Cubans balk at ending of food rations
By Marc Frank in Havana
Published: October 21 2009 04:11
"He's paternalistic, you're paternalistic, I'm paternalistic," screeched
the Communist party newspaper Granma in a column by its editor, Làzaro
Barredo Medina, after a month of public debate on ending gratuities and
modernising the Cuban economy.
The tone caught the frustration felt by officials after the Cuban
Communist party's effort to foster self-critical public debate concluded
last week with every indication it had become mired in confusion.
A previous debate in 2007, shortly after Raúl Castro took over from his
ailing brother Fidel, had been welcomed by the residents of a state that
oversees most aspects of daily life and administers almost all economic
But that was before hurricanes devastated much of the island in 2008 and
the financial storm broke. Today Cuba is battling a liquidity crisis,
shrinking production and increased pressure from a frustrated public and
creditors. The government has cut imports by at least 30 per cent and
the state budget by 10 per cent this year, and reduced its growth
forecast from 6 per cent to 1.7 per cent.
Cubans were now being asked to study Mr Castro's August speech to the
National Assembly in which he signalled that cradle-to-grave paternalism
was over because the country had to learn to live within its means. Mr
Castro called on Cubans to work better and harder to meet the challenges
A 10-point state-issued agenda served as the basis for discussions at
universities, workplaces and community organisations. The aim was to
encourage a public rethink on subsidies and food rationing.
At the same time, the government announced it would be closing thousands
of workplace lunchrooms, in exchange for paying employees a daily
stipend, and that the food ration, in existence for nearly 50 years,
supplying rice, beans, sugar, salt and other basics at subsidised
prices, must eventually go.
A telephone survey of participants involved in or with knowledge of
dozens of meetings across Cuba indicated near-unanimous opposition to
eliminating the food ration without a clear explanation of what would
An employee of a dingy state-run outlet in central Havana, selling
dangerous-looking pastries from a dirty counter, blamed the situation on
the lack of supplies and low wages.
Others smarted at suggestions they had contributed to the economic
"Farmers have never wanted the state to give them anything," one farmer,
Evelio, aged 60-plus, said in a telephone interview from the provinces.
"What we want is that they sell us what we need to produce and then not
waste it through poor planning, transport and other problems."
Cubans appear to support Mr Castro's efforts but believe they are not at
fault and that they are at the mercy of a bureaucracy they expect him to
"Our work does not depend on us but on orientations from the ministry. I
can't plan anything because they decide the factory's work and supplies
and that's where the problems are and continue," Carlos, an industrial
Cuba has already begun dismantling its system of state gratuities and
subsidised goods and services, including help with energy bills, the
meals at work and the world's longest-standing food ration.
Granma's Mr Barredo Medina said most Cubans suffered to various degrees
from four syndromes curbing the very progress they desired.
"The young pigeon syndrome: we walk round with our mouths open because a
good part of the systems we have developed are conceived to give us
"The volleyball syndrome: we have become accustomed to throwing and
batting the ball to the other side of the net.
"The ostrich syndrome: we have developed the habit of sticking our heads
in the hole, almost always so as not to see problems.
"The obstacle syndrome: you cannot transform the economy and satisfy
basic needs in a month. But some think you can, and when they encounter
the first obstacle they stop and wait for others to remove or get round
it for them," Mr Barredo Medina wrote.
But be they ostrich or pigeon, Cubans it seems will soon have to face
the reality of subsidy cuts.
FT.com / Americas / Politics & Policy – Cubans balk at ending of food
rations (21 October 2009)