A white marble statue of a beloved revolutionary heroine stands at the entrance to La Victoria, a hamlet some 27 km southwest of Nueva Gerona, on Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud. When she died in 1982, Cuba’s daily newspaper Granma gave her a full-page obituary, while Cuba’s poet laureate eulogized her. A postage stamp was issued in her honor. Fidel Castro was so proud of her that he had her stuffed and encased for public viewing, like Lenin. In 2002, he even decided to clone her from genetic samples harvested before her death.
She was known simply as Ubre Blanca. White udder.
Although not quite the divine cow “Kamdhenu” of Hindu texts, Ubre Blanca was to Cubans—and especially Fidel, who metaphorically conceived her—a sacred cow who inscribed her name in the Guinness Book of World Records for her milk production.
When Fidel got wind of Ubre Blanca’s prowess, he was determined to prove… that cowmunism could one-up the yanks.
Before the Revolution, Cuba had a strong dairy industry, although in Batista’s have-and-have-not society (with its vast rural poverty), as much as “90 percent of children went without milk,” reported Macleans. After Fidel took power, he was determined to boost milk consumption. Making milk a staple of the national diet became a top priority for the young Cuban leader with a passion for all-things-dairy, especially ice cream. (“One Sunday, letting himself go, [Castro] finished off a good-sized lunch with 18 scoops of ice cream,” recorded Fidel’s friend and Noble-prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez in A Personal Portrait of Fidel.)
Fidel’s sweet tooth was so great that in 1966 he created Parque Coppelia catercorner to the Habana Libre as the world’s largest ice cream parlor, to serve a for-pennies indulgence to the masses… and to “show we can do everything better than the Americans,” Fidel told journalist Georgie Anne Geyer, referring to Cubans’ pre-revolutionary love of Howard Johnson’s famous “28 flavors.”
Not content with Coppelia, Fidel would produce his own “Dairy Queen.”
Cuba’s existing cattle stock were mostly Cebús and Criollos dating back to the Spanish colonial era. Although hardy and well adapted to Cuba’s tropical climate, they were notoriously poor milk producers. Hence, Fidel imported thousands of Canadian Holsteins—the world’s highest-yielding dairy breed. (Cuban farmers were also sent to Ontario to learn dairy farming under the auspices of the Holstein-Friesian Association of Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture.)
Ill-suited to a tropical climate, a lucky few Holsteins were provided with air-conditioned facilities. But almost one-third of the herd soon died due to the extreme heat and humidity.
The solution was obvious and simple: Crossbreed Holstein with Cebú cows to produce a high-yielding yet heat-hardy breed. Fidel took a zealous interest in artificial insemination in pursuit of Cuba’s sturdy F-1 “supercow” (75 percent Holstein, 25 percent Cebú). Castro’s passion to play, in Geyer’s words, “The Thai king as rainmaker” was so great that Gabriel García Márquez once threatened to write a novel about him called “El Dictador de las Vacas” (The Dictator of the Cows).
“It means that a Cebú cow which produces 1.5 litres of milk can bear a calf that can produce eight or ten litres,” Fidel told the Federation of Cuban Women in 1966, announcing his new breeding program. Within four years “the island will have something like eight million cows and calves, all good producers of milk…there will be enough milk produced in Cuba to fill Havana Bay.”
King of the sires was a Canadian Holstein bull called Rosafe Signet. The two-time Royal Agricultural Winter Fair grand champion appeared past his prime when Fidel laid eyes on him after reportedly shelling out CAN$1.5 million dollars (the Cuban press reported the cost as $27,000). Pampered at the National Biogenetics Center farm, in Cangrejeras, outside Havana, the bull now affectionately recalled as “the genetic giant” produced hundreds of crossbred offspring.
Ubre Blanca—the humble bovine destined to become Cuba’s most beloved revolutionary mascot—was born in 1972 as a grandchild progeny of Rosafe Signet.
One of 118 among a herd on Isla de la Juventud, she was noticeable for her large udder size and no less prodigious appetite.
By the time Ubre Blanca turned six, in 1980, she had birthed two offspring and was pregnant again. When she gave birth to her third daughter, Reina Amalia, in May, her daily milking average rose to an impressive 63 liters (16 gallons)—three times as much as a normal cow.
At the time, the world champion record-holder for milk production was a cow from Rochester, Indiana, called Arlinda Ellen. On January 1975, she had produced 195 pounds (23 gallons)—a world record for a single day. Then, on November 21, 1975, she officially broke the annual production record, at 55,661 pounds (6,472 gallons). Enough to fill 115 bathtubs!
When Fidel got wind of Ubre Blanca’s prowess, he was determined to prove (as with Coppelia) that cowmunism could one-up the yanks. Exceeding Arlinda Ellen’s world record became a personal battle. (Fidel’s beef with the yanquis probably began with the Cuban moossile crisis on November 30, 1960, when a cow innocently grazing a meadow in Oriente was killed after a Thor missile launched from Cape Canaveral exploded, sending debris cascading down over Cuba.)
Jorge “Yoyi” Hernández Blanco, the director of Veterinary Medicine on Isla de la Juventud, got a call from Fidel to ask his opinion about Arlinda Ellen and what it would take for Ubre Blanca to capture her crown. Yoyi predicted that the Cuban cow could deliver up to 140 liters a day with proper feeding and care.
Thus, a specially-selected multidisciplinary technical team, led by Dr. Rosa Elena Simeón (head of the National Health Agricultural Center, and later Minister of the Environment), was created to pamper the bovine. The prima donna grazed in her own pasture and lived in a state-of-the-art, air-conditioned stable protected 24/7 by armed guards (a wise precaution; in December 1963, CIA saboteurs had attacked a nearby naval station at Siguanea, killing four Cubans).
A special feeding plan was evolved, with grass and honey and oranges. Ubre Blanca didn’t like to eat the same thing every day, although she apparently enjoyed the tropical music from Radio Caribe on a small portable radio while she ate… and ate… and ate for eight hours at a time!
“She was a biological clock,” recalls Yoyi. “Five minutes before her meal, she would stand by the fence of her paddock and look and moo for Chino, who was the one who fed her.”
Obsessed with being poisoned himself, Fidel apparently insisted that Ubre Blanca’s food be given first to another animal. “You cannot allow this animal to have even a cold,” Fidel told Yoli on his second visit to the dairy farm.
Finally, on January 25, 1982, Ubre Blanca became the new world champion when she delivered 109.5 liters (28.9 gallons) in one day—more than four times that of an average cow.
The diva had a temper like Naomi Campbell. For one, she didn’t like being milked every six hours. She kicked at the unlucky workers who had to milk her four times a day. (When her milkings were later reduced to thrice daily, her overall production increased.) Nor did she like to be touched on her back. “Be careful! She’s one quarter Cebú!” Yoyi advised Fidel when he visited the farm and reached out to touch her. Reportedly, when he put his hand on her back, she didn’t flinch.
Castro kept a close eye on Ubre Blanca’s progress. He visited the farm frequently, often bringing journalists and visiting dignitaries to “ooh!” and “aah!” over Ubre Blanca’s bulging and bounteous udder. Measuring more than six feet in circumference after calving, when full it even dragged on the ground!
Finally, on January 25, 1982, Ubre Blanca became the new world champion when she delivered 109.5 liters (28.9 gallons) in one day—more than four times that of an average cow. The following month she broke another world record when she yielded 24,269 liters (6,411 gallons) over a 305-day lactation cycle. A proud Fidel accompanied a representative of The Guinness Book of World Records (and a group of 26 journalists), which validated Ubre Blanca’s two feats.
Fidel’s sacred cow had become a national hero and a symbol of national pride. Cubans eagerly followed Ubre Blanca in the daily news, which reported her production figures as if they were the achievements of a high-ranking athlete.
Alas, Ubre Blanca soon developed a cancerous tumor. In 1985, she was transferred to the National Center for Agricultural Health (CENSA), in San José de las Lajas, Mayabeque, to extract her embryos and freeze them for future research. Shortly thereafter, she was euthanized. The heroine was embalmed and placed in a climate-controlled glass case for permanent display at the entrance to CENSA.
Ubre Blanca had been one of a kind. None of her seven offspring inherited her milk producing power.
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Meanwhile, the U.S. Office of Research and Policy’s 1998 Cuba Annual Report noted that livestock numbers had briefly increased during Castro’s first decade in power before beginning a steady decline. Homegrown “Tropical Holsteins” yielded an admirable average of 6.1 kilograms of milk a day. Still, that was enough to supply only 30 percent of Cuba’s needs; powdered milk from East Germany made up the shortfall. The Cuban dairy industry had also come to rely on imported grain feeds. These disappeared, along with the powdered milk, with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, causing a catastrophic fall in milk production. Milk became so scarce that rations were available only to pregnant women and children seven years old or younger.
Castro blamed the decline in cattle since the 1970s on the U.S. trade embargo and covert CIA bacteriological warfare. (In fact, the CIA did use biochemicals against Cuba’s sugar industry, and in 1964 the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed a project code-named SQUARE DANCE to introduce hoof-and-mouth disease and other biological agents to destroy Cuba’s agricultural economy.)
With Ubre Blanca gone and the “supercow” program abandoned, in 1987 Fidel asked his scientists to produce a mini moo small enough to keep inside an apartment. Pint-sized versions of big bovines had become the rage during the 1970s, when U.S. farmers successfully bred miniature cows the size of large dogs. So Fidel’s dream wasn’t pure flight of fancy.
Still, like many of Fidel’s agricultural schemes, the genetically-engineered dwarf-cow project was an unrealized fleeting whimsy. Fidel, however, was never short of quixotic ideas for solving Cuba’s milk crisis. (According to the official statistical almanac, Cuba’s milk production fell from 1.51 billion liters in 1985 to 590 million liters in 1995.)
Inspired by the successful cloning in 1996 of Dolly the Sheep in Scotland, Fidel tasked the Havana Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology to clone Ubre Blanca. El comandante envisaged an entire herd of Ubre Blancas cloned from her tissue samples. With good reason: Japanese scientists at Kinki University and the Ishikawa Prefecture Livestock Research Centre cloned the first cows in 1998.
“We’re very close… we have big things coming,” claimed Dr. José Morales, director of Cuba’s cloning project, in 2002. But the initial optimism proved as chimerical as Fidel’s dreamed-of 1970 “ten million ton harvest.” There would be no more Ubre Blancas.
Two decades on, the celebrated cow is fondly remembered as a halcyon part of revolutionary mythology.
Meanwhile, forget “Where’s the beef?” Cubans are still asking “Where’s the milk?”