Cuba Loses Horsepower: Mule Shortage Spooks Commies

Last week, Cuba's daily newspaper breathlessly announced that the country faced a mule deficit.

Yes, you read right: mule, as in, donkey, hee-haw, Mr. Ed* and all that.

Breaking! Also in short supply in Cuba: everything.

The dip in the mule community -- their words -- has triggered a countrywide census of the animals that begins today. The tally by Cuba's "census burro" will ascertain the "veracity" of the shortage, Granma wrote. The "National Mule Census" will last ten days. The directive from above is clear: even if census takers have to forge a river, or climb a mountain, every long-eared, braying equine must be counted.

Already, Marco Rubio was overheard saying only fully naturalized mules should be included.

The paper reports the country may be some 8,000 burros in the red. The pack animals are prized there for their "versatility" in transporting not only coffee, but also cocoa and agricultural staples to its most mountainous regions.

But the Cuban government is a glass-half-full kind of cartel. This isn't a shortage, they say, it's "a decline."And, "Our goal is to over the long run accelerate mule production with the direct collaboration of the private sector and the state." Emphasis on "long."

Upon hearing the news of the census, those kidders at the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times mocked the Cuban government for their antediluvian dilemma. But actually guys, we count our mules too. And horses, and llamas and pigs. Every five years the Department of Agriculture conducts its own census that itemizes the number of farm animals in the country by state, by numbers sold and killed. Sometimes, as with hogs and pigs, there are even quarterly reports. The next comprehensive census is in 2012.

As for our mules, turns out Florida had 6,200 mules in 2007, and the country nearly 300,000. So much for bragging rights. According to Granma, Cuba's second largest province, not even a tenth of the size of Florida, owned 3,700 mules last year.

What causes a shortage anyway? Too many pony boys? If horse slaughtering is as big an epidemic in Cuba as it is here, those mares better scram. For those, and other related questions, we turned to Ben Tennison, editor in chief of Western Mule magazine -- phone number: 417-859-MULE.

"It's always been since the settlement of the West that there was a deficit of mules because the mule couldn't reproduce himself," he said. "He's shooting blanks." He explains: mules are sterile; they're actually bred from a male donkey and a female horse. If the mares are used to breed more horses than mules, then you'll inevitably get a shortage. And y'all thought only Wikipedia could dispense random trivia.

Anyway, for as long as he's been in the mule business, Tennison said even in the United States there's always been more demand than supply for the animals. "They're a highly sought-after commodity because of their health and power," he added. "Back in the 1800s, a mule was worth more than a horse." That's Cuba for you -- still bartering like a 19th century republic.

*Sorry, there are no famous mules. Francis the Talking Mule is still as much of a cult figure as the Egg Lady in "Pink Flamingos."

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Erik Maza