HAVANA, July 7th (IPS-Cuba) Being vegan might seem like an unlikely trend in Cuba, a country that is marked by its unhealthy diet and limited food variety and supply at markets, which makes it very hard to adopt this practice and life philosophy, and is experiencing a boom right now in many countries.
However, different projects, places and people are promoting a healthy and sustainable lifestyle in harmony with the environment, as they believe that this can only be done by becoming vegan and their commitment to not eating any animal-derived food or product.
Vegan since birth
Artist Yudelkis Lafuente and athlete Fernando Cardenas are a couple who have been running their project YLA&XB on Facebook, where they speak about Afro-Veganism and other matters.
These young people say that their experience as vegans in Cuba has been positive in many regards, because they have had the opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences with others, and to be a positive influence on some people who are open to taking up this healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.
Society doesn’t make it easy for people to live this lifestyle, Lafuente explains, and warns that there is a lot of misinformation in Cuba about the subject. Plus, you have to deal with shortages of some key foods in this diet, such as seeds, nuts and whole grains, she goes on to say.
However, once you understand the importance of being vegan, and you commit yourself to this lifestyle, you realize that it can be done with a little bit of organization, discipline and know-how, she says.
She believes there were many different factors that led them to make this decision and to also include their young children in switching up their lifestyle. Fernando was a vegetarian from before they met, and Yudelkis was also leaning towards this, but she was still eating animal products.
In 2016, they watched a documentary called “Cowspiracy: The sustainability secret (2015)”, about the negative impact of the meat industry on the environment. So, they decided to go vegan for a month.
“After learning about all of the cruelty and suffering that goes into a plate of food, or anything that is from an animal product; after learning that many diseases are caused by acidity and high levels of saturated fat in the body, veganism was the only path forward for us,” Lafuente says.
Talking about strategies, she says that they try to make pretty much all of the products they use: from non-dairy milk to antiperspirant. So, they avoid buying in stores and can invest more in fresh fruit and vegetables, because these alternatives are eco-friendlier and more affordable.
They also exchange foods they buy via the rations booklet: eggs for beans, milk for soy yoghurt… Furthermore, if they have the chance to travel, they buy nuts, seeds and quinoa, although Yudelkis says that they are able to buy many essential ingredients such as cucumber, avocado, ginger, sweet potato, Tumeric, melon, coconut, to name a few.
She believes that this is all worth the while because of the changes that she has been able to see: there have been many physical, mental and spiritual benefits. They have more energy now, are in better physical shape and their bodies fight off common colds and the flu, much faster.
In the case of their children, she explains that the eldest was only a few months old when they turned vegan, and the youngest one has been vegan since birth.
“The two are growing really well and the most important thing is that we have had the chance to instil really healthy eating habits and to teach them how important it is to respect Nature and other living beings on this planet, from a very young age,” she says.
Incredible wellbeing in Regla
Amberly Alene is the founder of Regla Soul, alongside activist and rapper Alexey Rodriguez. Regla Soul is an initiative that promotes comprehensive health and wellbeing for Afro-descendants.
Activities include working with vegan groups and running campaigns that promote natural health. They also focus on self-care, self-esteem, herbalists (the use of plant medicines), gardening and other plant-based diets that try to improve our health, from a very natural viewpoint.
Furthermore, they run a music get-together, once a month, for therapy in the community and different Afro-vegan cooking, reiki and meditation workshops, appointments to fight disease using medicinal plants and events with health and wellbeing experts. All of this is free in this Havana municipality.
Regla Soul was founded two years ago, in February 2018, as a result of the need to get a hold of resources and information about wellbeing and plant-based meals.
Both founders have travelled extensively in the African diaspora – with their art and activism-, verifying the lack of resources in education for the wellbeing and health of families, and black and mixed-race communities, including Cuba.
The project kicked off as a series of workshops at an organic farm run by Armando Rojas in Casablanca, which is also in Regla. There, people were taught how to identify plants, herbal teas, reiki and eco-friendly practices. They later expanded to the Regla Dam, when the Casablanca farm closed in 2019.
Every month, they run workshops for the community, including a monthly hip-hop concert for wellbeing, an Afro-vegan cooking workshop, as well as ones about meditation, energy healing, art therapy, sexual wellbeing and many others.
“We seek to provide assistance and resources to members from our community, with basic access to the means for them to improve their self-care, mental health, diet and their general wellbeing,” Alene says.
“Using our international initiatives of retreats and collaborative projects, we are encouraging Afro-descendants both on and off the island of Cuba, to help us to create a sustainable and much-needed infrastructure for a much better understanding of what wellbeing means for black people living in the Regla municipality,” she explains.
With this mission insight, they have linked up with different organizations both on and off the island, such as University of Florida’s Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department, Howard University, Witness for Peace, Proyecto Akokan, Comuna Travel and Cuba Educational Travel.
“We have two big dreams for Regla Soul: to create a community garden in Regla to grow foods and to run workshops about gardening so that residents in the community can learn how to grow food at home, and to create a local store where we can find natural products and treatments for an affordable price.
A rendez-vou with Cubavegana
CubaVegana hopes to become a place where people can find and exchange information about these food issues and alternative lifestyle. Its intention is to sign up more people who discover a new way of eating and attitude in this lifestyle, so they can build a better future for society, in harmony with Nature.
This is what Orlando Niz says. He became a vegan because of some digestion problems he suffered a couple of years ago. This young person was a little overweight, even though he had always been active and exercising. That’s when he decided to try out being a vegetarian, and he stopped eating meat for a while.
The young man from the Bejucal municipality, in the Mayabeque province, explains that the experience motivated him to carry on this work. The first meal without meat and the ones that came after, were really delicious and beneficial. So, he started to look up information, on his own, and he stumbled across a book that confirmed his decision and changed his lifestyle: The anti-diet (1985), he recalls.
Orlando believes that it could be really easy and affordable to become a vegan in Cuba because of its climate and fertile soil. “We should have an abundance of quality fruit, vegetables, root vegetables and seeds. However, this isn’t the case. It isn’t the worst either,” he explains.
According to him, this happens for different reasons, including limited variety in food culture because of shortages and misinformation. Add farmers’ lack of motivation into the mix, who don’t have the resources they need and lack incentives.
As food production and transport is such a problem, Niz believes that farmers only choose commercial crops to grow, that are lucrative and rarely drop in demand. As a result, the Cuban people have gotten used to eating the same meals, flavours and combinations. “Good eating habits are mostly cultivated in restaurants, and not everyone can go,” he says.
In his experience, non-processed seeds and whole grains are the hardest things to find in the vegan diet. Brown rice, whole-wheat flour, almonds, quinoa, chia and cashews, to name a few.
Orlando believes that the greatest benefit of being a vegan is its quality of life.
“There is nothing better than being in good health and full of energy. I also like to eat as much as I like, without having to give up a variety of flavours and textures that you get with plants. As a being on this Earth, the best thing is knowing that I am one more person who wants a clean planet, in harmony with Nature,” he summarizes.
Several businesses and restaurants have also joined the vegan movement, offering an alternative to traditional Creole cuisine for tourists who follow this diet, as well as locals.
El Shamuskiao restaurant is one of these places. Located in Old Havana, it offers vegetarian and vegan options, depending on what customers’ choose.
Amanda Pablo, the owners’ daughter, tells us that the restaurant was born three years ago, with the mission of providing a different cuisine to what is typically consumed in Cuba. She says that “vegan customers have been blown away by the flavour because these meals can usually be quite tasteless, but even non-vegans and non-vegetarians eat them at our restaurant!”
Until now, the young woman who has also worked as a waitress and at the bar says that favourites are the vegan burger, hummus, croquettes and juices, which can be anything, from a combination of pineapple, ginger and basil, to beetroot with lemon.
“The hardest thing is trying to get a hold of some products because even vegetables are hard to find sometimes. But you always find a way to get around it. Plus, these challenges help us to create new variations of our dishes, and we innovate the menu,” Pablo says.