The future of Cubas socialist ice-cream cathedral

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There is a black-and-white photograph of Fidel Castro that was taken during his whirlwind April 1959 trip to New York, 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 miniature train that ferries visitors around the Bronx zoo. He has a pensive look in his eyes. His face is buried in an ice-cream cone.

Castro was in the US at the invitation of a group of newspaper editors who were smitten with his war stories and swashbuckling style. Aside from the photo ops, the trip did not 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 questions from the audience and stormed out. Upon returning to Havana, Castro nationalised 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.

One table of four people ordered 10 ensaladas between them – that’s a total of 50 scoops of ice-cream. Photograph: Lisette Poole

El Comandante rejected his northern neighbours. But for a lifelong dairy lover who had grown up on a farm in the Oriente province, ice-cream proved harder to resist. In the 1960s, he ordered his ambassador to Canada to ship him 28 containers of ice-cream from Howard Johnson’s, a chain of hotels and restaurants that was then the largest in America. After tasting every flavour the company 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, socialised.

A factory was set up beside 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 chosen to direct the enterprise. She named it Coppelia, after her favourite ballet. The flagship, designed in futurist strokes by architect Mario Girona, opened on 4 June 1966, in the heart of Havana’s upscale Vedado neighbourhood. Svelte young waitresses, selected for their resemblance to dancers, wore custom-made plaid skirts high above the knee. They dished up 26 flavours – presumably in homage to the failed rebel attack on the Moncada army barracks on 26 July 1953, which marked the start of 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 parlour 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 outside with us on a cool January afternoon. “It’s the best ice-cream in the whole world, you know.” His pride and enthusiasm were sincere, but coming from a lanky 19-year-old engineering student who had never left Cuba, I had reason to be sceptical: 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, my travels have taken me to more than 100 countries on five continents. From Kabul to Kyoto, there is almost always some tasty or at least strange local variety of ice-cream to be had: savoury shrimp-and-octopus helado deep in Mexico’s narco-country; oozing dulce de leche in the backstreets of Buenos Aires, Argentina; rhubarb crisp made 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 is ice-cream a state-run institution.

Coppelia’s sprawling, two-storey concrete structure rises above a green space that covers two square blocks and boasts five different entrance lines. The action centres on the corner of 23rd and L streets, one of the liveliest intersections in the capital. From 10am to 9.30pm each day, the pavement is packed with students, 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 the equivalent of just 4 cents a scoop, is more birthright than indulgence in a country where the average salary is about $20 a month.

The shortage of basic necessities that has attended Cuban communism has made them experts at la cola (the queue or line), 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 materialise out of nowhere, falling into place in precise order.

Staff on duty at Coppelia, where customers sometimes queue for as long as two hours for their ice-cream. Photograph: Lisette Poole

The upside to the 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 cowbell, had a trio of toddlers shaking their backsides as passersby shouted their approval. Sunkissed 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 1950s Chevrolet taxi that had groaned up to the kerb. She winked and blew a kiss back.

More than 30 minutes had passed and the line had not 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 had 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 flavours that had been posted on a hand-written board were now reduced to two: chocolate and strawberry, both of which are loaded with coded 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 gay people, 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 $1 per scoop in convertible pesos, you could try more flavours and find gratification in an instant, but that would be missing the point. Coppelia is 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, can gather under one roof to share a simple pleasure. The anticipation of getting inside, and getting to know the people standing next to you, is 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 10th-floor balcony, Coppelia looks like 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 was already snaking down the block. Beyond is a sweeping view of Havana’s skyline, which has scarcely changed since her childhood.

“It was a kind of fantasia back then,” Muñoz recalled of her first trips there. “My father would take me once a week and I tried every flavour.” Tutti-frutti, guava, muscatel, orange-pineapple – she ticked them off with relish. “Chocolate was always my favourite.” 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 rundown baroque and Soviet-bloc architecture that dominated cities and towns. At its peak, Coppelia served up more than 50 flavours 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, appetising treat like ice-cream is really important,” Eugenio R Balari, then head of the Cuban government’s Institute for Research and Orientation of Internal Demand, told the Los Angeles Times in November 1991. “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%, 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 flavours.

“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 might expect to see in the ice-cream trade. I wanted to learn more about the day-to-day operations and get permission to take pictures, since the guards out front forbade me to do so. 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 ageing 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 lacklustre service to broken freezers and a dearth of flavours. The article’s most pointed complaint – that the ice-cream scoops are often “hollow inside” – implied a more dubious offense, as though the parlour’s founding principles were being betrayed.

Díaz put a positive spin on things. “Our global popularity has to do with the prices and taste,” she said, noting that each day the parlour 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 on a typical day just two or three flavours were offered, and Díaz would not confirm or deny that the ice-cream was made with powdered milk, as some Cuban friends suspected. (She did say that it contained 18% eggs, compared to 11% at Varadero, Coppelia’s cheaper cousin.)

Does Castro 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.”

A young couple leaving Coppelia’s original flagship branch in Havana’s Vedado neighbourhood. Photograph: Lisette Poole

Yet these days the revolution is running out of gas, which may help explain the recent pivot toward the US. With global oil prices at record lows, Venezuela is on the verge of an economic meltdown that could have potentially grave reverberations for Cuba, which has depended on $3bn 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.

What the diplomatic thaw with Washington spells for Cuban ice-cream is less clear. While a surge of foreign capital – and access to the kind of wide range of ingredients that once allowed Coppelia to produce upwards of 50 flavours – may hold the promise of an ice-cream renaissance, it could also accelerate the incursion of multinational brands. Swiss giant Nestlé has already made deep inroads into Cuba, its trademark aqua-blue coolers cropping up at many hotels and hard-currency stores.

But obstacles to trade and investment persist. The enduring US trade embargo forbids most Americans from doing business in Cuba, and Congress will not lift it until billions of dollars’ worth of claims relating to property seized from Americans after the revolution are resolved. The Cuban government still controls most of an economy that is saddled with a prohibitive bureaucracy, arbitrary decision-making and a shortage of hard currency. Reform is sure to be slow, but it may be inexorable. On 11 April, presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama held the first meeting between a Cuban and US leader in more than a half-century, parting with a pledge to “turn the page”.

As it has in the past, ice-cream played a part in this most recent chapter of US-Cuban diplomacy. In the early 1990s, Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, a stalwart opponent of the trade 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 to 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 20 years of these kinds of backchannel exchanges achieved a normalisation 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 that they had run out of chocolate, one of the few flavours still made with Cuban ingredients. “¡Ay, por dios!” exclaimed Marilena, a middle-aged librarian waiting with her daughter, Sara. 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 ensaladas 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 56 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 bubblegum. I would not order strawberry again, though almond and chocolate on subsequent visits were a big improvement.

For the most part, eating the ice-cream was a heads-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 had 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 8pm, 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 16, standing next to a couple of friends embracing in the glow of the Yara cinema. The boy reached out and pulled her into the hug. 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.

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