Cuba's dairy industry, once touted as a success, is struggling
BY TIM JOHNSON
McClatchy Foreign Staff
SAN JOSE DE LAS LAJAS, CUBA
Years ago, an extraordinary cow lived in Cuba, and her name was White
Udder. She produced milk like no cow before.
One day in January 1981, farmers coaxed White Udder to the milking stand
three times. By the end of the day, she'd produced 29 gallons of milk.
Comandante Fidel Castro was very, very happy.
The feat earned White Udder a place in the Guinness Book of World
Records for daily milk production. Castro brought a stream of foreign
dignitaries to visit the cow, received daily reports on her condition,
ordered a bovine security detail and demanded that veterinarians look
into cloning her. For Castro, White Udder made manifest the success of
his revolution in Cuban milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream.
Today, an unblinking White Udder dwells in a glass case at the National
Center for Animal and Plant Health, stuffed by the lead taxidermist from
the National Zoo after she was put to sleep in 1985, suffering from skin
Cuba's dairy industry is moribund as well. Dairy cows today on average
produce less than a gallon a day, a fraction of the seven to eight
gallons U.S. dairy cows issue daily, not to mention White Udder's
voluminous service to socialism.
It turns out that the dairy industry is emblematic of Cuba's economic
system – just not in the way Castro so dearly hoped. White Udder, rather
than a harbinger of an ever more productive socialist dairy industry,
was more of a freak of nature, pampered in an air-conditioned enclosure
on the Isle of Pines, music piped into her stall, nourishing a radical
"It wasn't genetic," said Leopoldo Hidalgo Diaz, an official at the
animal and plant health center. "It was an anomaly. It's never been
From the rural cow pasture to an iconic two-story ice cream stand in
central Havana, the subject of dairy is likely to elicit resigned shrugs
Fidel Castro "wanted to have better cheese than the French, better milk
than the Dutch and better chocolate than the Swiss," said Regina Coyula,
a historian. "He said Cuba would make better ice cream than Howard
Johnson's," the now-defunct U.S. chain.
At the Coppelia ice cream parlor, where honored guests would watch in
astonishment decades ago as Fidel Castro occasionally indulged in 18 or
20 scoops of ice cream, or more, only two flavors of ice cream are
available to Cubans now. On a recent day, they were strawberry and
choco-vanilla swirl. A booth for foreigners paying hard currency had two
other flavors, vanilla and plain chocolate.
Only one variety of bland processed cheese is routinely available at
state-run stores or dispensaries.
The son of a dairyman, farmer Brígida Valle Acosta has spent most of his
68 years tending to cows outside of San José de las Lajas in Mayabeque
province southeast of the capital. His only break was to fight with a
Cuban army unit engaged in Angola's civil war in the mid-1970s.
Valle and his son have 15 cows, and each produces about a gallon a day.
Production is low because his cows eat only what they find at pasture.
The state no longer provides balanced fodder or soy feed.
Valle acknowledged that some mornings he wakes up with one thought in
his mind: "This isn't worth the trouble."
"We used to give them soy, wheat and processed corn with additives,"
Valle recalled. The cows would reciprocate with plenty of thick, creamy
Now the inspectors who come around to test his milk say it is low in
density and with substandard fat, giving him barely a third of a Cuban
peso for each of the two liters that by law he must turn over to a state
distributor for each cow he oversees.
The area around his farm is suffering.
"If you went 20 square kilometers around here in the 1980s, each of the
state dairy enterprises was producing a thousand liters a day," Valle
said. "Now, they are producing 100, 200 liters a day."
At the Valle del Peru state farm in another area of Mayabeque, dairyman
Omar Cubero Ferron said a combination of a lack of nourishing feed along
with poor incentives for individual milk producers have brought
At his farm, managers obtain about two pounds of processed feed per cow
per day, he said, meaning that production per cow is nearly two gallons
of milk, still low.
"It all comes down to the feed," he said.
For decades in Cuba, providing fresh milk was a paternalistic pledge of
the state. It wasn't so hard when the Soviet Union subsidized the Cuban
economy, providing raw material, including animal feed. At its height in
1984, the Cuban dairy industry produced an annual peak of 1.1 billion
liters of milk.
But with the 1989 collapse of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe and
the subsequent fall of the Soviet Empire, milk production collapsed. At
its low point in 2004, Cuba produced only 340 million liters of milk.
The island's cattle herd fell from 7 million to 4 million head.
Raúl Castro took the reins from his older brother in 2006, and a year
later he lashed out at the dairy industry for low production, issuing a
promise that each Cuban child under age 7 would receive a glass of fresh
It has been a hard promise to keep. Cuba imports quantities of powdered
milk. By 2014, according to the National Statistics Office, dairy farms
had edged annual production up to 497 million liters.
There's been no other like White Udder, though, and her passing in 1985
was nearly an affair of state. Granma, the party newspaper, ran a full
obituary. A statue was erected at the entrance to the La Victoria farm
in Nuevo Gerona, her hometown on the Isle of Pines.
Last year, Cuban filmmaker Enrique Colina produced a documentary called
"La Vaca del Marmol," or the Marble Cow, in which the story of White
Udder serves as a metaphor for Cuba's failed economic strategies. The
film shows ordinary Cubans recounting their belief that milk production
would rise and rise.
Lines still form every morning outside the retro Coppelia ice cream
parlor, which sits in the center of a block in the Vedado area of the
In one line, Cubans grew visibly uncomfortable when a visitor asked
about the dwindling available flavors. One woman, declining to give her
name, said, "They used to have mango and guava flavors, but I'm talking
about 20 years ago."
"The strawberry ice cream no longer has bits of strawberry in it," she said.
Havana, a city of 3 million, has a burgeoning scene of private
restaurants, part of Cuba's economic opening. Some of the restaurants
offer goat cheeses, parmesan and other artisanal dairy products, all
made on the island. Some of it is quite tasty.
The provenance of the high-quality cheese is both secretive and legally
murky. Word is that some dairymen have started off-the-books production.
That, too, would be consistent with Cuba's economy.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @timjohnson4
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