There’s a black-and-white photograph of Fidel Castro taken during his whirlwind April 1959 trip to New York City, just three months after his rebel forces ousted Fulgencio Batista, a US-backed dictator who had turned Havana into a playground for the mafia. Dressed in his trademark military fatigues, Castro is surrounded by minders and journalists, hunkered in the back of the Bronx Zoo train. He has a pensive look in his eyes. His face is buried in an ice-cream cone.
Castro was in the United States on the invitation of newspaper editors smitten with his war stories and swashbuckling style. Aside from the photo ops, the trip didn’t go well: President Dwight Eisenhower refused to meet with him; after delivering a confrontational speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Castro was angered by several of the audience’s questions and stormed out. Upon returning to Havana, Castro nationalized all US interests without compensation; Washington responded by breaking diplomatic ties and imposing a trade embargo. The CIA began arming and training Cuban exiles for a mission that culminated in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, just two years after Castro’s US tour. At a funeral service for “martyrs” in the wake of the attack, Castro vowed “Socialism or death!” and hitched his island of 10 million people to the Soviet Union. Hostilities with America would endure for more than five decades.
El Comandante rejected his northern neighbors. But for a lifelong dairy lover who’d grown up on a farm in the Oriente province, ice cream proved harder to resist. In the sixties, he ordered his ambassador to Canada to ship him twenty-eight containers of ice cream from Howard Johnson’s, a chain of hotels and restaurants that was then the largest in America. After tasting every flavor they made, Castro decided that Cuba needed to respond on a revolutionary scale by creating something bigger and better than anything his Yankee rivals could muster, yet priced low enough for everyone to enjoy. ¡Helado por el pueblo! Ice cream, socialized.
A factory was set up along the highway to Havana’s airport, with top-of-the-line manufacturing equipment imported from Holland and Sweden. Cecilia Sanchez, Castro’s private secretary and confidante from the rebel campaign, was tapped to direct the enterprise. She named it Coppelia, after her favorite ballet. The flagship, designed in futurist strokes by architect Mario Girona, opened to the public on June 4, 1966, in the heart of Havana’s upscale Vedado neighborhood. Svelte young waitresses, selected for their resemblance to dancers, wore custom-made plaid skirts high above the knees. They dished up twenty-six flavors—presumably in homage to the failed July 26, 1953, rebel attack on the Moncada army barracks that inspired the Cuban Revolution—in a whimsical array of combinations with names such as Special Harlequin, Indian Canoe, and Lolita Cup. Now Cuba boasted the largest, most outlandish parlor in the world, an “ice cream cathedral” as it came to be popularly known.
“You’re joking—this is your first time at Coppelia?” Orlando Martinez exclaimed in mock amazement, loud enough to get the attention of other patrons waiting in line with us on a cool January afternoon outside the iconic establishment. “It’s the best ice cream in the whole world, you know.” His pride and enthusiasm were sincere, but coming from a lanky nineteen-year-old engineering student who had never left Cuba, I had reason to be skeptical: As far as he was concerned, it was the only ice cream in the world. As an aficionado of all things sweet, cold, and creamy, I told him I would have to decide for myself.
Over the years, travels have taken me to more than a hundred countries on five continents. From Kabul, Afghanistan, to Kyoto, Japan—in peace, pandemonium, and at war—there’s almost always some tasty or at least strange local variety of ice cream to be had: savory shrimp-and-octopus helado deep in Mexico’s narco-country; oozing dulce de leche in the backstreets of Buenos Aires, Argentina; rhubarb crisp made on-demand with liquid nitrogen in San Francisco; and, in the badlands of southeastern Turkey, orchid-infused dondurma dense enough to hang from a meat hook at the height of summer. But only in Cuba was ice cream a state-run institution.
Coppelia’s sprawling two-story concrete structure rises above a green space that covers two square blocks and boasts five different entrance lines. The action centers on the corner of 23rd and L streets, one of the liveliest intersections in the capital. From 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. each day, the pavement is packed with uniformed students, canoodling couples, pick-up artists, pensioners, and the buskers and hawkers who attend to them while they wait. And wait. And wait for ice cream that, at just 4 cents a scoop, is more birthright than indulgence in a country where the average salary is about twenty dollars a month.
The shortage of basic necessities that has attended Cuban communism has made them experts at la cola (the queue), with a system that can at once impress, confuse, and piss off the unschooled foreigner. Walking up to the end of a line, a patron calls out, “¿Ultimo?” and whoever is last will reply. Now they know whom to follow, freeing them to wait wherever they please. The next arrival may do the same thing, and leave to use the restroom or have a drink. Whenever the line starts to advance, a half-dozen people might materialize out of nowhere, falling into place in precise order.
The upside to maddening waits and multiplying lines is that Cubans pass idle time better than anyone. At one point, a one-man jam band with water bottles around his ankles for maracas and a paint drum for percussion, jerry-rigged with a harmonica, flute, and cow bell, had a trio of toddlers shaking their backsides as people walking past shouted their approval. Sun-kissed flesh was everywhere. Girls swaying their hips; boys in tank tops and tight jean shorts. Down the line, a beefcake with aviator sunglasses blew a kiss to a woman climbing out of a fifties-era Chevrolet taxi that had groaned up to the curb. She winked and blew a kiss back.
More than thirty minutes had passed and the line hadn’t moved—not forward, anyway. “From here, it’s about another hour,” one teenager told me matter-of-factly, dipping into a bag of chocolate cookies he’d brought to top his ice cream. “This is nothing—in the summer, sometimes it’s two hours.”
Finally the line started moving. Single-file, monitored by truncheon-wielding security guards, we rounded the park entrance. The three flavors that had been posted on a hand-written board were now reduced to two—chocolate and strawberry, two flavors that were coded with meaning. In a well-known scene from Fresa y Chocolate, a 1993 Cuban film that was the country’s greatest cinematic success—and its first with an overtly gay character—the two protagonists meet at Coppelia. In a time of state-sanctioned persecution of gays, Coppelia became a kind of cruising ground where strawberry and chocolate were symbols of sexual orientation—strawberry being the more brazen choice.
“He came up to my table and murmuring ‘may I?’ installed himself in the chair opposite with all his bags, umbrellas, rolls of paper and the dish of ice-cream,” writes Senel Paz in the short story upon which the film was based. “I glanced at him: it didn’t take a genius to see which team he batted for, and anyway, even though chocolate was available, he had ordered strawberry.”
A poster for the film hung in the foreigners’ section, where a pair of Japanese tourists sat alone, hunched over fast-melting sundaes to the drone of piped-in pop music. If you were willing (and able) to pay about one dollar per scoop in convertible pesos, you could try more flavors and find gratification in an instant, but this was missing the point. Coppelia was as much about communion as ice cream—an enduring touchstone for the revolution’s utopian ideals. Cubans of all ages, black and white, rich and poor, could gather under one roof to share a simple pleasure. The anticipation of getting inside, and getting to know the people standing next to you, was part of the fun.
We kept walking, single-file, then finally passed under a giant Cuban flag and into the inner sanctum, a circular pavilion with … more lines.
From Anna Muñoz’s tenth-floor balcony, Coppelia appears as a spaceship mired in a jungle of palm and ficus trees. On a weekday morning, with still an hour to go before the doors opened, the line that fronted the parlor was already snaking down the block. Beyond that was a sweeping view of Havana’s skyline, which had scarcely changed since her childhood.
“It was a kind of fantasia back then,” Muñoz recalled of her first trips to the parlor. “My father would take me once a week and I tried every flavor.” Tutti frutti, guava, muscatel, orange-pineapple—she ticked them off with relish. “Chocolate was always my favorite.” In high school, the shaded gardens were a popular spot to meet boys, while students from the nearby University of Havana gathered to discuss rural literacy campaigns. “No matter what was going on,” she said, “we could always afford ice cream—as much as we could eat.”
Other Coppelia branches sprung up across the island in the years since its opening, in playful relief to the run-down baroque and Soviet-bloc architecture that dominated cities and towns. At its peak, Coppelia served up more than fifty flavors for campesinos, beachcombers, and visiting dignitaries, including US Senator George McGovern, who paid a visit in May 1975 to push for an end to the embargo. After a long hot day of touring farms and housing projects together in a jeep, Castro treated McGovern to an ice cream.
But as new generations developed a taste for Coppelia’s ice cream, Cuba grew increasingly dependent on foreign subsidies. Crisis struck in 1990 when communist East Germany, the country’s second-largest trading partner, reunited with West Germany, cutting off millions of dollars worth of powdered milk and other essential food shipments. The Soviet Union, on the verge of collapse, stopped sending butter. Lacking hard currency to buy these products outright, and without enough cows to supply milk, Cuban authorities had to make a critical choice: butter or ice cream.
It was no contest. “In a hot climate like ours, a cold, appetizing treat like ice cream is really important,” Eugenio R. Balari, then head of the government’s Institute for Research and Orientation of Internal Demand, told the Los Angeles Times. “Ice cream is a good source of nutrition. It has calories, fat, protein. That is perhaps why we defend it.”
The end of the Cold War tested Cubans’ patience as never before. Almost overnight, the economy contracted by about 40 percent, plunging the country into a “Special Period” of extreme austerity measures. Rationing and shortage became the new norms. Lines got longer. The government was forced to shutter some of its Coppelia outposts, and the coolers in Vedado thinned out to serve only a couple of flavors.
“It’s true: the quality of the ice cream suffered; it has never recovered,” Muñoz told me, echoing a lament that I would hear from many Cubans old enough to remember. “But you have to understand that Coppelia is much more than ice cream. It has survived because it unites us. We all have memories from days spent in that park as children, with friends, with lovers.”
One morning I met with Yackeline Díaz, a veteran administrator at Coppelia with the kind of easy grin you’d expect to see in the ice-cream trade. I wanted to learn more about day-to-day operations and get permission to take pictures, since the guards out front forbade me to take them. Díaz introduced me to her boss, Antonio Reyes Seguismundo, whose desk was flanked by oil-and-canvas portraits of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. “Ahh, American! You are most welcome,” he said, “but please, no photos.” Apparently, Coppelia’s aging custodians are self-conscious that the quality of their ice cream has deteriorated.
In fact, state-run news outlets have said as much. In April 2012, the newspaper Trabajadores ran an exposé on Coppelia citing everything from lackluster service to broken freezers and a dearth of flavors. The article’s most pointed complaint, that the ice-cream scoops are often “hollow inside,” implied a more dubious offense, as though the parlor’s founding principals were being betrayed.
Díaz sat me down to put a positive spin on things. “Our global popularity has to do with the prices and taste,” she beamed, noting that each day the parlor dished up more than 4,000 gallons of ice cream for up to 35,000 customers. “People can afford it and get the best quality.” But only two to three flavors were offered on a typical day, and she would not confirm or deny if the ice cream was made with powdered milk, as some Cuban friends suspected. (She did say that it contained 18 percent eggs, compared to 11 percent at Varadero, Coppelia’s cheaper cousin.)
Does Fidel still come around? “Not in the eight years since I have been working here,” she said, “though we have hosted Nicolás Maduro,” the president of Venezuela, Cuba’s most important post-Soviet ally, sister country in socialism, and home to several Coppelia franchises. We were seated in a newly renovated VIP chamber complete with air conditioning, TVs, and pictures of Cuban ballet stars plastered on the walls. Hardly the place to project working-class solidarity. “He likes our ice cream very much,” Díaz added. “The last time he was here he ate a sundae in this same room.”
Yet these days the revolution is running out of gas, which may help explain the recent pivot toward the United States. With global oil prices at record lows, Venezuela, Cuba’s most recent benefactor, is on the verge of an economic meltdown that could have potentially grave reverberations for Cuba, which has depended on $3 billion in oil subsidies a year. Tourism is needed more than ever. Last year, a record 3 million foreigners visited the country, and this is sure to jump dramatically as travel barriers with the US are removed, bringing a windfall of hard currency and potential investors.
As ever, ice cream figured into the annals of this most recent chapter of US–Cuban diplomacy. In the early 1990s, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a stalwart opponent of the embargo, ate Coppelia with Fidel Castro during his trip to the island. Leahy swore that his home state’s product was better, and sent Castro a case of Ben & Jerry’s to make his point. Castro was pleased. The ice-cream swap helped pave the way for lengthy phone calls, the sharing of family pictures, and other personal gestures. In a recent interview, Leahy’s former foreign-policy aide insisted that twenty years of backchannel exchanges like this achieved a normalization of relations that so much hardline bluster could not.
We were, at last, next in line to be seated at the bar when a staffer informed us they’d run out of chocolate, one of the few flavors still made with Cuban ingredients. “Ay, por dios!” exclaimed Marilena, a middle-aged librarian waiting with her daughter, Sara, who was visiting from out of town. Unable to contain her disappointment, Marilena stomped off to check the menu of the other queue. No chocolate, either. “So, you don’t like strawberry, eh?” I ventured, trying to lighten the mood when she returned. “No, it’s not natural,” she huffed.
Not that her appetite for ice cream was diminished. At the bar, a handsome waiter handed out glasses of tap water and took our order: I opted for the tres gracias, a sundae with three scoops. Marilena and Sara ordered two ensalada de bola each (each ensalada is five scoops) and a side of caramel sponge cake. (Looking around, I could see that two ensaladas was a popular order.) A plump woman in a starched white apron dished things up, next to a sign touting fifty-six years of revolution.
The ice cream arrived in plastic baskets, doused with syrup and cookie crumbs. I took a spoonful and let it linger: light, fluffy to a fault, and a bit too icy, with the artificial aftertaste of bubble gum. I wouldn’t order strawberry again, though almond and chocolate on subsequent visits were a big improvement.
For the most part, eating the ice cream was a head-down, silent affair. Before long, some patrons were picking up their baskets and draining them down their throats. One man began scraping two extra ensaladas into a plastic to-go container he’d brought with him. “Here, you need to eat more,” Marilena said, dumping a slice of cake in my bowl. “You’re a young man. How can you eat so little?”
Back out on the sidewalk, it was pushing 8 p.m. but the line still stretched to the corner. A breeze surged up from the sea wall just a few blocks away. “It’s so cold,” said a girl, maybe sixteen, standing next to a couple of friends embracing in the glow of the Yara Cinema. The boy reached out and pulled her into a hugging threesome. It would take at least another hour before they were inside. But there were worse ways to kill the time, and there was still plenty of strawberry left in the coolers.