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Havin’ a good time

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Hard times are gone and a new green wave hits Havana and its food culture

After languishing for decades in what seemed like an eternal 1950s time warp, Havana is changing big time, and that includes the food scene.

The economically difficult "special period," which began in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet empire, is now over. The evidence is both anecdotal, as demonstrated by all the flashy new Fiats and Volkswagen Golfs on Havana streets, and official: At this year’s International Women’s Day events, an aging but articulate Fidel Castro announced the end of the special period and the beginning of a new era of growth.

Before the collapse of the Soviet empire, much of Cuba’s food supply came from Eastern Europe and the Soviet bloc. The collapse of the system that drove much of Cuba’s economy (exporting sugar; importing food, oil and durable goods in return) meant an instant diet for most Cubans. One UN report observed that the average caloric intake for Cubans dropped from 3,000 calories a day to 1,900. That’s like skipping a meal every day. For years.

The ensuing shortage of oil, farm machinery parts, pesticides and fertilizers meant even local food supplies from big state-run farms dried up, adding to the shortages of imported food. Things got pretty tough, literally. According to Bill McKibben, writing in the April issue of Harper’s , one TV cooking show urged Cubans to fry up "steaks" made from grapefruit peels covered in bread crumbs. Mmmm, good.

But you needn’t worry about tackling grapefruit-peel steaks if you visit Havana today. Cuba’s open-arm policy toward tourism, one of the main strategies responsible for pulling the country out of its dire special period (growth in tourism averaged 10 per cent a year in the ’90s), has also been driving an explosion, or a least a mini-burst, of great new eateries.

This new wave is kind of unexpected, given that most of Havana’s restaurants are still state-controlled, which, in the past always translated to indifferent food and service. But like the rest of Cuba’s weird politics, the restaurant scene is complex, even contradictory, and tough for an outsider to figure out.

Recently, the three big state-owned tourism companies, Cubanacan, Gran Caribe and Isla Azul, which together control 30,000 of 42,000 hotel rooms in the country, were merged when the tourism ministry decided to get a little closer to the big tourist bucks.

That meant a lot of the previously autonomously-run operations, like the Floridita and Bodeguita del Medio bars – must-see daiquiri and mojito stops for tourists trying to find the long-gone Havana of Ernest Hemingway – were stripped from the likes of Gran Caribe and taken over directly by government. That includes the famous Tropicana nightclub and its girlie shows as well.

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