The Cuban Ration Book Turns 50

March 13, 2012 |

Fernando Ravsberg*

Pressures are favoring the elimination of the ration book amid the economic reforms promoted by the Raul Castro government. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES, March 13 — Half a century ago, the nascent Cuban Revolution created the Libreta de Abastecimientos (the ration book), which was the basic element of a system of food subsidies and rationing aimed at ensuring that basic staples were affordable for everyone.

This system was implemented almost as a war time measure at a moment when the confrontation was deepening with the United States, which had erected a blockade against Cuba with the express goal of creating hunger causing discontent among the Cuban people.

The libreta had, and still has, its supporters and detractors. Citizens are divided between those who fear that its disappearance will result in hunger among the poor and those who believe that it is cheaper to subsidize people than products.

Among its critics is President Raul Castro, who claims that the country’s economy can’t continue to sustain such an expenditure and who has already begun to eliminate the ration book by reducing the number of products that can be purchased through it.

UNSUSTAINABLE

The Cuban government currently spends more than $1 billion (USD) annually on food subsidies that are provided through ration books held by all citizens, who pay only 12 percent of the market value of the products.

Rice, chicken, sugar, milk, eggs, cooking oil, beans, spaghetti and cooking gas are sold through the book. The amounts are small and last only about 10 days per person, with the total price paid being around $1 USD per person per month.

Neighborhood “bodega” stores that sell products through the ration book are increasingly empty. Photo: Raquel Perez

Starting at birth, all Cuban children receive a daily allotment of baby food through their first year. Likewise, up to the age of seven, children are provided one liter of milk per day for 10 cents (USD). However, after that age that product has to be purchased at high unsubsidized prices, for almost $2 (USD) per liter in hard currency stores.

For decades the ration book has also served for providing special food allocations for people on medically prescribed diets, which might include meat, milk and vegetables.

A SLOW DEATH

When Cuba opened its economy in the 1990s, it began experiencing the disappearance of income equality as well as the fairness of the ration book. However, the government maintains its food subsidies that benefit the poor as well as those who earn thousands of dollars a month.

Some prominent economists have argued since back in the ‘90s that the most reasonable action is to eliminate the libreta and to provide subsidies directly to low-income people. Finally, as president, Raul Castro is supporting that measure but intends to implement it through a gradual process.

Mercedes is afraid that if the ration book disappears, she and her husband won’t have enough money to be able to eat. Photo: Raquel Perez

The government continues to sell some basic food items through the book, but it is slowly eliminating certain products, such as cigarettes, cigars, toothpaste, soap and tomato puree. However these first steps have already raised concerns among people.

Teacher Mercedes Puerto told us: “The ration book is still necessary, because even the little that it provides helps us to make ends meet. If it’s taken away, my husband and I won’t have enough to live on with what the two of us earn.”

However, retiree Emilio Roca argues: “The ration book is now obsolete. Its role is over and we have to find other ways. To me, the problem isn’t the ration book but low wages. We have high prices on the one hand and low wages on the other.”

AND THEN WHAT?

The ration book was key in the 1960’s when Washington aimed to “deprive Cuba of money and supplies, to reduce its financial resources and real wages, cause hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government.”

In the 1980’s it became less important because many products were being sold “on the non-rationed market,” at prices affordable to the average Cuban. However the 90’s economic crisis made it the lifeline for most citizens.

The ration book has no importance for Cubans with incomes high enough to buy food at market prices. Photo: Raquel Perez

With the disappearance of the European socialist bloc countries, Cuba’s supplies were drastically reduced and the existence of the ration book allowed for the equitable sharing of the little food that entered the country or that it produced, which was barely enough for people to survive.

But Cuba changed. Part of the population — self-employed workers, artists, employees of foreign companies and tourism agencies, as well as those who receive remittances, etc. — no longer need the ration book. They have higher incomes and places to buy their products.

The unresolved problem is what will happen to the poorest 20 percent of the population that up until now has been able to eat — for better or worse — thanks to the ration book. The fear of many of them is that they doubt that the social security system operates with the same efficiency.
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An authorized Havana Times translation (from the Spanish original) published by CartasdesdeCuba.

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What's your opinion?

  • The question that intrigues us transformationaries in the US, as well as in other capitalist countries, is how food distribution might occur under a workable socialist republic. It intrigues us because we are concerned with raising the consciousness of the now backward people to a transformational level.

    We will only be able to accomplish this if we can explain how a socialist republic would function regarding such things as food distribution. If we can show that such a cumbersome mechanism as the ration book would not be needed or used, we will be able to project a more attractive program of social transformation.

    Cubans bemoan the backwardness of the US people and their acceptance of such monstrosities as the criminal blockade of Cuba. Yet, in the discussions of the party and the people, not one word is said with regard to how what is evolved or put in place in Cuba, with regard to food distribution, might affect public consciousness in the US.

    It seems to me that Raul is correct in converting over to a better system. But it will be better only if wages and salaries rise to replace the old system. This would mean more of the surplus-values produced by the people going directly into their pockets, rather than into state coffers.

    One reason this would be highly preferable is that now the small service bourgeoisie would be allow to grow and prosper, and participate meaningfully in the socialist bridge-building process. But I don’t see how this will be possible, given the old, misguided loathing of the small bourgeoisie inherent in Marxian ideology.