Friday, October 22, 2010

Adios a la libreta?


Nick Miroff of NPR has a great audio story from this morning's Morning Edition on the fate of Cuba's much maligned and much needed ration booklet.  The story, "Amid Reforms, Cubans Fret Over Food Rations Fate," can be heard (and read) at NPR.  A translation of the story is up at Penultimos Dias.

Also, go here for a related story in this month's Harper's Magazine by American journalist Patrick Symmes, "Thirty Days as a Cuban," on his attempt to live on the average Cuban wage for one month.  My colleague, the anthropologist Ariana Harnandez Reguant, sent me the provocative article which seems to have caused a bit of a debate among Cuba-watchers.

Finally, I'm pasting below my own somewhat-lengthy description of the history of the ration booklet in Cuba taken from my book.

The Ration Booklet—A Cuban Staple
By 1962, the Cuban government had nationalized all major industries and was thus responsible for producing goods and services in sufficient quantity and at prices manageable for the mass of citizens who had supported the revolution.

Also by 1962, most consumer prices were centrally fixed by the government and most consumer goods were henceforth distributed through rationing (as opposed to market allocation based on supply and demand). The rationale for this approach was based on the belief that if prices were allowed to float freely, the scarcity of goods and liquidity of cash in circulation would cause runaway inflation, making prices of basic goods out of reach for the weakest members of society. It was just these humble masses who were the revolution’s greatest beneficiaries and supporters. Thus the logic of rationing was based on both socialist egalitarian ideology and political expediency.


When begun in 1962, rationing provided all citizens with access to a basic minimum of subsidized goods and foodstuffs. The extent of rationing, as well as the need for it and the ability of the state to provide daily necessities, has fluctuated considerably over time.

For example, during the 1960s, the basic monthly ration per person included 3 pounds of meat or chicken, 1 pound of fish, 6 pounds of rice, 1.5 pounds of beans, 14 pounds of tubers, 2 pounds of cooking oil or fat, between 5 and 15 eggs, 1 pound of coffee, and 6 liters of milk. An assortment of other basic consumer items were also included, including sugar, bread, cigarettes, gasoline, detergent, soap, toilet paper, toothpaste, cigars, and beer.

However, after the “special period” began in August of 1990, 28 foodstuffs and 180 consumer goods that had previously been widely available were added to the list of rationed commodities. Also, after that time many items simply disappeared from government bodegas (and the ration booklet) altogether.

A customer displays his ration card as he waits to buy food at a government store in Havana in 2009. The Cuban government has slowly been chipping away at the rations system — and more changes appear to be coming, worrying many Cubans. Photo credit: Javier Galeano/AP

At the same time, the government has managed to maintain its laudable commitment to provide children under seven with a daily ration of 1 liter of fresh milk (even during the height of the “special period”), while those over sixty-five were provided with a ration of six cans of condensed or evaporated milk monthly until 1994, when the economic crisis led to its elimination.

Since 1994, rationing has remained a staple of Cuban life even while Castro began to hint at its abolition in late 2005. However, because of the economic crisis, monthly rations often run out in less than two weeks, forcing Cubans to become very “inventive,” with a variety of other sources for their daily sustenance. Also after 1994, the Cuban government allowed two new food markets to open: mercados agropecuarios (“agros”) and the dollar stores.

The so-called agros are farmer’s markets where surplus farm products are sold at market prices (in Cuban pesos) by private farmers themselves. The dollar stores are government-run grocery stores, supermarkets, and department stores that provide more upscale, usually imported goods sold at high dollar prices (or in convertible pesos after late 2004). These changes allowed many Cubans to break free from exclusive reliance on government rationing, while those without access to hard currency continue to struggle to survive on the ration booklet’s dwindling offerings.

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