Nickel a Scoop Has Cuba Screaming for Ice Cream

Revolution's 'gift to the people' dishes out icy treats to 15,000 daily

After six hours sweating under the blazing sun, Maylen Rodriguez still has more than 30 people in front of her before she will strike cool gold.

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

She skipped a day of English classes at the University of Havana late last month to attend the reopening of Coppelia, communist Cuba's pinwheel-shaped palace of ice cream and the capital's most popular meeting place.

Rodriguez is among thousands, 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 sweet rewards.

Since 1965, officials say, Coppelia has dished 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.

While most other buildings in this capital are crumbling, the government just gave Coppelia a pricey, seven-month-long facelift.

Despite a fresh coat of white paint, a slew of shiny, new tables and chairs, 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 ice cream is still hard to pass up.

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 to Fidel Castro's personal secretary, Celia Sanchez, shortly after the guerrillas took power in 1959, according to Juan Carlos Ravelo, Coppelia's operations director.

She wanted the ice cream parlor to be a meeting place for young and old, students and professionals, blacks, whites, and mulattos, Mr. Ravelo says.

Today, Coppelia is Havana's prime magnet for Cubans. "There is no ice-cream place like this in the world," Ravelo says. "This was a gift to the people from the revolution."

Yet 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.

"They would say this was the best ice cream anywhere," says Diana Rodriguez, 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."

She also says that in the past scoops would sometimes be served with a hollow center, allowing employees to exaggerate the amount sold and peddle some of the product on the black market.

Critics also charge that making ice cream available while millions have a hard time finding 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," says Jos 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 seven-year-old Rosali Jerez, whose face was smeared with 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 in her metal dish. Then she looked at her father and frowned.

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

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