The list of meandering ideas for resolving Cuba’s food shortage is long: rabbits, chicken, miniature cows, buffalo, catfish and the so-called miraculous moringa bush used to make tea and other so-called nutritious treats.
The newest miracle food unveiled last week by Guillermo García Frías, a 91-year-old comandante of the Cuban Revolution: African ostriches.
“The ostrich is imported. It’s not native to our country. And this ostrich produces more than a cow,” García Frías said as a guest on a Cuban television program.
And just in case some skeptics were not persuaded, García Frías provided the details: “An ostrich lays 60 eggs. From those 60 eggs, our experience is that we get 40 chicks. Those 40 chicks provide four tons of meat after one year, while one cow produces one calf and after a year it’s only a yearling,” he said.
To take full advantage of this new finding, Cuba is developing seven ostrich farms around the island. Some already have been built in the provinces of Holguín, Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo, Granma and Havana, and another will soon open in the Isle of Youth, the comandante said. The first ostriches, of the blue, red and black-necked families, were imported from Mexico in 1997 and were later cross-bred.
García Frías, director of the government-owned National Company for Flora and Fauna, also told the TV audience about plans to develop cattle production with 30,000 cows. He added that the island is also breeding crocodiles and that Cubans could also start to eat nutria, native rodents also known as cane rats that have “a level of protein superior to all other meats and a high quality pelt.”
His announcement of the ostrich farms was quickly met with sarcasm, jokes and memes on social media.
“Now the shortage of eggs in Cuba has truly ended,” Yaquelín Orta posted on Facebook. “With one ostrich egg per family distributed as part of the ration card, everything is fixed.”
Orta, from Cienfuegos in central Cuba, added that her family had spent weeks looking to buy a “carton of eggs” without luck.
“There’s no chicken, beef, ground beef, eggs, oil. We are suffering more than a chained-up dog, and on television they only talk about exceeding the quotas and now about ostriches,” she said in a telephone interview from Cienfuegos. “Now you will see that the tourists will get the meat and we’ll get the bones for soup.”
The shortages of basic products, chronic because of the perennial crisis in the Cuban economy, have sharpened recently because of the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela and cooling relations with Brazil, where Cuba bought most of the chicken consumed on the island.
Mayra Ocampo, also from Cienfuegos, recalled the crisis known as the “Special Period,” when Cuba lost its subsidies following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Like many Cubans, she fears that the long power blackouts and “ground beef of soy” will return if the Nicolás Maduro regime in Caracas collapses.
“In those years, people got sick because they didn’t eat. We had nothing. Fidel distributed chicks on the ration card to raise them at home. Those who got hens were supposed to have eggs. Mine died because I had nothing to feed them. I lived on a fifth floor and they made a mess all over,” Ocampo said.
Years later, Fidel Castro started experimenting with soy, re-branding it as vegetable protein and putting it on every school menu. And before he died the former commander-in-chief stubbornly focused on the moringa bush, which in his words provided an “endless source of meat, eggs and milk.”
Also famous on the island were the miniature cows, the size of goats, which could be raised in urban areas and produce milk that the government could no longer provide.
“There was a time when the only thing you could buy in the butcher shop was claria,” said Ocampo, referring to a type of catfish. “But now we don’t even have that, because they’re exporting it, they say, to Japan.”
Claria was introduced to Cuba in the 1990s because of their quick reproduction and to fill the growing demand for fresh fish. It is raised in freshwater ponds but can crawl on land, is considered one of the world’s 100 most invasive species and has left the island without trout, biajaca and other endemic freshwater species.
“Even the storm drains get clogged with so many clarias,” Ocampo said. “Because they can survive out of the water, those animals wipe out everything. I hope the ostriches are not the same.”