To understand Cuba’s emerging class system, try the ice cream

To understand Cuba’s emerging system, try the ice cream

Photo: HL/Borges

HAVANA, July 29th ( Cuba’s socialist government refuses to publish data on how its fitful transition out of communism has altered Cubans’ class status. But check out where Cubans get their fix of cold, sweet treats, and you can pinpoint their exact place in the island’s newly emerging socio-economic ladder.

Cuba’s rapidly expanding ice-cream market offers a window into the growing divide between poor and rich Cubans. While bland scoops of the state-made fare remain the only option for most, there’s a growing array of choices for those who can afford more, from cafeteria-bought pints to fancy gelati.

We sampled all of them—and got a taste of Cuba’s rapidly melting dream of an egalitarian society.

Coppelia, the socialist cathedral of ice cream

For the hapless bottom 80%—subsisting on meager government salaries of about $30 per month—the best place to get ice cream in Havana is Coppelia, a sprawling green space sheltered by a modernistic dome. Here the communist experience is still served for collective consumption: highly subsidized prices, long lines, communal tables, and today, a touch of nostalgia for an eclipsed utopian vision.

Both Cubans and foreign tourists queued up for a taste of it on a recent sunny afternoon. The line inched so slowly, that a group of high school students, still in their blue public school uniforms, bought cookies from a street vendor to snack on while they waited.

“Lines are part of our national culture,” one student joked. Ahead of them, a pair of older Spanish visitors seemed incredulous: “We’ve been waiting for nearly an hour,” one lamented.

Cuba's traditional ice-cream parlor, CoppeliaCustomers can get the communist experience at Coppelia: subsidized prices, long lines, and communal tables.(Richard E. Feinberg)An older Cuban customer played the role of tour guide:
“This is an island where authorities constructed an immense and extravagant ice-cream pavilion. Hard-working Cubans willingly wait hours to consume a few spoonfuls of frozen milk. This whole extravaganza was invented by our intrepid leader, who dreamed of making ice cream that surpassed that of his mortal enemy to the North. An ice cream Cold War! Welcome to Coppelia, the socialist cathedral of ice cream in the Americas!”

Coppelia was the personal project of Fidel Castro and his partner Celia Sánchez, who inaugurated it with great fanfare in 1966, seven years after his revolution overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista. Some say the Comandante en Jefe himself invented the recipe, redolent in milk, cream, and sugar, but also full of calcium and other nutrients. It was sold at subsidized prices throughout the island. But the government had to cut back on flavors and distribution after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 wiped out the subsidies the island itself had been receiving.

Fidel Castro took the original recipe to his grave

Of the 50-odd flavors that Coppelia served in its glory years, the visitors found only three on the menu.

“At the truly great Coppelia the ice cream was rich and creamy, not so brittle and quick to melt as it has become today,” said Mario, a pensioner on a $12-a-month income who shared a table with the students and the Spanish couple. “It seems that Fidel took the original recipe to his grave,” he added in a hushed voice.

Ice cream at Cuba's traditional parlor Coppelia

Ice cream at Coppelia costs the equivalent of a nickel a scoop. (Richard E. Feinberg)

It’s an open secret among Cubans that government-made ice cream too often suffers dilution along the supply chain. A quart of ice cream can be exchanged on the black market for the equivalent of $5 to $10—about one-third of a month’s salary.

“The real income from working at Coppelia comes from what we can earn on the black market, since our official salaries are laughable,” confessed a young waiter. “I’m here for what I can earn from sales of goods we steal from the state.”

One of the Spanish tourists complained that his banana ice cream tasted of soy and that the toasted wheat crumbs sprinkled on top only added to the dish’s blandness. Yet, he admitted, at the equivalent of five US cents a scoop, it was probably the cheapest ice cream he’d ever had. For many Cubans, whose state rations no longer include bottled milk, ice cream is a way to get in their daily serving of dairy.

Multinational tastes for Cuba’s middle class

The striving middle classes can occasionally splurge on packaged pints of Nestlé, manufactured in industrial quantities in the global brand’s local facilities.

The multinational launched ice cream production in Cuba in 2003, as Fidel Castro sought foreign capital investment to substitute the lost Soviet subsidies. A decade and a half later, the scale of its facilities and its logistical ability to cover the island with neatly packaged, standardized ice cream is unrivaled.

The firm also enjoys privileged, monopolistic access through a joint venture with a Cuban state-owned enterprise (Coralsa.) No other major multinational has obtained the local rights to produce ice cream. The only potential international competitor is Unilever, owner of ice cream brands such as Ben and Jerry’s. For now, though, its Cuba sales are restricted to personal and home care products.

Nestlé is targeting Cuba's middle class with its ice cream

Already, Nestlé has become the most recognized foreign food brand in Cuba. The company circumvents Cuba’s tight restrictions on corporate advertising by displaying its logo on its refrigerated trucks, on its strategically placed coolers in convenience stories, and on its wrappers.

Nestlé’s long-term goal is to build its brand among Cuba’s growing middle-class. Its size is hard to pinpoint, given the dearth of market studies. A good guess is about 20% of the population, composed of Cubans with monthly incomes of over $100 dollars (including transfers from abroad.) Priced at the equivalent to $1 to $2 dollars a pint—roughly a day’s wage for the average state employee—Nestlé is beyond the grasp of the lower rungs in the Cuban social ladder.

Two young military recruits recently ogled the contents of a Nestlé’s blue-and-white coolers at a convenience store in a rural area. One of us offered to treat each of them to a pint. They gladly accepted, and quickly dove into the sweet, cold treat.

Like everyone in Cuba, Nestlé is hampered by limited ingredient choices. But thanks to its modern production facilities and big fleet of delivery trucks, its ice cream is many steps above Coppelia’s. Still, there are signs that Nestlé’s multinational flavor is already not up to some Cubans’ standards.

A lawyer we interviewed reported that Nestlé pints fared unevenly in his freezer. An economist complained of a chemical aftertaste. Both professionals are, by necessity, state employees, but their modestly above-average wages, combined with whatever extra income they may receive from family overseas or wealthy local relatives, allowed them access to the global brand.

Nestlé seems eager to court those higher-income customers. It already introduced a new double flavor—“strawberry and intense chocolate”—as part of its premium Línea Dorada or Golden Line. If it wants to continue catering to that growing middle-class segment of the Cuban consumer pyramid, it might have to add fancier products in the future.

Cuban gelato for the island’s “new rich”

There’s already a small, but vibrant market for top-shelf ice cream. It’s a side effect of economic measures then-president Raúl Castro started rolling out in 2010 to jumpstart the Cuban economy and boost government revenues. They included allowing the operation of private small-scale businesses such as restaurants, cafeterias—and ice-cream parlors.

The more successful entrepreneurs joined the exclusive ranks of the “new rich,” as Cubans call them, shaking up the socially homogenous system that had kept distinctions between managers and workers narrow. The island’s top 1% are an amalgam of owners of profitable private businesses, high-ranking state officials, clever black marketers, Cubans returning from well-paid overseas assignments, and those fortunate enough to have generous relatives in the diaspora.

Gelato stores in Havana serve a variety of flavors.
Gelato stores in Havana serve more than ice cream. (Richard E. Feinberg)

This class of well-heeled Cubans can afford to pay the equivalent of $1 to $2—or 20 to 40 times a Coppelia scoop—for a cup of gelato at places such as Gelato and Amore, two private Italian-style ice-cream parlors.

The rainbow of flavors in the gelaterias’ chilled display cases are revolutionary to Cubans who grew up on the Coppelia experience; so is their owners’ grasp of capitalism. Amore opens early for hearty breakfast plates, and closes late to catch the after-work crowd. It offers specialty flavors, including mojito infused with local rum.

“The state should not see us as direct competition, as our prices are so much higher,” Amore co-owner Pablo Fernández argues. The scale and reach of the government’s ice cream production—as well as Nestlé’s—dwarfs what small gelaterias can sell. “Each of us caters to distinct consumer markets, segmented by income levels,” says the former government agency lawyer.

His fashionable Vedado venue is located only a few blocks from Coppelia, but its scene couldn’t be more different. There is no waiting in the hot sun. Amore, which operates out of a renovated mansion, is air-conditioned. Its affluent customers wear European-branded jeans and brand-new sneakers and can pick any table they like.

The government’s grip on the ice cream economy

But don’t read the gelaterias‘ success as a triumph of capitalism. Despite their fancy decoration and dizzying variety, they are still very much embedded within the Cuban state’s planned economy.

Yanetsi Azahares, Gelato’s owner, came up with the necessary capital to take gelato-making courses in Italy, and to set up the shop in the exclusive Miramar neighborhood. But she still has to buy milk and other essential ingredients at costly retail prices, or resort to stuffing her own suitcases when she and her Italian husband return from travel abroad. At this point, the government does not allow private firms access to wholesale markets, which are reserved for state-owned retailers. “Perhaps because of these hardships, there are so few good private ice-cream parlors here, despite the pent-up demand among ice-cream crazy Cubans,” she reasons.

A gelato parlor in Cuba
Gelato parlor owners have to pay retail prices for milk because they don’t have access to the wholesale market. (Richard E. Feinberg)

She and other business owners operate at the mercy of the government. Last summer, it suspended the issuance of new licenses for private food establishments on a temporary basis; it’s since said it will start authorizing new firms again by year-end, but it has yet to do so. Even as the draft of the island’s new constitution recognizes private property, the government has separately published a new set of regulationsdesigned to keep private business owners from accumulating too much wealth.

Still, the government’s grip on the economy is not going to stop Cubans with cash from demanding products up to international standards, including ice cream. It’s also unlikely to help poorer Cubans afford more than Coppelia and other state brands. What could happen, though, is that Cubans’ increasingly sophisticated palates might force government ice-cream parlors to up their game.