Hungry Havana

Food politics in Cuba


In early August, Juan Carlos Gonzalez Marcos, known to his neighbors as Panfilo, consumed a large amount of alcohol and went for a stroll in Havana. Upon encountering a foreign documentary team—in Cuba to produce a film about the local music scene—the well-lubricated Panfilo jumped into the cameraman's shot with a slurred but serious message for foreign viewers.

"What we need here is a little bit of jama," he bellowed, employing a colloquial Spanish term for food. "We need food. We're hungry here. Listen to what Panfilo tells you from Cuba. Food." The video was later uploaded to YouTube, where, as of this writing, half a million people have watched it.

A few days later, after Panfilo mania gripped the Cuban exile community, a second video appeared, this time on Cuban state television. In a scene that seemed plucked from an Arthur Koestler novel, a sober Gonzalez Marcos, looking agitated and depressed, performed a ritual retraction for his fellow citizens.

If he thought this apology would appease the dictatorship of Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and heir, Panfilo was mistaken. In a trial closed to the public, he was convicted of "precriminal social endangerment" and sentenced to two years in prison.