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    Posted on Friday, 10.16.09
    No bread and no circuses

    `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 , 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
    equal portions.

    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
    notoriously absent.

    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 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 ; 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 . 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 's
    Memoir of Cuba.

    No bread and no circuses – Other Views – (16 October 2009)

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