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A scoop of communist Cuba


I went to Cuba for the obvious reasons—hot salsa dancing, minty mojitos and big fat cigars.
 
But I also went to see if Castro and Che were on to something, after all. 
 

As I roamed the old cobblestone streets of Havana last winter, enjoying the revolutionary rhetoric that still blankets the place, I tried to make sense of Latin America’s legendary communist country. Turns out one of the best ways to understand the politics and history of this Latin American nation is to go for ice cream. Heavily subsidized, rich, delicious, affordable to everyone, Cuban ice cream.
 
When Fidel Castro first descended from the hills to topple the U.S.-backed regime that was running Cuba, he had one main goal in mind—nationalize everything from health care to, yes, ice cream.
 
Castro’s vision was a state-run ice cream parlour that would serve a minimum of 32 flavours. In 1959, Coppelia (the word means “ice cream parlour”) replaced all the privately run ice cream shops that the country’s leader considered “highly discriminatory”. Ice cream is not just for the elite, Castro said.
 
Today, it’s estimated that Coppelia serves 25,000 patient customers daily who, on average, wait two hours just for a few scoops.
 
So of course, I made my way to the much-talked about ice cream spot.<!–page–>
 
As I approached the parlour that takes up about a block of space in downtown Havana, close to 200 people were waiting to get in.
 
I joined the queue to find out what the ice cream’s appeal was.
 

“It is just the best strawberry ice cream. I come all the time and I even take some home,” says Maria Noa, with her plastic container in hand that will soon be filled with all the ice cream she can fit in it.
 
Charles Peros is a 28-year-old doctor willing to wait up to five hours for Coppelia’s frozen fare. He makes a point of coming for ice cream at least once a week. “Ice cream is just a part of Cuban culture. We love it,” he says. “And everyone deserves to enjoy it.”
 
“Eating ice cream is a luxury,” says Alexander Rodriguez, another customer. “Why not wait for it? And it is cheap.”
 
Cheap it is. The average Cuban income is 280 pesos, or 14 Canadian dollars a month. At the low price of five pesos a scoop, ice cream is affordable. That’s how Castro wanted it and as a result, ice cream has become a sign of the revolution. It represents what Cubans were promised—goods and services that would be distributed equally amongst the people of Cuba. 
 
Ninety-six per cent of people in the country can read and they can all afford to have ice cream for dessert.
 
At first glance, Coppelia is a socialist dream—everyone coming together to enjoy one of the finer things in life, regardless of their wealth. But not far off, capitalism is insinuating itself into Cuba’s ice cream business.
 
A growing number of tourists have created a double economy.
 
Cubans are paid in pesos, where 20 equal one Canadian dollar. Tourists, on the other hand, pay with convertible pesos that are almost the equivalent of one Canadian dollar. Certain goods like rum and cigars can only be bought in tourist dollars, putting many Cubans at a disadvantage. With an average of one million tourists each year pumping money into the economy, things are changing in Cuba—making it no surprise that ice cream sales have changed as well.
 
Coppelia has another branch, where the same ice cream is being served, but for a very different price. While those with Cuban dollars in hand can jump the queue, ice cream costs five convertible dollars (compared to the other, which merely costs pennies.)<!–page–>
 
Many are saying it is tourist apartheid and it’s creating a divide amongst Cuban people because the only folks who earn tourist dollars are those who work in tourism or sell goods on the black market. A few are managing to get rich off tourists.
 

For the most part though, Cuba has held onto its communist charm. Those Cubans without dollars still have the patience to wait hours for the cold, creamy treat. With flavours like coconut and banana, it really is a delight, making Che and Castro the Ben and Jerry of Latin America.
 
With Castro sick, however, Cuba is on the verge of a major change. He handed power to his brother Raul just a few weeks ago after going through stomach surgery. The leader turned 80 this weekend and is said to be recovering, but the man can’t reign forever. The idea of ice cream for all may soon become a memory.
 
So be quick! Visit Cuba, and eat the ice cream before it melts into a sea of capitalism.

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