Urgent Message From Varun Mehra*I am writing to ask for your help to raise some money and skills for a very special project in Cuba, where I first traveled in early 2012 on an invitation from Tom & Nhu Miller of Green Cities Fund (greencitiesfund.org). In December 2012, we traveled to Havana organized a delegation of 40 U.S. chefs and friends for two weeks of programming to highlight the beautiful organic ingredients available within Havana city limits and from farms within a short driving distance. With Imogene Tondre and several other coordinators, we organized four major events: a dinner for 50 major Cuban paladar owners, a workshop for students and prominent Cuban food activists at a small culinary school in Havana, a Cuban state dinner for ministers and diplomats, and an impromptu street party where U.S. chefs cooked for neighborhood residents in Vedado, Havana.
Since December of 2012, Imogene has continued the work in Havana with Cuban chefs through various workshops, events, and culinary collaborations—including a recent visit from chef Narsai David of Berkeley, CA. We hope to soon find a permanent space in Havana, run by a collective of Cubans with collaboration from U.S. chefs–a diplomatic exchange of ideas centered around food. In addition to being open to the public, our team will workshop traditional recipes for Cuban citizens, implement outreach to Cuban schools and communities, and provide internships to young Cuban chefs.
In August 2014, through major assistance from Congresswoman Barbara Lee, we received an unprecedented license from OFAC (the Office of Foreign Assets Control) within the U.S. Treasury Department. We are able to spend up to U.S. $2 million toward the continuation of the project—one of the largest approvals ever given by OFAC since the embargo began.
We need to raise some money! For two things — to fund research into traditional Cuban recipes, culinary traditions and agricultural practices from around the island. And to establish a permanent space. In order to get this off the ground, we need to raise $50k in the next two months and about $400k total to secure a space in Havana.
HERE IS HOW YOU CAN HELP!
1. Donate to http://greencitiesfund.org/
2. If you are interested in offering your specialized skills, let’s see if we can creatively make a plan to utilize them! We could certainly use donated time from website designers, video editors, chefs, restaurateurs, accountants and wizard generalists. If you would like to devote time to fundraising and formally become part of this cultural exchange, I am interested in setting up a development board for the project.
3. TRIPS TO CUBA! As a special offer, I will lead up to three (fully licensed) five-night customized trips to Havana for up to six people at a mutually agreeable date in the next two years (but no hard deadline!). Meet excellent friends in Havana, see farms, drink mojitos, and dance it out. Donation of $5k/person + flight/hotel expenses. Please e-mail me to inquire. (If you don’t want me to come, and would prefer to ask me upwards of 100 questions about your potential trip to Cuba, please consider making a donation of $1k/person.)
4. Finally, if you are interested in making a larger, more “investment”-like donation to the project, there is a lot more to know about real estate, new laws, and more; and it’s an extremely interesting opportunity for the right person. Please set up a time to talk to me!
Thank you so much, amigos! For more detailed information about the project, please click the following MailChimp link to download a PDF.
*Personal assistant to Alice Waters 2008 to 2015.
Check out The Monthly’s article on Narsai David: Broadening Cuban Relations | East Bay foodie Narsai David explores the organic farming movement in Cuba while working to create a culinary academy dedicated to the Cal cuisine ethos.
View the Planting Seeds Project Page
Video link: http://adobe.ly/1xXIAEJ
The new realities of running a business in Cuba
In an attempt to jumpstart Cuba’s economy and shed unprofitable state enterprises, the government is converting select businesses into cooperatives. It’s an adjustment for many Cuban workers.
ByJonathan Wolfe, ContributorJULY 2, 2014
Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor/File View Caption
HAVANA, CUBA — The stakes were high when Café Nautico lost electricity during its grand reopening here last month. Losing power is commonplace in Cuba, but this occasion was different: It was the first time restaurant employees would be paid based on the day’s earnings. The chef scrambled to keep the kitchen running by candlelight while the wait staff assured the handful of customers that the lights would be back shortly.
Café Nautico used to be a state-run restaurant, which meant reliable – albeit low – wages for the staff of 12 whether or not anyone came to dine. But the Cuban government recently transferred management of the location to its employees, now called “associates,” to be run as a cooperative.
“We are making a lot of changes and we will try anything that can be useful,” says Jorge Cercera Montes, the president of the cooperative who got his start as a cook. He’s opening the restaurant for business earlier in the day, hosting parties and weddings, and renting out the back room for private events. “Our objective is to grow so that this place can provide more income for us as cooperative members.”
The Cuban government is strapped for cash as it works to keep its economic vision alive, more than five decades after the US implemented its economically isolating trade embargo. In an attempt to jumpstart the economy and shed unprofitable state enterprises, the government is now converting select businesses into cooperatives and allowing others to pop up in the Cuban market.
The move is part of a broader attempt by President Raúl Castro to update Cuba’s economic model, while maintaining its socialist principles. But the nearly 250 cooperatives operating here exist without constitutional protection, and will only be legally incorporated into the economy if the experiment is deemed a success. This leaves many Cuban entrepreneurs excited, yet skeptical of the viability of projects like Café Nautico in the volatile Cuban marketplace.
“The Cuban government is afraid of losing subsidies from Venezuela and they are … turning to cooperatives to help fill the gap the state can’t provide,” says Christopher Sabatini, the senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.
“Decentralizing the economy will allow the government to earn money from taxes [from cooperatives], inject productivity into the lumbering, inefficient government, and sop up some of the thousands of employees that were recently let go by the state,” Mr. Sabatini says.
‘A little imposing’
In contrast to businesses run by the government, cooperatives allow their members to take home a portion of the business’ earnings, and give their workers democratic control over operations and management, including electing their own president. The state is also giving them a leg up on their private competitors by offering them perks like a 20 percent discount on products bought from the state in the case of Café Nautico, and subsidizing their utility bills.
“The old system was a little imposing,” says Tania Lourdes Ortiz Fernández, an esthetician at the Bellall Health and Beauty Institute in the Vedado neighborhood. She says she’s “more happy with this system than the one we had before.”
For example, she makes more money – about $42 a month compared to $15 when her “boss” was the Cuban government. Ms. Ortiz says that although she lost clients when the beauty center became a cooperative (the associates voted to raise their prices), she now has access to better products and has more time to dedicate to services.
Although many cooperative members say they receive higher wages, there are complaints.
“The largest obstacle right now is the bureaucratic process of approving new cooperatives,” says Eric Leenson, president of Sol Economics, a company that promotes socially responsible development in Cuba.
Additionally, cooperative employees complain they don’t have access to wholesale markets, and that importing materials or products from outside the country is almost impossible.
Even convincing the Cuban workforce that they could benefit from working in a cooperative has been a challenge, says Adriana Cervantes, the president of the Bellall Health and Beauty Institute. She lost more than a quarter of her workers when the business converted to a cooperative eight months ago, and has had trouble convincing others to invest the one-time payment of 500 Cuban pesos ($22) required to join.
“Right now I need a manicurist … we have so much demand,” says Ms. Cervantes. “For months I have tried to hire more associates but people tell me that they don’t understand why they have to invest in order to become a member of the cooperative,” she says as dozens of clients pass her on their way to an aerobics class at the institute.
Mr. Leenson believes that, despite these initial problems, the cooperative project in Cuba is here to stay.
“This change in Cuba is broad enough and strong enough that there is no going back.”
HAVANA — San Francisco restaurateur Narsai David is in food heaven as he wanders through the stalls at a large farmer’s market. “The papayas are much sweeter and fresher here,” he exclaimed. At another counter, his lips puckered as he tasted a hot pepper.
David is meeting with Cuban chefs in an effort by Green Cities Fund, a Bay Area nonprofit, to establish a culinary school in Havana. The group is awaiting approval from Washington to legally operate as required under terms of the United Statesembargo against Cuba.
Meanwhile, David is involved in a cultural exchange with lots of people in tall white hats. This morning he will lead a workshop while preparing a picante sauce using fresh papaya, vinegar and chile.
David now knows that the mere existence of well-stocked farmer’s markets is a big change for Cuba. While they had existed for some years, starting in 2008, the government encouraged private and co-op farming, which has markedly increased food supplies.
But food remains expensive for ordinary Cubans. And some items suddenly go missing, warned Imogene Tondre, an American who lives in Cuba and is program director for Green Cities.
“The government couldn’t afford to import industrial fertilizers and pesticides. Cuba had to adopt organic methods.”
“When in Cuba, when you see something you need, grab it,” she told David.
The papayas and virtually all the other products in this market are grown without use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Cuba has become the world’s largest per capita consumer of organic food.
“About 90 percent of the food raised in Cuba is grown without chemicals. Almost all our pork, beef and chicken don’t use steroids or antibiotics,” said Fernando Funes, a retired agriculture ministry official known as the father of Cuban organic farming. “We are protecting our health and the environment.”
Yet Cuba still imports an estimated 55 percent of its food, according to Funes. As Narsai David was about to find out, Cuban food production is very complicated indeed.
When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost trade subsidies that had kept the economy afloat. The economy shrank by 35 percent from 1989-93. So the government could no longer afford to import industrial fertilizers and pesticides. Food became scarce, and the island was forced to adopt organic methods.
The government mobilized agronomists and farmers to develop organic methods suitable for a tropical climate. Food production initially dropped, but eventually recovered to pre-1991 levels for many crops.
More recently the government has instituted reforms to give greater play to free markets and de-emphasize the role of the state. Before 1991, 75 percent of Cuba’s agricultural land was farmed by large, state enterprises; today 75 percent is farmed by individuals and co-ops, according to Funes.
(Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)
Small farmers have more incentives to produce and innovate, he said. That’s not capitalism, he argued, pointing out that large agribusiness will never be allowed. “This is a new type of socialism, more realistic,” Funes said.
Socialism also means Cubans don’t pay more for organic products. Organic farming is actually cheaper than industrial farming. Farmers don’t have to pay for expensive chemicals and labor is cheap. In addition, Cuban farmers don’t raise prices well above the cost of production as frequently occurs in the US.
“The Cuban government won’t allow farmers to artificially raise their prices,” Funes said.
But organic farmers, co-ops and state farms still don’t produce enough food to feed the island. At the Organoponico Vivero Alamar organic farm on the outskirts of Havana, Isis Salcines explained why. She told Narsai David that the co-op farms 25 acres of tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables.
Organic production for an island of 11 million people isn’t easy, she said. A single bug infestation can wipe out a crop. “Organic farming is very hard.”
Food production in Cuba has improved but not enough to meet growing demand. The island has been bedeviled by hurricanes and other weather problems. The transportation system remains broken, with farmers having difficulty getting products to market. The government has had a hard time converting the old state farms into co-ops and creating incentives for more production.
The US economic embargo on Cuba causes serious problems as well. While US law allows American companies to sell food to Cuba, the Cubans must pay cash in advance. Cuba can’t sell cigars, rum or anything else to the US, making normal trade impossible. The US remains a natural market for Cuba but inaccessible for the time being.
David has gotten an earful of explanations and excuses about Cuba’s shortcomings. But he’s impressed with the dedication of chefs at his workshops. He turned on a blender to mix papaya and a dash of hot chile. He suggested using the seeds as a garnish.
David became famous as one of the originators of California cuisine, which emphasizes the use of fresh, local products. He said Cuban chefs and farmers should expand their existing networks to make use of the island’s wonderful products.
“That’s already happening in several locations in Havana,” agronomist Funes noted.
Funes dreams that someday all Cubans will have access to fresh, organic food at affordable prices. He’s just not sure when.
Special correspondent Reese Erlich is author of “Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba.”