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Exiles sipping coffee at Miami’s Versailles restaurant has become one of the enduring images of the Cuban experience in America. Havana-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has transplanted the ritual to Capitol Hill.
The Florida Republican is known to drink four or five cups of Cuban coffee a day.
“Cuban coffee is food for the soul, so I wouldn’t want to deprive myself of that,” she said.
“I drink coffee every day and usually more than once a day. At the start of my meetings, I like to welcome my guests with a hot shot of Cuban coffee,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Most of them love it because it’s a taste of Miami and Cuban culture. Cuban coffee also eases the mood and allows for a few minutes of small talk before delving into the serious topics. It’s a unique icebreaker.”
The last time Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee, which Ros-Lehtinen leads, the chairwoman had a cup of the coffee before and after the hearing. While Clinton’s schedule prohibited her from indulging in a cup with the chairwoman that morning, other high-ranking officials and diplomats have enjoyed the energizing elixir with her.
A Turkish official, quite fond of coffee, told the committee staff one time that the chairwoman’s coffee packed a stronger punch than the coffee he was accustomed to back in Istanbul.
Before the revolution gave rise to the Castro dictatorship — and the ensuing flight of freedom-loving emigrants from the island — a good cup of Cuban coffee was difficult to find in the United States. A persistent aficionado had to fly to Havana.
The mass migration of Cubans to New Jersey, Puerto Rico and especially Florida during the years after the revolution brought families with an entrepreneurial spirit and a devotion to their native cuisine. Their coffee became a ritualized cocktail whose singular purpose was to awaken the synapses in a group setting.
“Cuban coffee symbolizes a generational link that unifies the Cuban family,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Most Cuban-Americans first drank Cuban coffee with their families around the table talking. In turn, their children passed it down to their kids and so on.”
A typical Cuban coffee is alarmingly sweet with a bitter aftertaste. Others are less gritty but still assault the palate. In some respects, Cuban coffee is the anti-espresso. An espresso can be romantic. A Cuban coffee shocks the nervous system. Thick and nearly acidic, it leaves the drinker thirsty, sometimes craving a cold chaser. While one cherishes a fine espresso at a cafe overlooking the Seine, Cuban coffee is forced down without much thought.