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Living on $20 a Month in Cuba

Reporter Patrick Symmes attempts to live and eat on $20 a month in the Communist country. It's not easy and there is no chicken.


The latest in a familiar trope of downwardly mobile journalists experimenting in voluntary poverty—from George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London to Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed—takes on a slight twist. It takes place in Cuba, where reporter Patrick Symmes attempts to live and eat on $20 a month. "Thirty Days as a Cuban" appears in the latest issue of Harper's (subscription required):

I prepared rice, put a single sweet potato in the pressure cooker—known to Cubans as The-One-Fidel-Gave-Us, because they were handed out in an energy-saving scheme—and poured a precious glass of whiskey (250 calories) on the rocks, all with a side of yesterday’s beans and rice. Of necessity the portions were small. From the freezer I drew my protein, one of four breaded chicken cutlets for the month. I fired the stove carelessly and burned the cutlet black, though at the table it proved cold and soggy on the inside. It was not chicken. It was not even the “formed chicken” it claimed to be. The principal ingredients were listed as wheat paste and soy. Close inspection revealed no chicken at all. I was eating a breaded sponge with only 180 calories. Ah, for a McNugget.


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While these kinds of personal experiments tend to reveal little more than a desire to reveal poverty and transcend class, Symmes' story is worth reading for its points about the universal problem with food, which remains a problem of access to money. "And the problem of money," he writes, "is one of politics."

Photo by Patrick Symmes, via Harper's

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