On Thursday June 16, 2016, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee overwhelmingly voted to include four pro-engagement Cuba amendments in the must-pass FY 2017 appropriations bill. The amendments offered by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) would lift the travel ban to Cuba. Though the bill the amendments has not yet approved, the explicit support of the Senate is a landmark in the normalization of relation between U.S.-Cuba.
Sen. Leahy has been a long time foe of the US embargo. In 1999, he took part of the US delegation that accompanied the Baltimore Orioles to Cuba. After the baseball game between the Orioles and the Cuban national team (Orioles 3, Cuba 2), Fidel Castro invited Leahy, Luke Albee (Leahy's Chief of Staff) and several other delegates to dinner at his private residence.
According to Albee, "every time a course was served, Fidel would remark how what was being served was "the best in the world". Given the Cuban propensity for superlatives and Fidel's prowess in such matters, remarks like these were not surprising. However, when dessert was served and Fidel mentioned that the ice cream being served was "the best ice cream in the world", Senator Leahy, being from Vermont, felt obliged to politely interject: "with all due respect, sir, the finest ice cream in the world was invented in the state of Vermont by two gentlemen called Ben and Jerry."
Fidel was intrigued. Several times that evening, he asked to be sent a sample of the fabled Ben & Jerry's. He instructed the senators to pack the samples in dry ice so the ice cream would not spoil. And then, as a memento and perhaps as a reminder of his request, he signed two baseballs and gave them to Senator Leahy and Mr. Albee.
After he returned to the US, Senator Leahy announced that he was sending Ben and Jerry's ice cream to Fidel Castro. He soon received a call from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said, "Patrick, there's an embargo on. You just can't do this".
But a promise is a promise, so it fell to Albee to figure out how to get the ice cream to Fidel. His chance came a few months later, when the Cuban national team came to Baltimore to play the Orioles (Cuba 12, Orioles 6). Albee put six cases of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, carefully packed in dry ice, on the Cubans' plane just before it returned to Havana.
Time passed and the Vermonters did not hear anything. Then, several months later, a Capitol police officer arrived at Senator Leahy's office with a mysterious package that "a Cuban guy" had just dropped off. Inside was a case of the finest rum that either of them had ever tasted, compliments of Fidel Castro.
Since in Cuba and in the U.S. alike, we all scream for ice cream, attempts to foster goodwill between the nations have included many moments of shared cool delight over scoops of ice cream. And 'Ice Cream Diplomacy' involves not only ice cream made in the USA; but also fantastic ice cream, made in Cuba. For example, in 1975, after a long, hot day of touring farms and housing projects in a Jeep, Senator George McGovern (D-SD) and Fidel feasted on Cuba's own Coppelia ice cream.
Coppelia, Cuba's 'ice cream Cathedral', was created at the height of the Cold War as gustatory proof of the many triumphs of the socialist Revolution. According to Jason Motlag of The Guardian, in the early 1960s, at Castro's behest, the Cuban ambassador to Canada shipped 28 containers of Howard Johnson's ice cream from the US to Havana. "Castro decided that Cuba needed to respond on a revolutionary scale by creating something bigger and better than anything his Yankee rivals could muster, yet priced low enough for everyone to enjoy," writes Motlag.
Fifty years later, though the quality and variety have suffered somewhat since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cubans still spend the equivalent of a few American cents and wait for up to two hours for whatever flavor of Coppelia is still available. Coppelia flavours loom large in the Cuban imaginary. The 1993 internationally acclaimed Cuban film, 'Fresa y Chocolate' ('Strawberry and Chocolate') draws its name directly from the moment when the two main characters first meet by chance at Coppelia.
Ben and Jerry's is known worldwide for its own revolutionary approach to ice cream. The company believes and acts in ways that demonstrate that "success is sweeter when everyone benefits". Its three-part mission is to make fantastic ice cream, to manage the company for sustainable financial growth and to use the company in innovative ways to make the world a better place. It does this internally, by choosing responsible packaging and non-GMO/fairly traded sourcing, and paying a living wage to all employees. They do it externally by bringing social values to the table along with the fun and the flavour. For example, Empower Mint, the company's newest flavour was created specifically to support efforts to strengthen the embattled United States Voting Rights Act of 1965.
For some time now, Ben and Jerry' has been an active supporter of engagement with Cuba. On May 25 of this year, the company, along with Business Forward and Engage Cuba hosted a reception at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. The reception was held in honor of small and medium sized US business leaders who had attended a briefing on US-Cuba normalization at the White House and who were scheduled to lobby their representatives on the Hill the next day. The all-you-can-eat extravaganza of ice cream flavors and toppings showcased 'Blockade Buster' (the Cubans call the 'embargo' a 'blockade'), a name coined in Cuba by Jeff Furman, Chairman of Ben and Jerry's Board of Directors.
Although Ben & Jerry's has not committed to producing a special Blockade Buster flavor, it is fairly easy to concoct Blockade Buster parfaits from off-the-shelf flavors. You could start with Chunky Monkey, because the embargo policy is simply bananas and nuts. You might add in Hazed and Confused, because that is how everyone feels about the embargo. Or you could also invent a CHErry Guevara parfait made with Cherry Garcia and a few scoops of Chocolate Therapy, in homage to 'Fresa y Chocolate'.
Cuban state-owned Coppelia and Vermont based B Corp Ben and Jerry's are more than just ice cream companies. They are both icons of values-based enterprise, though each is in the image of the system and the leaders that produced them. And the core message of US-Cuba Ice Cream Diplomacy is that socially responsible enterprises, large and small, state and foreign-owned, alike, play an important role in creating a prosperous and sustainable world.
The next Ice Cream Diplomacy event is scheduled to take place in Havana this winter. Once again, the topic of responsible enterprise will be front and center. The menu will feature a special Blockade Busting concoction of Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavours along with Coppelia's best. By then, maybe American citizens will be allowed to travel to Cuba thanks to the labor of the hundreds of intrepid Blockade Busters who have peopled the history of the Back Channel to Cuba.