A Cheap Thrill

A Sweet Promise Communism Fulfilled

By David Abel  |  Newsday  |  7/12/1998

HAVANA -- After six hours sweating under the blazing sun, arms akimbo and blotches of sweat staining her blouse, Maylen Rodriguez still had more than 30 people in front of her before she would strike cool gold.

"It's not easy," said Rodriguez, "but where else can I get three scoops of ice cream for a peso?"

The 21-year-old skipped a day of English classes at the University of Havana late last month to attend the tumultuous reopening of Coppelia, communist Cuba's tarantula-like tropical palace of ice cream and the capital's most popular meeting place.

Rodriguez is among thousands of Havana's young, old and restless, most of whom live on about $10 a month, who regularly spend hours snaking through long lines before sinking into one of the revolution's few savory rewards.

While most buildings in this crumbling capital have seen better days, the government just gave Coppelia a pricey facelift. Officials would not comment on the cost of renovating the pin-wheel-shaped building.

But seven agonizing months of renovations brought Coppelia back into business as one of the revolution's quixotic ideas that made it into reality: Coppelia continues to dish out everything from ice cream floats to banana splits for the 1950s price of a nickel each to almost 15,000 people every day it's open, officials say. Despite its fresh coat of white paint, a slew of shiny new tables and chairs, modern serving equipment and more than a score of newly planted royal palm trees sprucing up its redecorated atrium, Coppelia still hasn't figured out how to trim its hours-long lines. But a nickel is still hard to pass on.

Coppelia and imported brands of ice cream are available in stores that take dollars. But the price is 10 to 20 times higher. The idea of proffering a scoop of paradise to the proletariat came spontaneously to Fidel Castro's personal secretary Celia Sanchez shortly after the guerrillas took power in 1959, according to Juan Carlos Ravelo, Coppelia's operation's director. Sanchez wanted the ice cream parlor to be a meeting place for young and old, students and professionals, blacks, whites and mulattos, Ravelo said.

So the revolutionaries knocked down an old hospital on one of the capital's busiest corners, and in 1965 erected the white pin-wheeled-shaped building modeled after the curving spires of the Brasilia Cathedral.

Today, Coppelia is Havana's prime magnet for Cubans. It's across the street from the Cine Yara, one of the city's largest movie theaters, a block from Havana Libre, the city's largest hotel, and a few blocks from the University of Havana. "There is no ice cream place like this in the world," Ravelo said. "This was a gift to the people from the revolution."

Yet while the few rainbow-colored menus available boast of 10 flavors ranging from pineapple to chocolate mint, it's rare that all are available. "They would say this was the best ice cream anywhere," said Diana Rodriguez, 31, a pharmacy administrator, while sipping a milk shake. "But I don't believe them. I have cousins in the United States. They tell me stories."

Coppelia is no Haagen-Dazs. The selection of watery ice cream is often limited to strawberry, chocolate or coconut. Scoops are more golf ball-sized than baseball-sized. And the crispy, spiral cookies advertised in tourist brochures are usually stale, burned wafers. Rodriguez also said scoops in the past would sometimes be served with a hollow center, allowing employees to exaggerate the amount they sold and save some of the stock to sell later on the black market.

Critics also charge that making ice cream available while millions have a hard time finding meat or enough protein is a cynical way of misleading the people that all is well in an economically devastated country.

"Give them bread and circus and they'll be happy," said Jose Buscaglia, a Latin-American affairs professor visiting Cuba from the State University of New York at Buffalo. "If you feed people and give them entertainment, the Romans used to say, they'll be happy and won't rebel."

None of that concerned 7-year-old Rosali Jerez, whose face was smeared in chocolate after her family waited four hours for a table in one of Coppelia's six stained-glass rooms. The pudgy-cheeked girl kept running her spoon along the melted remains of her metal dish. Then she looked at her father and frowned.

"I want more," she said. "More, papa. Please."

Her father looked at her, and then at the waitress rushing back and forth, grabbing sundaes from the fix-it station's new silver freezers and abruptly plopping them on tables.

Her father shook his head and motioned at the glowering crowd pushing into the round room.

"We should go soon," he said. "Other people are waiting."

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