Reports from Cuba: Constitution yes, cooking oil no

Marcelo Hernandez writes in 14yMedio from Havana via Translating Cuba:

Constitution Yes, Cooking Oil No

A crowd outside a market hoping to find some cooking oil in Sagua la Grande.

Polling places for the referendum last Sunday never achieved the snapshot of a long, full line, stretching  around the corner. The great winner of the day was without a doubt vegetable oil for cooking, a product that has been missing, capturing people’s interest and worry in many parts of the national territory. That “candidate” did manage to convene multitudes.

The shortage of food has been worsening in recent weeks until now it is the turn of cooking oil, a basic ingredient in the domestic kitchen. The scarcity has provoked scenes like the one in this photo, in Sagua la Grande, Villa Clara, where residents crowded together for hours in front of a store to buy the product. The image has been repeated all over the Island and is sparking fears of the return of the so-called Special Period, the economic crisis sparked by the end of the Soviet Union’s subsidies to Cuba.

With a culinary tradition in which fried foods, the wide use of animal fats, and vegetable oils abound, for the majority of Cuban families the lack of these ingredients turns into a grave problem. Almost three decades ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, tricks to substitute oil for frying foods proliferated.

People learned to recycle the oil they used again and again, something that specialists advise against for its negative effects on health, but they also substituted the product with that of a mineral origin, taken fundamentally from pharmacies, where it is used for the preparation of various compounds. Now, many Cubans fear having to return to those practices and try to stick up on liters of the scarce merchandise.

“If you see oil somewhere, buy me some because I’m preparing for what comes,” one resident was yelling to another from a balcony in Old Havana. “I can do without everything, coffee, chicken, and even bread, but without oil I get depressed right away,” she added. “Right away I remember the year ’91 and everything that came after.”

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey