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    Cuba's sour economy a threat to rations

    Cuba may soon be saying adios to ration books. The system that allows
    islanders to buy food at deeply subsidized prices each month has long
    been one of the central building blocks of the country's socialist
    system, providing everyone from surgeons to street-sweepers the same
    allotment of basic foods such as rice, beans and a bit of chicken.

    Now, state-run media are suggesting the "libreta" that Cubans have
    depended on since 1962 to put meager helpings of food on their tables
    has outlived its usefulness and is hamstringing the government as it
    tries to reform the ever-struggling economy.

    "The ration booklet was a necessity at one time, but it has become an
    impediment to the collective decisions the nation must take," Lazaro
    Barredo Medina, editor of the Communist Party's Granma newspaper, wrote
    in a recent full-page signed opinion.

    He said the government ought not do away with rations by decree, but
    suggested readers should start preparing for life without a system that
    people on this island both covet as a birthright and complain is
    woefully insufficient to meet even the most modest needs.

    Mr. Barredo's words carry no immediate policy weight, but such a lengthy
    and frankly worded editorial penned by the editor of Granma could very
    well presage major governmental changes down the road – though it is
    impossible to know exactly when.

    The thick brown ration booklet offers 11.2 million Cubans a diet
    including rice, salt, legumes, potatoes, bread, eggs, sugar and some
    meat. Many complain it only provides 10 to 15 days of food and that
    quotas have gotten stingier over the years.

    The idea of such a transcendental change in the Cuban experience made
    Mr. Barredo's opinion piece the talk of the town, with strong opinions
    on both sides.

    "I was born and raised under the revolution, and I have no idea what
    would be available to buy on the free market," said a skeptical Silvia
    Alvarez, 50. "It seems to me that in these critical times … we ought
    to keep it at least for a while longer."

    A prominent economist also had doubts.

    Antonio Jorge, who once served as Cuba's vice finance minister and now
    is a professor emeritus at Florida International University in Miami,
    said he "cannot imagine how this proposal could be implemented."

    "This is the bare minimum of food, of nutrition," Mr. Jorge said,
    especially for the half of the Cuban population that has no access to
    remittances – money sent from abroad, usually by relatives in the U.S.
    "How will they live? How will they fend for themselves?"

    Cuban President Raul Castro has said several times that the ration book
    costs too much and provides too little. Since taking power from his
    brother Fidel in February 2008, he has been critical of Cuba's
    paternalistic system, saying deep state subsidies don't give people an
    incentive to work.

    Mr. Barredo called his column "He's Paternalistic, You're Paternalistic,
    I'm Paternalistic," a swipe at the cradle-to-grave guarantees Cuba has
    always provided its citizens, and which now are losing favor.

    With the country's economy hit hard by the global credit crunch and
    three disastrous hurricanes last year, Raul Castro has been looking at
    ways to cut state costs while imploring his countrymen to produce more.

    While Cubans make low wages – about $20 a month – the state pays for or
    heavily subsidizes nearly everything, from education to health care,
    housing to transportation. Even honeymoon suites and children's toys
    were doled out at sharp discounts in years past, though the government
    has phased out some of the most generous perks.

    Last month, the government announced plans to close almost-free
    cafeterias in state ministries and instead give employees a stipend to
    buy food. And Raul Castro has suggested other big changes, like doing
    away with the nation's dual currency economy, which puts many imported
    items outside the reach of most citizens.

    He has also promised to reform the country's pay structure, allowing
    better workers to earn more, and he has made modest openings in the
    economy that have allowed for some limited free enterprise.

    Scrapping the ration book – presumably in return for higher wages –
    would be a far more fundamental shift in the egalitarian communist
    system the Castro brothers have striven to build since shortly after
    their rebel force won power on New Year's Day 1959.

    Mr. Jorge, the former finance minister now in Florida, said that if food
    subsidies evaporate, the government will struggle to hold down the price
    of basic staples, further squeezing already poverty stricken Cubans.

    "If you were to allow the market to determine the prices, they would
    skyrocket immediately," he said. "Ideologically, the regime will see the
    free market as unthinkable."

    When it began in 1962 – shortly after the U.S. cut off trade with the
    island – rationing was characterized as a temporary program to guarantee
    a low-priced basket of basic foods. But as Cuba struggled to feed its
    people with help from the Soviet bloc, the program endured. Today, Cuba
    spends more than $1 billion a year on food subsidies.

    Despite those efforts, most Cubans find themselves forced to invent ways
    to stretch limited rations as far as possible, including bartering or
    selling on the black market some of the monthly food they don't use as a
    means of obtaining more of the items they do depend on.

    Still, some believe it is time the government end the handouts and make
    citizens take more responsibility for their lives.

    "If you don't work, you won't eat," said Caridad, a 67-year-old retiree
    emerging from a government-subsidized shop in Havana's historic
    district. Like many Cubans, she did not feel comfortable having her full
    name appear in the foreign press, but admitted that to supplement a
    pension of less than $10 a month, she had been forced to go back to work
    cleaning streets.

    "People need to understand that it is up to them to provide for their
    families, just like in the rest of the world," she said. "Nothing falls
    from heaven except the rain."

    Cuba's sour economy a threat to rations – Washington Times (20 October 2009)

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