Arroz a la Cubana

By Buddy Gomez

Posted at Dec 25 2014 01:53 AM | Updated as of Dec 25 2014 09:53 AM

A week ago, President Barack Obama made a startling announcement that stirred a tempest in the teapot of American foreign policy: a historic shift in relations with Communist Cuba seeking to end the ineffective US trade embargo that lasted for over fifty years and the normalization of relations between the two estranged neighbors.

While American business is now on the serious search for opportunities in Cuba, some rabid Republican politicians and the discombobulated, dwindling, ageing Cuban exiles in Miami are concocting schemes to derail Obama’s best intentions while bellyaching vociferously. The burgeoning consensus, however, is that the changes spurred by the Obama action will prevail. An American-Cuban open rapprochement will be a good plus for the world.

The Philippines and Cuba are historical socio-cultural twins with a shared Hispanic heritage of some three hundred years for which reason the Filipino world affairs aficionado ought to take an interest. For the simply curious, just taking note will definitely be a source of additional erudition. But more so for our government policymakers. There will be decisions and initiatives Cuba will undertake in the future and these will have relevance to official Philippine attitudes in the manner we manage our own economic development vis-a-vis the entry of and partnership with foreign investments. But let me reserve that for later comment. For now, a little review of history, trivia and otherwise.

Briefly, the impetus of Philippine-Cuban relations was the Galleon Trade that plied the Manila-Acapulco route. Asian trade goods bound for Spain and Europe were actually transported over land in Mexico, reshipped to Havana, Cuba consolidating these for its final voyage to Spain. Manila was the jump-off point while Havana was the take-off point of Asia-Europe commerce.

The very first government-sponsored and organized business in the Philippines, the Tobacco Monopoly of 1782, traces its inspiration to 1592, the year tobacco was introduced to the islands, when Augustinian friars brought to Manila Cuban tobacco seeds for distribution and cultivation among the parishes. Cuba was the source of tobacco commerce in the Philippines and as well, the ensuing smoking habits.

There are historical tracts indicating that as early as the late 16th century, there were already Filipino transplants in Cuba (as there were in Mexico) among the very first Asians to settle in the Americas. They came as indentured sailors, as peons for the tobacco fields, as church workers (sacristans) brought in by returning friar-missionaries or simply as inveterate seafarers that Filipinos have always been known for. In fact, the place now called Pinar del Rio wherein settled a community of Filipino (at the time referred to as “Manila Men” or “Chinos Manila”) adventurers, seafarers and indentured laborers was earlier known as Nueva Filipinas. (San Antonio, Texas was likewise referred to as “Las Nuevas Filipinas” in early 1700s.)

Fast forward to the end of the 19th Century: the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. What commenced in Havana Harbor with the explosion of the US armored cruiser, the USS Maine, ended in the route of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Cubans had earlier started their revolution against Madre Espana and the Filipinos were following suit. These were the times when the two countries’ parallel display of nationalism was on full throttle.

Perhaps of historiographic interest, our National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal was actually on his way to Cuba, via Singapore and the Suez Canal, as a volunteer doctor to serve with the Spanish Army when he was arrested upon reaching Barcelona and shipped back to Manila to face trial and execution.

Noteworthy in this recollection were two interesting encounters of Cuban and Philippine interests as rivals in commerce, involving sugar and cigars.

The first: In a rather nuanced and backhanded assist during the US Congress deliberations over the Hare-Hawes-Cutting and the Tydings-McDuffie bills in the early 1930s, Cuba was truly pushing vigorously for Philippine Independence through her lobbyists in Washington DC. But it had nothing to do with brotherly love! It was a Sugar vs. Sugar setto. An independent Philippines would lose the free tariff advantage of her sugar exports to the US while American investments in Cuban Sugar, which was tanking due to Philippine competition, would find relief while harshly handicapping a rival with full tariff.

The second: This could be an urban legend as there is no available substantiation. Manila cigars had developed such a fine reputation that was beginning to dent Cuba’s in the international market. And so, Havana let loose gossip that Manila cigars were hand-rolled by leprosy-stricken women! Although, Manila Cigar is again resurgent, the old glory of la Flor de la Isabela may not be returning anytime soon.

There is no doubt that eventual US tourism headed for Havana will somehow have an effect on the Philippines, no matter if it is not of proximate and considerable consequence. It is inevitable that Cuba will emerge as a new and alternate choice of destinations for the non-Filipino American tourist. Why spend more for farther destinations when Playas Paraiso and Sirena are closer and less pricey. Cuba is in the Caribbean tropics and possesses her share of the world’s finest beaches that await foreign investments as well as a Conde Nast seal of approval. Cuban tourism is going to be a world-class comer.

There are two other areas of Cuban business that Philippine policymakers ought to be observing. These are medical science/health management and mining. Despite its economic handicaps, Cuba has apparently excelled in the development of certain vaccines which even the US, reportedly, does not presently possess, as well as in national health administration. And among Cuba’s natural resources are vast nickel deposits that await proper extraction with the right formula of foreign investments and national sentiment. How the Cubans handle foreign investments in their mining sector may just be instructive for our prevailing overly nationalistic and protectionist attitude given the changing metrics in the world shrank smaller by globalization.

Current events involving the Department of Health in the Philippines indicate that there exists a serious deficiency in the area of vaccine production and procurement. Meanwhile, the mining sector remains in a flux awaiting definitive and encouraging policy directives from the government. Positioning herself in an ardent observer’s perch may be the prudent position for the Philippines to take.

And before I forget, having titled this piece as such, let me close by saying: for sure, the historical Manila-Havana enterprise caused the addition to the Filipino dinner table of “Arroz a la Cubana.”

Here is the description/recipe which I follow. A dish of sautéed ground beef/pork with the usual garlic, onion and tomato mixed with small cubed potatoes and carrots plus raisins, laced with pepper/ chili and cumin powder, served with fried egg over white rice, and a side of fried plantain (preferably saba). And, of course, the indispensable catsup. This dish has been around since Spanish colonial times although not as popular as the Valenciana or the Paella and the Cocido (Pochero). Arroz a la Cubana remains the enduring testimony of the Filipino’s Cuban connection.

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