Ajiaco Culture in Cuba: Doing More With Less

By Miguel Machado

El Ajiaco, a traditional Cuban stew, is not made from a formal recipe, but with a little creativity and whatever ingredients are on hand. If chicken is scarce, beef is used. Or another meat can be substituted, or it can be made entirely with corn, bananas (ripened or unripened) and cassava.

Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union and the harsh realities of the Special Period, ajiaco, one of the few remnants of Cuba’s once-abundant native Taino culture, has become a fitting metaphor for both the Cuban experience and local ingenuity in the face of scarcity.

In the years following the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro raised the standard of living for most Cubans with the help of generous subsidies from the Soviet Union. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the subsidies ended. Cuba’s import-dependent economy shrank suddenly by 35 percent.

Makeshift planters are another use of Bucanero cans common among Cubans.
Many Cubans use soda and beer cans as makeshift planters.

For the many Cubans who lived through it, the Special Period of the 1990s was the darkest of times.

It was an era marked by extreme hardship and scarcity. Black market enterprises, which had always existed, took on new importance.

Cubans engaged in restricted activities such as renting rooms to tourists and moonlighting as taxi drivers in order to supplement their meager state wages, which today average the equivalent of about $20 per month.

“Cubans have had to learn by doing,” explained Jorge Mario Sanchez, an economist at the University of Havana.

In 1993, in a desperate move to reinvigorate the economy, President Fidel Castro instituted regulations that allowed for the creation of a “non-state sector,” essentially legalizing a few black market activities in which Cubans were already engaged.

But the non-state sector was far from a free market and was subject to onerous regulations meant both to control businesses and to preserve socialist values. Add to this the impact of the U.S. embargo, which not only restricted the import of goods from the U.S. but also placed onerous restriction on foreign companies that sought to do business in both Cuba and the U.S. Ships from another nation that docked in Cuba, for example, were barred  from  U.S. waters for six months.

Times were so hard, it was said that Cuban couples would get married for the few cases of beer the government gifted to newlyweds. The beer could then be sold on the black market for quick cash.

Since 2006, President Raul Castro has instituted reforms aimed at stimulating the non-state sector and, with it, the economy. Yet entrepreneurship in modern Cuba still takes ingenuity and creativity— just like un ajiaco.

At Casa Vera, a casa particular, or private guest house, just outside of Central Havana, in the sleepy suburb of Vedado, these traits are on full display. So, too, are the scars of the Special Period. Many neighboring buildings along E Street are crumbling. Trees grow untended, their roots breaking through the concrete slabs of the sidewalks. Casa Vera is one of the few buildings that have been renovated and newly painted.

While the building’s facade shows a few signs of the sea salt — Casa Vera is just half a mile from the Malecon, Havana’s famous seawall and esplanade — that eats away at Havana buildings, inside it is immaculate. Aleida Gonzales Vera, or Aleida, as she is known, is the proprietor and caters to students on cultural exchanges, mostly from the U.S.

After each student group departs, Casa Vera’s staff thoroughly cleans the house using a homemade cleaning solution made principally of “petroleum,” Aleida explained nonchalantly. Aleida mixes petroleum with water and various natural scents, then she and her crew wipe down every surface of the house — from tables to floors to walls.

Aleida has even devised a way to keep her house relatively bug-and-pest-free without pesticides. She soaks rags in petrol, lets them dry in the sun, then wipes down the wooden surfaces of the house to keep them free of termites. To get rid of roaches, she places petrol-soaked rags in the each corner of a room and seals the room for several days. “You haven’t seen a roach in my house, have you?” asked Aleida rhetorically.

Some Cubans, meanwhile, have even found productive uses for their pests. The Marabou weed, an invasive plant, was introduced to Cuba in the 19th century and spread rapidly across the island, taking over close to five million acres and complicating Cuba’s efforts to improve food production.

Marabou is incredibly hard to remove once it has taken root, and burning the plants only serves to release their seeds over a wider area. So rural Cubans have devised ingenious ways of making use of this abundant pest, such as making it into furniture. Fernando Funes-Monzote, a farmer in the Caimito region of Cuba, uses “El Marabu” to make his own charcoal, which he then uses to cook food on his farm, Finca Marta

Similarly, Julio Alvarez and Nidialys Acosta, the husband-and-wife owners of NostalgiCar, a classic-car restoration business and taxi service, have developed creative solutions to Cuba’s perpetual shortages. Because classic cars are among the few automobiles available in Cuba, and parts are hard to come by, they use connections in Miami to procure parts from Santa Ana, Calif.  Alvarez pays a friend in Miami a 20 percent commission on all his parts.

When he is pressed for parts and cannot import them, Alvarez enlists the singular talents of an employee, Maykel Armenteros, who attended art school and is a capable sculptor. To restore a section of a 1957 Chevy Impala that Nostalgicar has named “Margarita,” Armenteros forged a piece by hand from sheet metal.

Few arrangements demonstrate the ingenuity of Cubans as well as the informal cooperatives they are developing. State-sponsored cooperatives enjoy tax benefits unavailable to private businesses and often have access to government buildings and equipment.

Few private businesses have been given permission to band together in cooperatives, and so many private businesses have started to pool their resources unofficially. That is how Casa Vera, which joined with neighbors who have spare rooms, has been able to offer accommodations to as many as 50 students at a time.

This kind of ingenuity and cooperation are integral to the Cuban identity. As relations between Cuba and the U.S. improve, a big question is whether the culture of ajiaco survives. Perhaps, once again, it will have to adapt.