How Cuba’s artists took to the kitchen to earn their crust in lockdown

In The Guardian, Ruaridh Nicoll, with photographs by Sven Creutzmann, writes about musicians and film-makers found another way to be creative—cooking, baking and selling—as the pandemic pushed the island’s economy to the brink of collapse. Here are excerpts:

Not far from Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion, where Che Guevara stares out nine storeys high from the side of Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior, Julio Cesar Imperatori perches on the edge of a table in the kitchen of a shuttered restaurant. “We started to run out of money,” he says of himself and two friends, Osmany and Wilson. “Everyone was closing down. No one was buying pictures. So we decided to do something. We thought, everyone’s gotta eat and my grandmother, Eldia, she has a recipe for pie. And so … the American Pie company.”

Julio is a street photographer. “I opened an exhibition in the Galeria Servando Cabrera in March. Lots of people came to the opening and then, the next day the city was locked down.” He grins. “It must be the longest running show in Cuban history, but nobody’s seen it.”

He disappears and returns with a pie. It is the work of an artist, the vivid orange of mango locked behind latticed bars of pastry as bronzed as a 1970s beach bum. When cut, it oozes. The crust breaks between my teeth and the mango’s richness arrives with the intensity of the Caribbean sun. There are beers on the table and a lot of laughter.

Your name, I say, Julio Cesar Imperatori, it can’t be real. He insists it is. “My great great grandfather came from Italy in the 1860s with his brother, with plans to go on to the US. The brother went, my great great grandfather, stayed. Probably he met a girl…”

The pandemic has been horrible the world over, but in Cuba it came with economic collapse and food shortages; for artists and musicians it proved existential.

Cuba’s borders closed as the virus overwhelmed Florida 90 miles to the north, just as the Trump administration was tightening the 60-year-old blockade of the island and chasing down foreign companies who traded with its communist government.

As the rest of the world cleared their supermarket shelves, Cubans gazed at their long empty ones. Huge queues formed where la bola en la calle – the gossip on the street – told of chicken, pork or cooking oil. Mulos, edgy characters who smuggle in goods on the commercial airlines, now took control of the queues, becoming coleros and offering places for cash, until the army moved them on.

The government, running low on foreign reserves, moved what goods there were to “MLC” (moneda libre convertible, or freely convertible currency) stores which only accept foreign currency, cutting off access to anyone who doesn’t have friends or family abroad. The US then went after Western Union, hindering the flow of dollars from abroad. Meanwhile Cuban agriculture struggled. [. . .]

As the last tourists flew out and the airports closed, Sarah Sofía Gutiérrez was completing her final year at ISA, Havana’s sprawling school of the arts. Although only 22, she has studied music for 17 years and is now a highly regarded cellist. We meet in her parents’ house in the suburbs, drinking coffee in the garden while Pancho, her ageing cat, paws for attention. “With Covid, everything is distorted,” she says. “At first I was happy, I had so much time to practise, which is actually unusual in the life of a musician. But then, because I still had spare time, I started making cakes.”

Until the end of 2018 Cubans who wanted to get online had to go to wifi parks where the government had installed routers. Then mobile data arrived and everything changed. Sarah discovered social media is good for cakes: “I started to commercialise my Instagram.”

[. . .] Shopping is only really a joy in the street markets, the agro-mercados, which on a good day can be full of the finest fruit. But vendors there are subject to a rickety supply chain – made worse by the pandemic – and the changing seasons.

Using these markets and her parents’ garden, Sarah makes cakes with vanilla, coffee, pineapple or chocolate; whatever she can get hold of. She makes brownies and lemon pie. “I thought I would be making two cakes a week and suddenly I had orders for seven a day and I didn’t have eggs any more. I started to freak out.”

She sells her cakes for $8 (about £5.80), in a country where the average salary was, until recently, $40 (about £29) a month. Changes to the currency, including the elimination of the US dollar pegged banknotes, mean Havana’s economy is all smoke and mirrors, with cash coming in from abroad or small private businesses. It turns out enough people have money for her treats. [. . .]

[Shown above: cellist Sara García Gutiérrez.]

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