The animal advocacy organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has dispatched a troupe of “lettuce ladies” – scantily-clad vegan women wearing bikinis made out of lettuce – to Havana to lecture impoverished Cubans against eating meat.
Due to decades of oppressive communist rule, Cubans unconnected to the Communist Party have little, if any, access to meat staples like beef, chicken, and pork, making Cuba a baffling choice for PETA to expand its advocacy in.
The “lettuce ladies” arrived in Havana on Tuesday and plan to hand out vegan recipe books, veterinary supplies, and exacerbate Havana’s stray dog problem by distributing dog treats. The advocates will target tourists in the areas of Havana off-limits to Cubans – Cuba maintains an apartheid system in Havana to limit tourists’ exposure to non-Party-approved Cuban nationals – with $1,000 in supplies which also include vegetable themed pens and informational booklets.
“We’ve taken this campaign around the world and we absolutely wanted to take it to Cuba,” PETA spokeswoman Ashley Byrne told the Miami Herald. Byrne described the “lettuce ladies” as a “fun way to teach about going vegan” and insisted that PETA had not “discussed our plans with the Cuban government.”
“It had been more than 50 years since a U.S. airline last flew to Cuba’s capital, and for the first time ever, two Lettuce Ladies —carrying green suitcases that proclaim, ‘Vegan Ambassador to Cuba,’ and wearing little more than strategically placed lettuce leaves — were on board,” PETA announced on its website on Tuesday. “Their mission? To encourage new friends on the island to help animals by going vegan.”
PETA has attempted to engage the island nation before, publishing guides for tourists on how to eat vegan while staying in Cuba. Vegans do not eat meat and abstain from consuming any food made with animal products, including dairy and eggs. The PETA guide to eating vegan in Cuba places emphasis on what the organization appears to believe is common Cuban cuisine: plantains, rice and beans, tubers like yuca and malanga. While staples of Cuban cuisine in the U.S. exile community, where basic foods are readily available, Cubans on the island struggle to feed themselves properly against crippling poverty and an increasingly stringent rationing system.
Dr. Carlos Eire, the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History & Religious Studies at Yale University and a member of the Cuban exile community, reacted to the PETA publicity stunt with outrage, highlighting that “meat of any kind is very scarce for 99% of the population” and “it would be impossible for Cubans to follow a vegan diet, due to the scarcity of certain food items”:
Before you deliver a single lecture to Cubans, go live in Castrogonia as Cubans for at least three months, trying to survive on a vegan diet as Cubans would do, on a ration card and an income of 20 dollars a month.
While you’re in Castrogonia, wear your lettuce bikinis all the time, no matter where you are or what you are doing.
Or, if that proves inconvenient, go naked. After all many of your PETA ads against fur-wearing feature naked celebrities.
Join the Ladies in White for one of their Sunday events and be sure to get arrested and beaten along with them. See if your conception of “ethical treatment” is affected in any way by the experience.
Specifically, Cubans are limited in what they can buy by a Communist Party ration book. According to the Cuban journalist Yusnaby Pérez, the average Cuban ration book allows for the monthly purchase, among other minor items, of five eggs, five pounds of rice, half a pound of oil, 1/4 pound coffee cut with toasted split peas, two one-kilogram packages of salt a year, a pound of chicken, and another 3/4 pound of chicken meant to substitute a no longer existent fish ration. Pérez quotes one pensioner as estimating that the monthly rations last him an average of ten days.
Families with school-aged children can rely on schools feeding their sons and daughters outrageously meager lunches, exposed in a Cuban television report that resulted in official sanctions by the Communist Party for the network that aired it. In the report, a schoolboy protests that his food – largely consisting of a watery split pea soup – was “full of rocks, dirt, it has no salt, the split peas are watery”:
The Miami-based outlet Martí Noticias consulted a Cuban nutritionist identified as “Leonardo” to evaluate the quality of the average Cuban diet last year. “In Cuba, the variety of food is very limited. It has been years since Cubans have eaten fresh fish, beef, or shellfish,” he explained. “People do not eat enough fruits and vegetables. Half the population gets its calories from carbohydrates like pizza, bread, and sweets, what we call junk food.” Despite the possible presence of eggs in some of the pizza dough and sweets, Cuban diets are already largely vegan-friendly by necessity.
The situation only appears to be getting worse, reports indicate, because of tourists like the “lettuce ladies.” In a report in December, the New York Times warned that increased tourism to Cuba – triggered in part by the Obama administration’s decision to issue major diplomatic concessions to the Communist dictatorship – has forced the government to scramble its food supply to feed tourists, leaving many Cubans starving. “It’s a disaster,” one woman told the Times, who complained she had not been able to buy an onion for the entirety of 2016.
“Tourists are quite literally eating Cuba’s lunch,” the Times concludes.