The Cow That Would Change Cuba
14ymedio, HAVANA, Ignacio Varona, 4 August 2014 – When she died they erected a life-size marble statue of her, and when they milked her she liked to listen to music. The entire country lived attentive to the milk given by Ubre Blanca (White Udder), the most famous cow in Cuba. She was an animal that not only left her name in the Guinness Book of World Records, but also left a trail of people who remembered her, either with affection or with derision. A new documentary by Enrique Colina recreates the life of this ruminant creature, and the political and social delirium that was generated by her prodigious milk production.
In the space of less than fifty minutes, his documentary “La Vaca de Marmol” (The Marble Cow) recounts those moments in which the entire future of the country depended on the milking of those prodigious udders. With humor and occasional moments of true drama, the director and movie critic tackles a story that appears taken more from mythology than from reality. The story of Ubre Blanca is told by those men who cared for her, milked her and cured her of her diseases on the Isle of Pines, but also by the voices of ordinary people who grew up hearing of a future when milk “would run in the streets” as a result of the increase in production, for which this cow was supposed to be the vanguard.
Colina is a creative genius who needs no introduction. His program 24 y segundo for years has produced the most intelligent critical cinematography and entertainment on Cuban national television. Also, he has ventured in the direction of documentaries, producing classical pieces such as Jau, Vecinos (Neighbors), and Chapucerías (Shoddy Work). In 2003, he made his debut in fictional cinema with the film “Entre Ciclones” (Between Cyclones). His work has been noted in the Cuban film panorama for its good humor and its incisive criticism of social problems.
On this occasion Colina has turned his talents towards to reintroducing us to Ubre Blanca. One of the most amazing testimonies that this documentary is that of Jorge Hernández, the veterinarian who attended to the celebrated cow for a good part of her life. Through the statements of this man we see the atmosphere of pressure and vigilance over those who attended directly to the world-record milk producer. “You cannot allow this animal to have even a cold,” Fidel Castro had pronounced on his first visit to the dairy farm. And so it had to be.
Linda Arleen, a cow in the United States, had previously inscribed her name in the Guinness Book of World Records for her milk production. Exceeding that record became a personal battle for Fidel Castro against the United States, his archenemy from the north. Ubre Blanca therefore began to be milked as much as four times a day, surrounded by conditions unequaled anywhere else in the world, and by an attentive team that dared never to make a misstep, nor skip a single task.
Care for the cow included having its food tested by being first given to another animal, so that Ubre Blanca wouldn’t be poisoned, as that was an obsession of El Comandante Castro. The dairy workers lived practically quartered with the cow so that she would lack nothing. “The milkings themselves were good, but we ourselves were treated as if we were crap,” one of the caretakers said decades afterwards. Thus it went day after day, until finally Ubre Blanca was found to have broken the world record and was elevated to the title of the new world champion, as a result of her having produced 110.9 liters of milk in a single day.
Surrounded by photographers and journalists, with three milkings daily and with the pressure of a high-ranking athlete, Ubre Blanca became sick, diagnosed with cancer of the skin, and had to be sacrificed. Her rapid deterioration pointed to an excessive exploitation of the animal, and to all the stress that she was submitted to in the last years of her life. Her name would, in the end, serve to thicken the large list of failed projects that were ascribed to Fidel Castro. There would never be another Ubre Blanca, and the entire Cuban cattle industry fell off the precipice of apathy and inefficiency.
With mastery and a certain touch of humor, Enrique Colina also reviews all the worship of the cow that occurred subsequent to her death. This worship ranged from the work of the taxidermists to maintain her skin, to the marble sculpture of Ubre Blanca that even today is located at the entrance of La Victoria farm, where that production miracle occurred. The jokes in the street, and the suspicion left by that illusion also have a place in the documentary.
A certain apprehension can be seen to overcome the caretaker who believes that the ghost of Ubre Blanca still walks through the beautiful stable that they created for her. With air conditioning, special pastures and 24-hour-a-day monitoring, that cow ended up being a prisoner of her fame, and of an obstinate man who believed that a country could be governed in the same way he ordered a dairy to be.
Translator’s Note: This documentary reportedly was shown in Cuba only once, when it was entered into a film festival, and has not been shown since.
Translated by Diego A.