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Cuba’s vegetarian minority face uphill battle

Cuban chef Alfredo Varelprepares 'Super Romero' vegetarian dish eco-restaurant 'el Romero' Pinar del Rio CubTuesday Feb. 15 2011. Located Las

Cuban chef Alfredo Varela prepares 'Super Romero', a vegetarian dish at the eco-restaurant 'el Romero' in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011. Located in the Las Terrazas natural reserve about 50 miles east of Havana, El Romero goes beyond garden-

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Updated: February 19, 2011 5:31PM

HAVANA — Juicy hamburgers and sandwiches stuffed thick with sausage aren’t your typical vegetarian fare — but that’s what was on the menu at El Carmelo, a state-run restaurant that promoted healthy, meat-free eating.

“Meat-free” is not a phrase that goes over well in Cuba, an island where long-standing privations have forged a strong, emotional bond with food — especially cuisine that once oinked, mooed or clucked.

Facing this harsh reality, El Carmelo replaced such vegetarian items as soy picadillo with greasy pork chops.

That has been the fate of the island’s half-dozen or so other vegetarian restaurants as well. Opened in the 2000s under the Communist government’s go-vegetarian initiative, they have all either closed down completely or replaced soy and vegetables with meat.

Elsewhere in the world, vegetarianism is gaining proponents who cite evidence that eating less meat is good for your heart and reduces the risk of certain types of cancer.

But in Cuba, the island’s handful of vegetarians face an uphill battle.

“When I tell people I’m a vegetarian, everyone says ‘Girl, you’re crazy. You can’t survive just on grass,’” said Yusmini Rodriguez, a 34-year-old translator who stopped eating meat 13 years ago out of ethical concerns.

Rodriguez and some of the other dozen members of the island’s vegetarian community say the Cubans’ love affair with meat is linked to the country’s “Special Period”: an era of extreme hardship and acute food shortages in the early 1990s that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main benefactor at the time.

“It was a time of forced vegetarianism that left a really bad taste in people’s mouths,” said Nora Garcia Perez, a vegetarian who heads a Havana-based animal protection group. “The ‘Special Period’ really hurt the cause of vegetarianism in this country. . . . Meat became an obsession for people who lived through that time.” AP

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