In a pandemic, less rum and more clandestine and risky liquors

In a pandemic, less rum and more clandestine and risky liquors

HAVANA, March 14 The strong smell of sugar and alcohol fills the room, a dark room without windows.

Armando moves agile and confident around the huge 55-gallon plastic tank that expels liquor distillation gases that he managed to install in his home clandestinely. It is so hot that the man has to wipe the sweat from his forehead every moment. He does it like it’s a reflection.

Armando is 43 years old and asked that his last name not be published for fear of reprisals because his profession is illegal. He produces what in Holguín is called “warfarin” and that in other parts of Cuba is known as “reverberatory alcohol”, “mofuco”, “spark and train”, “hammock champagne”, “wait for me on the ground” or “get off the blúmer.”

These are low-quality rums made in a rudimentary way in the homes of people like Armando. The gases that accumulate in such a narrow space are so volatile that visitors must exercise extreme caution because any carelessness could cause an explosion.

This business has existed for decades, but in recent months it is experiencing an unprecedented boom as many bars have closed due to health restrictions imposed by the government to contain the new coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the country is going through a serious economic crisis that has caused that even products that were not used to being scarce, such as cheap liquors, have practically disappeared from the stores of some cities.

This void has been exploited by clandestine liquor manufacturers. “I have been making and selling warfarin for almost ten years and this year (2020) has been the best for my business,” said Armando. “It is exhausting and risky work, but it pays me back.” According to his calculations, since the pandemic began, the sale of his product has doubled and is no longer able to meet the demand.

As the EFE news agency assured in a January 2020 note, rum is the only thing that is never needed in Cuba. However, at a time when sugar production is declining and state-owned companies – which have a monopoly on the production of liquors – focus their efforts on obtaining foreign exchange by exporting rum to large transnational companies such as Diageo and Pernod Ricard, alcohol that Cubans with fewer resources consume is in short supply.

In a pandemic, less rum and more clandestine and risky liquors

Health at stake

The increasing consumption of clandestine liquor constitutes a health problem. A nurse from the Julio Grave de Peralta polyclinic, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, confirmed that during the months of the pandemic, attention to people suffering from illnesses associated with alcoholism has increased.

“The deterioration in the health of these patients has to do with the ingestion of alcoholic beverages made at home that are not suitable for human consumption,” said the specialist. In this scenario, it is feared that the chances of a disaster will increase, such as the one that occurred in 2013 in the municipality of La Lisa, Havana, when a massive poisoning from ingestion of clandestine liquor caused the death of at least seven people and left dozens more hospitalized.

At that time, the investigation showed that the intoxicated had bought a drink that contained methyl alcohol, a laboratory reagent, which is difficult to differentiate from ethyl alcohol – the one found in alcoholic beverages. Methyl alcohol can cause serious consequences such as blindness and even death.

“The conditions exist for a similar event to happen again,” said a health professional at the René Ávila polyclinic in Holguín, who also requested anonymity for fear of being fired. “The sale of clandestine liquor has increased due to the shortage of alcoholic beverages.”

When rum is scarce

Although the authorities of the province have not yet addressed the problem of the liquor shortage, its lack is obvious in Holguín.

Many of the bars and canteens that used to offer liquors to the local population at three pesos a drink (about ten cents on the dollar) are now closed. Those that remain open are those of the highest category, oriented towards tourism and the population with the highest income, either because they receive remittances or have private businesses.

In these, a drink usually costs around 20 pesos (almost a dollar), ten percent of a monthly salary in Cuba. State stores, which used to sell cheap alcoholic beverages such as Bariay and Pinilla rums and which sold for 57 pesos a bottle (just over two dollars), today look out of stock.

Drums of water or cardboard boxes with gas cookers inside have been placed on the shelves for liquors in many stores. In contrast, in the new establishments that sell products priced in dollars, where only Cubans who receive remittances or have US dollars can buy, it is possible to find from Chilean wine to Irish whiskey, at prices ranging from seven to seven  26 dollars.
“There is no rum in Holguín as a whole,” says Gonzalo Martínez, a regular customer of a busy bar that is now closed due to lack of products to sell. There, a bottle of rum used to cost 31 pesos ($ 1.3). The “Closed” sign also hangs in front of the Cubanito bar, located between Mártires and Maceo streets.
Ramón Quiroga has arrived there on a bicycle, in whose basket an empty plastic knob can be seen. “I have traveled all over Holguín and I have not found rum,” he said. He also confessed that he recently drank “a little” of 90-degree alcohol for sanitary use. “I couldn’t resist the temptation and I took it.”
The situation is the consequence of an economy that was already in crisis in 2019 due to the Venezuelan debacle and the tightening of United States sanctions, and which in the last year since the pandemic began, has deteriorated further with the disappearance of tourism. The Cuban government has blamed the sanctions of the United States government, whose embargo has deprived the regime of access to international currency.
Traditionally, sourcing low-quality rum has not been as problematic as other products. Like tobacco, liquor, which is exclusively produced by the State, was always something that the country could produce without a problem and, therefore, did not need to import.
However, the production of liquor depends on an input that is no longer as abundant as in the past: sugar. In recent years the harvest has been around 1.2 million tons. This is less than half of what was produced at the beginning of the century and a fifth of what was usual in the mid-1980s. For this year the forecasts are worse.
Last December, representatives of the sugar industry announced that due to the lack of inputs, only 76 percent of the cane planned for this season’s harvest had been sown. In turn, the country has ceaselessly increased the export of quality rums such as Havana Club, which, as the authorities have assured, has become a “strategic” activity due to its ability to generate foreign exchange.
Between 2016 and 2019, the export of spirits grew by 20 percent in volume and 54 percent in value, according to official data from the National Office of Statistics and Information. Thus, the government has sought that its sugar cane is used to produce increasingly better rums that can be sold more expensively in neighboring countries.
Those who seem to be the losers of this strategy are low-income Cuban consumers, who are now experiencing a situation similar to that which occurred in the late 1960s. Then, as part of the so-called Revolutionary Offensive of 1968, Fidel Castro ordered the nationalization of practically all private businesses, including bars.
Many of them did not reopen because they were not considered useful to the Revolution. Some of the premises were converted into homes or other businesses and their furniture and refrigeration equipment were distributed to state dining rooms. “Certainly, bars, the less there are, private or public, the better,” Castro said in a famous speech delivered on March 13, 1968.
Quiroga recalls how in those years the only liquor that was ingested was the so-called “alcoholite”, a disinfectant used in health centers.

Clandestine businessmen

As is often the case in the country, the vacuum in the supply of alcoholic beverages caused by the State has not been slow to be filled by black-market entrepreneurs and clandestine liquor manufacturers.
One of them, Armando, explains how for years he had low-paid state jobs as a security guard. He became a clandestine liquor producer thanks to the teachings of some friends he has in the trade.
Since then he maintains a license as a self-employed bricklayer in order to keep up appearances, but actually, he is engaged in the production of about 100 liters per month of “warfarin”. Although he prefers not to disclose how much he earns, the house he lives in and the equipment and appliances he owns are indicative that he is making good dividends.
Their work begins with obtaining inputs, mainly sugar, which must be obtained on the black market, which adds even more risk to an activity that is already illegal. In addition to sugar, you also need water and a product that activates fermentation, such as yeast or, in the event that this is not found, human feces, as he explains.
“The‘ poop ’of children under one year of age is the best because its pH (acidity level) is high and this speeds up the process,” says Armando. All the ingredients are put together in a plastic tank where they will remain fermenting for about 15 days. Afterward, the product is transferred to another metal container that has an adapted coil – a spiral-shaped tube – where distillation takes place.
Finally, the alcohol is packaged in 20-liter plastic bottles to facilitate the transfer to the points of sale that are, normally, other houses in the city so that it is more difficult for the authorities to detect the location of the factory. Because the alcoholic strength of the drink can never be accurately determined, some people refer to it as “illiterate,” explains Armando.
The activity is prosecuted by the authorities due to the health risk and because it poses a challenge to the monopoly that the State has over the retail trade. Another clandestine liquor seller, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, explained how recently a colleague had his products seized in a police operation. “They seized everything,” he said.
“He was careless because he sold‘ warfarin ’from his own home.”

The black market for sugar

In addition to the police, liquor manufacturers also face the ups and downs of the price of sugar on the black market, which can make their product considerably more expensive and eat up their profit margins.

This is what is happening at present with sugar, whose price in the informal market amounts to 40 pesos per pound (1.6 dollars). But the risks, physical or economic, do not stop the majority of those who are dedicated to this activity. They know that their customers never disappear, even less in a time of scarcity like the one Cuba is going through, where many consumers have no other option than to drink whatever appears.
At present, a bottle of a third of a liter of “warfarin” in Holguín costs about 40 pesos (1.6 dollars) and three-quarters of a liter, about 100 pesos (4 dollars). There is no liquor on the market at such low prices. At the corner of Maceo and Agramonte streets, two men sitting on the sidewalk share a drink that is contained in a plastic bottle.
They wear dirty and ragged clothes. One is barefoot and the other wears torn shoes. The bushy beards that cover their faces hide the movement of the lips. The watery tone of the nuances of their voice their words. “I can’t tell you what we’re taking,” says one of them before swallowing a crop.
“I don’t care about a ciquitraque (a type of firecracker) as a bomb. I am strong and this is not going to kill me, I have already buried 59 friends and here I am alive. The coronavirus does not enter me “. (Yahoo)