Cuban rations and the famous “libreta” to be a thing of the past

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 like 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 Friday in a 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.


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 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.”


Economist also had their 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,” 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.


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 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.


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. But, as an economist, I don’t see what else is possible.”


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.”

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