed of meal,” she emphasizes.
The specialist agrees with the WHO report, adding, “Many cases of colon cancer that I treated during my working life were related to the out-of-control consumption of meat.” She adds that, “if people knew the damage it does, they wouldn’t desire it so much.”
In 2014, cancer, diabetes, cerebrovascular diseases and chronic respiratory disease accounted for 67.7% of total deaths in Cuba. For WHO, each serving of 50 grams (0.11 pounds) of processed meat consumed daily, the risk of colorectal cancer increases by 18%, according to findings published in The Lancet Oncology.
However, the information has been received with reluctance and ridicule among Cubans. “You have to die of something,” say the majority of those surveyed by this newspaper. Others question the publication of the news in the national media. “They are trying to convince us that meat is bad and we shouldn’t eat it because there isn’t any,” says Ismael, a father of two who, this Tuesday, bought a package of processed hash in the central Carlos II market in Havana.
Private and state restaurants have not yet noticed a decline in orders for meat since the WHO announcement. “Here, people who have money still prefer a good cut of beef, while those with fewer resources have to settle for pork or chicken,” said an employee of the restaurant located in the Sociedad Cultural Rosalia de Castro in Old Havana.
“Beef is connected in the popular imagination with good health,” says the oncologist Fuentes. “When I was little and I felt bad, my grandmother made me a meat soup or gave me a good steak. That remains in the collective subconscious and it is very difficult to convince people otherwise.”
Bertico’s story is much like that of the butcher who inspired Ray Fernandez’s song. He served twelve years in prison for leading a gang that was dedicated to killing cows on the plains of Villa Clara. His clients were mainly people living in Havana who risked a penalty of up to one year of imprisonment for the crime of receiving. “Here cows are sacred, as in India,” jokes this peasant hardened by illegal slaughter and imprisonment.
“There are those who eat it and don’t go to prison,” Ray Fernandez also satirizes in his song, in reference to those who have a better supply of beef as a privilege related to their proximity to power. For people without a ministerial portfolio, nor the rank of a high lieutenant colonel, the only legal option is to acquire it in the hard currency market. A little over two pounds of beef top round can run to 20 convertible pesos (over $20 US) in those places, the equivalent to the average monthly salary.
Those sentenced for the crime of illegal slaughter rarely have their sentences reduced, nor are they released on humanitarian grounds. Among the 3,500 prisoners pardoned for Pope Francis’s September visit to the island, there were those convicted of murder, manslaughter, rape, pederasty with violence, and the corruption of minors. But there were none sentenced for the theft or illegal slaughter of cattle.
The few vegetarians who maintain a meat-free diet are seen as “freaks” in this country. “People get upset when they invite me to eat and find out that I don’t eat beef, or chicken or even fish,” says Maura, 36, who has been a vegetarian for at least a decade. For this native of Cienfuegos living in Havana, “It is more expensive sometimes, and more difficult, to buy vegetables than it is to get meat.” However, she feels happy with her decision, “I wake up every day very healthy.”
Most Cubans feel very attracted to the red fiber, perhaps because it represents the forbidden, or because of a culinary tradition that celebrates meat. The World Health Organization will have to work very hard to convince them otherwise.