Lots of things are forbidden in Cuba: unfettered Internet access, leaving the country without authorization, and free protest, just to mention a few. Some of these are par for the course in a totalitarian state, but others are bewildering. Take, for example, Cuba’s criminalization of beef.
Known as “red gold,” beef is one of the hottest underground commodities in Cuba. When I was living in Havana, one of my neighbors told me, “Carrying around beef is worse than carrying around cocaine. You can spend years in jail if you get caught.” The reality of the situation is that in Cuba, even if you have your own cattle, it is against the law to eat them or even sell them. Cattle are a de facto state monopoly: an individual proprietor of a cow can only milk it, not slaughter it. To buy or sell a cow, he needs the state’s permission.
It hasn’t always been like this. Before the Revolution of 1959 Cuba had around six million head of cattle—around one cow for every citizen. Cuba had some of the largest and most productive cattle ranches in the Americas and beef was one of the country’s main exports.
After the Revolution, however, most of the cattle in the island disappeared. The Communist Party decided to create a superior race of milk-producing cows by crossing the island’s native cows with some from India and Canada. But the new cows were ill-adapted to the Cuban environment and many perished. Others died due to feed shortages and because they were eaten.
Realizing that the country’s cattle stock had diminished to unbelievable numbers, the Communist Party criminalized the illegal consumption of beef in 1979. Articles 282 and 241 of the penal code and Decree No. 255 made it a crime to kill cows. Anyone caught killing cows or carrying beef can be sentenced to four to ten years in prison. To ensure that citizens are not eating their cattle, the Communist Party conducts routine counts of the island’s cows.
In a country that suffers from food shortages, being prohibited from eating your cattle can be life-threatening. But under such circumstances people will do anything to survive. During Cuba’s toughest period of scarcity—the so-called “special period” during the 1990s—things got so bad that there were more than five trials a day for cattle-related crimes. Thousands of Cubans have been tried and condemned under Cuba’s beef-banning laws since their introduction.
As another of my neighbors told me, “Before the Revolution, we would eat meat at least two or three times a week. It was beef…. I don’t remember how many years it has been now since I have seen, since I have tasted a piece of steak.”
Nowadays, the number of cows in Cuba still rests around four million. Although it is very difficult, it is not impossible to find beef in Cuba. You can find steak in restaurants specially catered to tourists or on the black market. But even if you can find it, steak averages $25 a kilo. Since the average Cuban earns $20 a month, that’s five weeks’ salary. In Cuba, filet mignon isn’t just a delicacy—it’s an unattainable luxury.