Dairy, Dictatorship, and a Dual Economy: Ordering Ice Cream in Cuba

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Strawberry and Vanilla Ice Cream at Coppelia.

I visited Havana in September with my Cuban-American boyfriend to meet some of his family who had remained in the country. While I was there, I eagerly sought out some of the culinary highlights of the city.

Coppelia, named after the Italian ballet, is one of Havana’s oldest and most famous eateries. It’s a state-run ice cream parlor, that as the story goes- was born out of Fidel Castro’s love of dairy.

The Los Angeles Times wrote in 1991 on the origins of Coppelia: “Fidel Castro ordered his ambassador to Canada to ship him 28 containers of Howard Johnson’s ice cream, one of each flavor. After tasting them all, Castro declared that his Cuban revolution must produce a quality ice cream of its own.”

And thus Coppelia was born. It opened in 1966, and since then it has maintained its reputation of serving quality ice cream, with limited flavors.

I, like Fidel, can’t get enough ice cream. So I was determined to try this place out. After an hour long walk along Havana’s famous Malecón in 90 degree heat, I finally made it to Coppelia, but to my chagrin, this was the line that greeted me.


I honestly could not believe my eyes. Drenched in sweat, dehydrated, and desperate for my trek to come to an end, I nearly panicked. But I soon remembered that there was no way that that could be the line for tourists, thanks to Cuba’s dual economy.

I hate to admit that I was relieved that I didn’t have to wait in that line, but I was. And it’s because Cuba’s dual economy functions with two currencies circulating within the island nation- one for locals and one for tourists that I didn’t have to. One tourist dollar, or CUC, is worth 26 Cuban pesos- making tourist dollars very valuable in Cuba’s struggling economy. As a result, tourists oftentimes get VIP treatment compared to the average Cuban.


After finding our way to the tourist booth, we walked straight to the front and ordered strawberry and vanilla ice cream. It was so good that I went back for another. After I ordered, I immediately noticed that the cashier shorted me on change. But hey, when in Cuba.