We visit Havana to find out how politics affects food and how recent changes are being reflected in Cuban cuisine.
Montreal, Canada – “I was told to always look him in the eyes. He had a very heavy handshake, was very respectful and would always stand up to greet his guests,” says Daniel Cote, recalling his first meeting with Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and now leader of Cuba, in 1990.
The colourful 64-year-old businessman and Elvis Presley fan has owned Ameublement Elvis, an iconic used-appliance store located on the corner of Montreal’s Marianne Street and Papineau Avenue, since 1976.
But the neighbourhood store hides an unexpected business. For almost 30 years, Cote has been exporting all sorts of used merchandise to Cuba.
An unexpected meeting
He remembers how it started. “Cubans would come to Montreal by boat to do business,” he says. “They would sell Cuban cigars, sugar, and all sorts of things here.
“They would also come to my store and buy up to 30 used appliances at a time. That’s what made me think that Cuba was probably a huge market for my merchandise.”
In 1990, Cote took part in an international commerce exhibition in Cuba. With the United States embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba needed to be supplied with cheap goods. Cote’s timing was perfect.
While he was there, two representatives of the Empresa Importadora de Abastecimiento Tecnico-Material (EMIAT), an import-export firm owned by Cuba’s Interior Ministry, knocked on his hotel room door. They took him to see Raul Castro, the brother of Cuba’s then president, Fidel Castro.
“I brought an interpreter with me to the meeting,” Cote remembers. “The first thing Mr Castro said to me was that I was disrespecting him and his country. He said I should learn Spanish if I wanted to do business with him. I was so embarrassed.”
Then, the grandfather of seven admits: “There are so many people called Castro in Cuba, I had no idea he was Fidel Castro’s brother.”
But despite this uncomfortable first encounter, Cote left Cuba having made a deal with the government. He soon started shipping containers full of not only used appliances but also buses, army boots, school furniture, and even fire trucks to the country.
The end of an era
Today, a quarter of Cote’s business comes from his dealings with the communist state. And he has learned Spanish – by translating songs with a neighbour who gave him lessons.
“When I went back to Cuba, Raul Castro told me I spoke like a Spanish cow and nicknamed me el bigote, which means the moustache,” he says proudly.
Cote says he met Raul Castro seven or eight times, but regrets never having meet Fidel. “I saw him giving live speeches in front of hundreds of thousands of people,” he says. “He didn’t have notes. He knew everything by heart.
“One can disagree on his policies but he was a very impressive and charismatic man. His speeches were like shows.”
At the back of the store, between used ovens and fridges, two of Cote’s employees, one of whom is Cuban, are wrapping electric bicycles to be shipped to Cuba. But Cote knows his days of doing deals with the country might be numbered. In March, US President Barack Obama called on the US Congress to lift the decades-old trade embargo on Cuba during a historic visit to the island-nation.
“When the US lifts its embargo, I will be out of business in Cuba,” Cote reflects. “It’s life. There is nothing I can do about it. It doesn’t mean I won’t keep dropping by [Cuba] from time to time to say ‘hi’.”