Cuba's sour economy a threat to rations
Paul Haven ASSOCIATED PRESS
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
"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)