Posted on Friday, 10.16.09
No bread and no circuses
BY ALINA FERNANDEZ REVUELTA
`Panem et circenses.' That's the expression Roman poet Juvenal used to
describe how Emperor Julius Caesar distracted the people from getting
involved in politics (Caesar's, not the people's) by giving them bad
flour and worse shows.
With time, the expression became a concept of governance. You might ask,
who in the 21st Century practices it? Some tribe lost in the Sahara?
Well, no. It's Cuba, where 50 years ago, one January morning, a
revolution came to stay.
One of the first acts of that dizzying process was to terminate the
institutions of that era and establish its own. Thus, the family was
dismembered, the churches were closed, many schools disappeared and
private property was put to eternal sleep.
We Cubans went from being persons to being an organized mass and, for
the proper development of that “mass formation,'' the new leaders
created the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the workers'
mess halls and, above all, the standard by which we all became almost
equal: the ration book!
The ration book is the oldest and most stable heroine of the Cuban
revolution and one of its greatest institutions.
A paternalistic and, above all, austere state doled out the food at the
rate of five pounds of rice, four pounds of grain and four ounces of
coffee per month; one tube of execrable toothpaste (tumbadiente, or,
tooth destroyer, we call it); and one bar of soap every three months,
plus a portion of beef every three weeks. Thus it distributed poverty in
Grandmothers became vegetarians so they could save the beef for their
grandsons. The grandsons barely developed baby teeth because milk barely
existed. And when a grandson grew, he discovered that what he could
expect through the ration book was one pound of “meat mass'' (the basic
menu has morphed), which should best be saved for the youngest child in
the house, who, as always, lacked milk because milk has always been
To terminal patients, The Book allotted one extra chicken, popularly
called Alicia Alonso because it was as skinny as the famous ballerina.
The Book has also reflected Cuba's internationalist efforts. That's how
in the 1960s we “voluntarily'' gave up one of the pounds of rice that
we were due each month; it headed for Vietnam and never returned.
La Libreta de Abastecimiento — the ration book misleadingly called the
“supply book,'' that tutelary, never-benevolent God — rules Cuban
stomachs and other areas of life and has its own bureaucracy. Its
headquarters is called the OFICODA.
That's where a Cuban has to stand in line if, for instance, his
mother-in-law evicts him. (On the island, four generations live under
the same roof because of the shortage of housing; so many divorces are
caused by antipathy for and hatred of in-laws.) After hours or days of
interminable paperwork, a Cuban can move out with what has become an
indispensable requisite for a house transfer: The Book!
If you want to move to another city, it's a long story. I can assure you
that the OFICODA notifies your change of address to your block's Defense
Committee, your workplace and the police. Although it's used to
strengthen the strict vigilance exerted over each citizen (massified or
not) and his movements, The Book is not an official document and can
only be used in one, previously assigned marketplace. So, don't even
think about buying the egg assigned to you in Varadero if you live in
To be Cuban is a career that requires a lot of practice!
Recent news reports indicate that the Cuban regime is poised to abandon
its practice of controlling people by managing their gastric juices and
is likely to put an end to The Book. Castroism is not even Stalinism
anymore, and much less applies Juvenal's dictum today. “Socialism''
fails to fulfill its commitments, and those who see a shift from Fidel's
paternalism to Raúl Castro's pragmatism are wrong.
The reason is simpler. The regime has reformulated its concept of
governance. For Cuba, neither bread nor circus!
Alina Fernández Revuelta is the author of Castro's Daughter: An Exile's
Memoir of Cuba.
No bread and no circuses – Other Views – MiamiHerald.com (16 October 2009)