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Normalizing relations brings Cuban coffee to U.S.

This story was previously published in The Miami Herald's In Cuba Today and can be found at www.incubatoday.com

By Emily Williams, Managing Editor

In another step toward rebuilding diplomatic relations with Cuba, coffee grown on independently owned farms can now be exported to the United States.

Nespresso, a Swiss coffee company owned by Nestle Group, announced last month that they will be selling Cuban coffee in the United States. The product, Cafecito de Cuba, is currently being sold as a limited edition product.

On April 22, the U.S. State Department added coffee to a list of products entrepreneurs within the Republic of Cuba are permitted to export to the United States. According to the U.S. State Department, those who can prove that they operate a business outside of the state sector, as well as meet a variety of other requirements pertaining to the business and its product, can sell their goods to American companies.

However, Cuban policies on the exportation of goods are making it difficult for Cuban coffee farmers to utilize this change in policy.

"There is no way," said Karell Acosta Gonzalez, professor for the Center for Hemispheric and U.S. Studies at the University of Havana. "All exports must go through state-owned companies. It's in the Constitution."

The United States' embargo on Cuba, put in place during John F. Kennedy's presidency, restricts trade with Cuban state-owned and operated businesses. These sanctions were initiated when Fidel Castro, who seized power in 1959, publicized private land and companies, imposed heavy taxes on U.S. imports and nationalized $1 billion in American assets.

"We cannot predict what the Cuban government will or will not allow, but we hope that it makes this and other new opportunities available to Cuba's nascent private sector," reads a summary and explanation of the decision on the U.S. State Department's website.

Since the State Department announced this change in April, the National Bureau of Small Farmers Association (ANAP), a group of government officials who represent Cuba's farmers, published a statement about the updated policy last month.

"Next to the workers and our entire people, we are facing up to the intentions of imperialist policy, to bring about division and disintegration in Cuban society, which is what they would seek with the recently announced measure," ANAP wrote in their statement.

As a Swiss company, Nespresso is able to buy coffee in Europe that has been produced by Cuban coffee farmers. After the policy change by the U.S. State Department in April, Nespresso USA was able to apply for a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and receive approval from the OFAC to import Cuban coffee products to the U.S.

In the future, Nespresso and TechnoServe, a nonprofit that works to form competitive businesses in impoverished countries, intend to assist Cuban coffee farmers in improving their business and farming practices.

From plantation to collaboration: Cuba's coffee history

Cuba has one of the best coffee-growing climates in the world. Conditions for growing coffee are best in warm tropical climates with rich soil and limited pests, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. Cuba and other equatorial nations like Costa Rica, Brazil, Ethiopia and Indonesia fall within what is referred to as the "Bean Belt."

Cuba's coffee history goes back to the late 18th century, when hundreds of French plantation owners fled to eastern Cuba during the Haitian revolution.

Las Terrazas, now a designated UNESCO biosphere located about an hour outside of Havana, used to be one of the areas with the highest coffee production on the island.

According to Anais Tomayo, a guide at the park, there are 70 ruins of coffee plantations in the 5,000 hectares that make up the park. Only one has been restored for use as a museum and restaurant, the Buenavista plantation.

On the plantation, the ripe coffee beans would be picked by hand and set out to dry on circles marked on slabs of concrete. Every half hour, the beans would be turned from side to side and, once dry, covered with palm fronds. After 30 days, the beans were layered 30 centimeters deep in a mill where the wooden wheel was used to crack the shells of the beans.

Until 1850, when the slaves started to escape, coffee was exported by the tons to the United states. After hurricanes from 1844 to 1846 nearly halted production, most plantations sold their slaves back to the Spanish and ceased operations.

Today, the coffee beans brewed in the village come from coffee trees that line the winding roads of the village.

"They harvest it themselves in their own version of the French method," Tomayo said.

Instead of circles marked on slabs of concrete on a plantation, the coffee beans are strewn throughout the mountainous streets of Las Terrazas to dry in the sun.

After the revolution in 1959, the Cuban government seized all privately-owned coffee farms for operation through the state. This change saw a dramatic decrease in production, and, starting in the 1990s, the government moved toward moving coffee farming from the state to the private sector. Today, Cuban coffee farms are operated as collectives -- everyone who works on the farm owns and controls its operations.

A taste for Cuban coffee

Although coffee production has increased in the past several years, international demand for Cuban beans forces most coffee farmers to export much of their harvest. Many Cuban restaurants and coffeehouses, though serving coffee in the Cuban style, are brewing with beans from other countries.

Similarly, many cafes, coffeehouses and restaurants in Miami and other areas of Florida with large populations of Cuban Americans serve "Cuban coffee" on their menus. However, due to the embargo, these establishments are serving coffee beans from other countries that is prepared in the Cuban style.

Cafe Bustelo, a popular brand among Cuban Americans, is advertised as a "Cuban-style" espresso since its beans, too, are not harvested on the island. The company, founded in 1931 by two Cuban Americans in East Harlem, is owned by Rowland Coffee Roasters, a Miami-based corporation that was acquired by J.M. Smucker Co. in 2011.

The way coffee is served in Cuba, usually called cafe Cubano, a strong shot of espresso sweetened with sugar as it is brewed, originated when Italian espresso makers were first imported there.

According to Robert Thurston, a former history professor at Miami University and managing partner of the Oxford Coffee Company, the Cuban style of serving coffee is more similar to that of European than Latin American countries.

"In Latin America, you find less preference for espresso whereas in Europe you'll find a huge preference for espresso and espresso-based drinks," said Thurston.

In other countries, though, authentic Cuban beans are starting to find a place in the market. One British company, Alma de Cuba, exclusively sells Cuban brew. In a deal made in 2014, the company pledged to invest $4 million into coffee farming in the southeastern part of the island over the next five years.

According to its website, the primary goal of their fair-trade business is to "help restore Cuba's coffee crops to their former glory."

Email Emily Williams at willi501@miamioh.edu

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