Fidel Castro And His Miraculous Bovine

May 20, 2022 0 comments

For all their love of dairy, Cubans have always remained starved for milk. In the tumultuous history of necessity, invention and recurring dearth, no scientist nor entrepreneur of the highest intelligence could save the country. Only a cow, singular in her kind, ever came close to satiating the hunger of millions, and of course, their milk-craving president.

1987 picture of Ubre Blanca cow, stuffed inside a glass box, in a cow ranch East of Havana. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

Her name was Ubre Blanca and she was unlike any cow that ever walked on earth. With her titular white udders she single-handedly revolutionised Cuba’s dairy culture, albeit temporarily. So famous did this bovine become that her name would be chanted in the same breath with Fidel Castro, Cuba’s revolutionary leader, for decades to come.

But how did that happen?

Fidel Castro became the face of Cuba in January 1959. The man was a riveting politician—socialist in his approach and hardcore in his execution. But he was not just that. Castro was a lover of dairy, a devout fan of the white elixir that nurtured the ailing and growing. So vocal was he about his taste, that the CIA found out about it and used it to assassinate the leader multiple times. A poisonous pill was placed in the freezer of the Hotel Habana Libre in the mid-60s. This was where Castro drank his chocolate milkshake every day. The poison was to be slipped in while preparing this milkshake. The attempt failed though, as the pill froze onto the freezer’s wall and broke during extraction.

Growing Demand Without Supply

And thus, development spurred in the milk industry. The communist leader’s craze was now becoming state policy. Giant ice cream parlours were coming up on every corner and camembert cheese was making waves in diplomatic circles—all thanks to Castro. Cubans were craving more and more milk, but the system was not sustainable. The cebu cows native to Cuba were unable to produce the amount of milk that could satiate public need. Castro imported high-yielding Holstein cows from Canada, but they couldn’t survive the tropical climate.

Fidel Castro pats Ubre Blanca.

When all else failed, Castro ordered cross artificial breeding of the cows to produce a new Cuban breed that was resilient as well as high-yielding. By this method, a native cebu cow producing 1.5ltrs of milk would soon be birthing a calf that could give almost 10ltrs. In Castro’s vision, these cows would be bred by the hundreds, and soon multiply to the millions.

As they say, you only have to be right one time. And right Castro was. The one and only successful cow was birthed from this experiment in 1972, and named Ubre Blanca. She became his personal pet project, quite literally. The cow was raised under his direct watch in a stable in Neuva Gerona and, as many will tell you, lived in conditions better than most Cubans. She ate new things every day, and was milked in an air conditioned environment with soft music to alleviate stress and discomfort.

Castro aspired for his supercow to break the world record set by American Arlinda Ellen, who had been producing 80lts of milk since 1975, and to that end, he instructed the staff to milk her six times a day and record the quantity of each milking. These numbers were flashed on the daily news for the entire nation to see. Surely enough, the well-kept artificially bred cow delivered 109.5ltrs of milk in July 1982. Soon after, her total production was recorded at 24,269lts over a 305-day lactation cycle—another record breaking achievement.

Ubre Blanca was now ready to dominate as a political symbol. She was a steady reference in Castro’s national speeches, wherein he emphasised on the superior milking and breeding abilities of the communists. Her daily life was aired on television akin to soap operas that kept locals hooked. The citizens loved her. Diplomats and journalists visited from the world over just to get a peek at the miracle mammal.

Cuban milking cows in front of a Havana residence. This view illustrates a peculiar Cuban custom, where the milkman brings his cows to the door of his customers and delivers milk to his patrons fresh from the cow. Photo: Wikimedia

But there’s only so much a single cow can do. None of the other cows ever produced as much milk as Ubre Blanca. This meant that the poor bovine was stressed time and again to meet exceptional standards of production and calving. After thirteen years of having produced four times more milk on a daily basis, her health gave in. During her third pregnancy in 1985, Blanca developed a complication and was taken to the National Center for Agricultural Health in Mayabeque. Here they froze her eggs for future use. The procedure aggravated a tumor in her rump, and the animal had to be euthanised soon after. Her remains still sit embalmed in a glass urn at the center.

That day, a eulogy was published in the newspaper. An entire page was dedicated to Ubre Blanca’s obituary. The animal was sent off with military honours. Castro soon after had a statue of his beloved cow built in the town of Nueva Gerona. As the excitement faded, headlines turned back to Cuba’s shortage of milk, which continued to increase over the coming years. Dairy products were a luxury in Cuba, subsidised only for children between zero to seven years of age, pregnant women and the ill. Attempts continued to renew the situation, but in vain. In 2002, a project was undertaken to clone the superior cow from Ubre Blanca’s genetic materials. In a dearth of high quality feed, farmers are able to produce low fat, low yield milk at best. Coppelia, Cuba’s most popular parlour commissioned by Castro, is known to have served hollow scoops of ice cream one times too many. Castro’s dreams continue to float as dreams, long after his incumbency.

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