Posted on Thursday, 07.11.13
Cuba’s food ration stores mark 50th anniversary
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
The Cuban government calls it a “supplies booklet.” Cubans call it a
“rations booklet” or simply “la libreta.”
Either way, half a century after its creation, the booklet has come to
symbolize the epic failure of Cuba’s agricultural sector and the
communist government’s stubborn insistence on an egalitarian subsidy for
each and every one of its 11 million people.
The hundreds of state-run food stores that distribute the rations are
marking their 50th anniversary Friday, although the decree creating the
system was issued in March 1962, at a time when U.S. economic sanctions
on Cuba were beginning to cause shortages of food, medicines and other
Cuban ruler Raúl Castro two years ago called for an “orderly” end to a
system “under which two generations of citizens have lived, this
rationing system that despite its toxic egalitarian character offered
all citizens access to basic food at laughable prices.”
Castro has been pushing a series of market-oriented reforms to drag his
economy out of the doldrums, cutting back on subsidies and other public
spending, slashing state payrolls and allowing more private enterprise.
The booklet in fact has been shrinking over the decades, and especially
after the early 1990s, when Cuba lost its $4-$6 billion a year subsidies
from the Soviet Union and had to tighten its belt to the last notch.
Today, the government spends an estimated $1 billion annually on the
system — unique in the world for its level of detail and coverage — a
huge number in a nation where the average official salary stands at less
than $20 per month.
With an agricultural sector all but stagnant after a half-century of
central government controls, Cuba must now import up to 80 percent of
the food it consumes, fueling an import bill estimated at more than $1.5
billion per year.
Cubans pay less than $2 for the items they receive under the ration card
— an estimated 12 percent of real value — a lifesaver for the poorest of
the island’s poor and a help to every man, woman and child regardless of
Yet, the food rations last only about 10 days out of every month. For
the rest of the time, Cubans must buy in markets where much higher
prices are set by the laws of supply and demand.
Each Cuban is now supposed to receive a monthly ration of seven pounds
of rice, half a bottle of cooking oil, one sandwich-sized piece of bread
per day plus small quantities of eggs, beans, chicken or fish,
spaghetti, white and brown sugar and cooking gas.
Children get one liter of milk and some yogurt, diabetics get special
booklets for their diets and there are special rations for special
occasions — cakes for birthdays, rum and beer for weddings, uniforms,
pencils and notebooks for the start of the school year.
But not all those rations are always available each month, and the
number of items and the size of the rations have been dropping for
years. Gone are potatoes, soap and tooth paste, salt, cigarettes and
cigars and liquid detergent, among other items.
Today the booklet, printed on cheap paper that turns brown, is issued to
each of Cuba’s 3.6 million families and has 20 pages, compared to 28
pages in earlier years.
And while the rations account for only a small part of their
consumption, Cubans say they fear that the total removal of the system
will deliver a harsh blow to retirees whose fixed incomes average
$12-$14 per month.
One Cuban axiom holds that “No one can live on the booklet, but there
are a lot of people who can’t live without the booklet.”
There has been talk in Havana of replacing the booklet of poor people
with something like food stamps, but Castro has made it clear that he
wants to eliminate the entire rationing system.
Rationing was introduced “with an egalitarian intent in a time of
shortages,” he declared in 2011. But with the passing of time, it has
turned into “an unbearable burden for the economy and a disincentive to
Source: “Cuba’s food ration stores mark 50th anniversary – Cuba –