An arugula-growing farmer feeds a culinary revolution in Cuba

An arugula-growing farmer feeds a culinary revolution in Cuba

Former Assistant to Alice Waters Leads Cuban Food Project

La Pena Cultural Center’s January 4th, 2015 celebration of the diplomatic recognition of Cuba and release of the “Cuban Five” by President Obama


Video link:

What the U.S. Can Learn From Cuba’s Food Revolution (


This ran in TruthDig on 12/29.

Cooperatives in Cuba – Christian Science Monitor 7/2/14

The new realities of running a business in Cuba

Editors’ Picks

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
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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.”


What A California Foodie Can Learn From Cuba – Global Post 6/27/14

Cuba produce 2014 06 24ENLARGE

Groceries in Havana. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”

“There’s No Tomorrow” a 34 minute cartoon you must see

“There’s No Tomorrow” [ ] is an excellent 34 minute cartoon illustration of the environmental problems humanity faces and the adjustments we will all have to make if we are to survive.

Kim Phuc, “the girl in the photograph” brings peace message in Canada


‘Girl in the picture’ brings peace message to Winnipeg
‘Girl in the picture,’ Kim Phuc, reflects on war, peace and love over 40 years later
By Teghan Beaudette, CBC News Posted: Sep 20, 2013 3:01 PM CT Last Updated: Sep 20, 2013 3:41 PM CT

South Vietnamese forces follow terrified children, including 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam, after an aerial napalm attack on suspected North Vietnamese troop positions on June 8, 1972. A Vietnamese Airforce bomber accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians.
South Vietnamese forces follow terrified children, including 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam, after an aerial napalm attack on suspected North Vietnamese troop positions on June 8, 1972. A Vietnamese Airforce bomber accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. (Associated Press/Nick Ut)

Winnipeg’s Peace Days
(Note: CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external links.)
Kim Phuc
Kim Phuc recalls her 14 month recovery in a Vietnamese hospital. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

You may not know her name, or even anything about her, but chances are you’ve seen a photo of her in her most vulnerable moment.

Kim Phuc is known worldwide as “the girl in the picture” after being photographed as a child running naked in a small Vietnamese village after a napalm strike burned the clothes off of her body.

The photo, taken by Nick Ut, is considered one of the most recognizable photos in the world. Phuc’s desperate face and burnt skin became the image of war, and years later, a catalyst for peace.

Now, Phuc is an advocate for child victims of war and a symbol for peace. On Thursday, she stopped in Winnipeg to speak as part of the city’s Peace Days.

The moments before the photo was taken

Phuc was nine years old when the iconic photo was taken in 1972, in the midst of the Vietnam War. Days before, her family relocated from their home to a temple, believing it would be safer there, but, Phuc said, “in war time, nowhere is safe.”

‘I wished the photo wasn’t taken the moment I saw it’
– Kim Phuc, the ‘girl in the picture’
On the third day in the temple, south Vietnamese soldiers arrived to tell her family they needed to run.

“I saw the airplane get very fast, very close and very loud. Then I heard bo-bo bo-bo,” she recalled. “I saw the four bombs.”

Immediately, Phuc saw flames all around her.

“I saw the fire over my left arm,” she said. “I was terrified.”

Phuc’s clothes were burned off her body, and she ran alongside her brothers and grandmother, who was holding her infant cousin in her arms.

Phuc ran while her skin came off like sheets of paper. Finally, she stopped.

‘I thought, “Oh my god. I will be ugly.”‘
– Kim Phuc, the ‘girl in the picture’
“I stopped and cried out, ‘Too hot. Too hot,’” she said. A nearby soldier offered her water and poured some of his canteen over her burns. She passed out after that.

While she was running, Associated Press photographer Nick Ut had snapped her photo, capturing the image that would not only frame the way people saw war, but also have a lasting impression on how Phuc saw herself.

When she woke, she found out two of her cousins, age 3 and nine months, were killed in the bombing.

She would spend the next 14 months in a Vietnamese hospital and undergo 17 operations, including painful skin grafts, before she would go home.

Coming to terms with her body

“I thought, ‘Oh my god. I will be ugly,’” said Phuc. As a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl, Phuc’s first thought was about how others would see her for the rest of her life.

Kim Phuc, age 9
Phan Thi Kim Phuc, 9, bearing the scars of a mistaken napalm strike two months earlier, pushes another patient at the Barsky Center for Plastic and Reconstructive surgery in Saigon on Aug. 8, 1972. (Associated Press/Michel Laurent)

Phuc wouldn’t see Ut’s photograph until she was out of hospital, more than a year after it was taken. Her father pulled out the photo he had clipped from the newspaper and showed it to her.

“I was so embarrassed,” she said. “I was a girl, right?”

Phuc was angry and upset she was naked, while her brothers ran with clothes. “I wished the picture wasn’t taken the moment I saw it,” she said. It wasn’t until years later, she was glad it existed.

For years she struggled with her burns and low self-esteem.

“I hated myself. I hated people who made war. I hated people who were normal,” she said. “I envied them. I wish I would be normal.”

Things as simple as wearing short-sleeved shirts were things Phuc thought she would never be able to do.

‘Now, I love my scars. It reminds me where I come from’
– Kim Phuc, the ‘girl in the picture’
The self-esteem issues came to a head in her late teens, when she was studying to be a doctor. A group of her friends were discussing what men they would be willing to date, when one of the girls suggested a man in their class.

Phuc hadn’t shown the women her scars, and one of her friends candidly said she would never date the man because he had a small scar on his hand from a fire as a child.

“I heard that. I left and I cried and cried, and I said, ‘Who will love me?’” said Phuc. “I couldn’t sleep for honestly three days.”

Focusing on forgiveness

Debilitating self-esteem issues and anger were eventually replaced with forgiveness and a strong desire to spur change.

“I had a choice. I had to learn to forgive,” said Phuc. “I can learn from the past.”

Getting over the emotional damage was much harder than her physical recovery. She joined a church, and credits her faith with helping her change her attitude.

‘I can use that picture for peace. For good’
– Kim Phuc, the ‘girl in the picture’
Now, she says, “I pray for them — all the people who caused my suffering.”

Phuc has spoken on peace and war worldwide and even recalls bringing Oprah to tears during an interview. She said the most important message she gives people is to have hope for a different future.

“I always encourage young people; open your mind and see the good,” she said. “Now, I love my scars. It reminds me where I come from.”

Promoting compassion and peace has become Phuc’s life mission, and the photo she initially wished hadn’t been taken, has allowed her to do that, she said.

“I can use that picture for peace — for good.”

Helping child victims of war

Now, Phuc is a permanent Canadian citizen and runs The Kim Foundation International, a group dedicated to helping child victims of war. Phuc said the foundation focuses on getting the children medical care and schooling. She has visited and worked with thousands of children, some badly burned like herself.

“I don’t have to say a lot,” she said. “They saw my picture. They know what happened to me.”

Phuc had originally wanted to be a doctor, aspiring to be like the people who helped her when she was injured.

She began attending school in Vietnam when, after her first year of classes in 1982, she was plucked from university by the Vietnamese government. Phuc was frequently visited by journalists from all over the world, and the government at the time saw an opportunity to use Phuc to further its agenda.

“I felt so bad. I couldn’t do anything. I had no choice,” she said.

Kim Phuc sits down with CBC
Kim Phuc sits down with CBC ahead of her Peace Days appearance in Winnipeg on Friday. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

She was never able to return to medical school, but after seeking asylum in Canada, she started her foundation.

Though Phuc said she wanted to offer medical care to help people who suffered like her, now she can help them in other ways and “help people understand the pain.”

Phuc is now married and has two teenage sons — age 16 and 19.

“I have two boys, so I don’t want any more child to suffer like me,” she said. Shortly after the birth of one of her sons, another photojournalist took a photo of Phuc holding the infant in her arms, baring her scars.

That photo is one of her favourites.

“I love that picture so much,” she said. “I hold up my future. It’s a beautiful photo. That is the picture of hope and healing.”

And of the scars she once hated, she says, “I love my scars. It reminds me where I come from. When your heart is healed, it doesn’t matter for outside.”

Phuc said she plans to continue speaking across the world to spread her hope for peace and help children recover from ordeals similar to her own.

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now, I am in the right place, at the right time.”

Kim Phuc is speaking Friday night at 7 p.m. at the St. Boniface Cathedral as part of Winnipeg’s Peace Days.

PLAY BALL cartoon by Khalil Bendib

PLAY BALL cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Cartoon by Khalil Bendib presented to Cuban gay rights advocate Mariela Castro by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, State Senator Loni Hancock and Green Cities Fund co-founder T.T. Nhu at Havana “Planting Seeds” project dinner prepared by Chez Panisse chefs

Better To Light A Candle

During the Vietnam War, in 1966, the founders established, in Vietnam, the Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery to treat children injured in the war.  Led by world-renowned surgeon, Dr. Arthur Barsky, who had been Chief

Better To Light A Candle by Arthur Barsky [PDF]