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Culture : Castro's Revolutionary Cry: Let Them Eat Ice Cream! : * Cubans flock to a Havana parlor to eat the sweet scoops. It's a source of pleasure and national pride. And it has even become a dietary staple in days of stringent rationing.

November 05, 1991|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One recent afternoon, between the lunch and dinner hours, three Cuban university students with big appetites sat at an outdoor table with 12 ice cream salads. In the middle of the table was a thermos bucket, on top of which one of the women had stuck a wad of chewing gum. What they couldn't finish in one sitting, they said, would go home in the bucket.

"If I eat lunch, I come here later for two salads," a student named Iracema said. "If I don't eat lunch, I can put away 3 1/2 salads."

The exact formula for Coppelia ice cream--a mixture of cream, cane sugar and fresh Cuban-grown fruit--that Castro once claimed to be "as good as any in the world," is a closely guarded secret. Austerity has not diminished its sweetness, although the number of flavors is down from 50 or more a decade ago to just 16 today, manager Delgado said. The day he was interviewed, the parlor was offering only six flavors--chocolate swirl, pineapple, strawberry, mango, coffee and papaya. By evening, only the chocolate swirl was left.

Despite scant variety and no-frills service--no cones, and nothing to drink but tap water--Coppelia is a child's delight.

One boy in line for ice cream on the last weekend of summer vacation was 9-year-old Wilden Javier Rives. Claiming to have once eaten 10 scoops of ice cream in a single sitting, he said he was going for a personal record that day.

The boy's appetite could be understood only in terms of what he had eaten for breakfast just two hours earlier: a glass of milk and a piece of plain bread. Judging from the line, he would have to wait at least an hour for his ice cream.

"A decade ago, when food was more abundant, we never waited more than 10 minutes here," said the boy's mother, a librarian. "Now everybody comes to Coppelia because there's so little else to buy."

Rather than reinvest to expand the parlor and meet the growing demand, as a capitalist would do, Delgado submits his million-peso monthly revenue to the government to spend on centrally planned social welfare. In any case, a bigger parlor might create an even greater demand for ice cream that the state could not meet.

If there is one weak point in Coppelia's capacity to keep supplying ice cream, it's the freezers that keep breaking down for lack of spare parts. Billy Reina, a 21-year-old waiter at the parlor, approached an American reporter and blamed the situation on the three-decade-long U.S. trade embargo against Castro's government.

"Why won't George Bush sell us a new ice cream freezer?" he asked, rather angrily. "It's because we're Communists, right? Now is that humane? Is that Christian?"

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