Cubans line up to buy potatoes in Havana in March 2010.
Cubans line up to buy potatoes in Havana in March 2010. AFP/Getty Images
In Cuba, every person receives a basic monthly food ration from the communist government. It's not enough to survive on, but no one starves, either.
Now, with changes coming to the island's economy, the rations — a hallmark of Fidel Castro's revolution — are also in doubt.
In every Cuban neighborhood, there's a government food pantry called a bodega. A blackboard lists the available items and their prices. Government clerks weigh out portions of rice, sugar, beans and other basics.
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.
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. Javier Galeano/AP
In Havana's Vedado neighborhood, one dismal bodega is set up in the ruined shell of a former supermarket that was long ago nationalized. Cubans wander in carrying little booklets called libretas. Every household has one. While the items aren't free, prices are so low they're affordable even to ordinary Cubans earning less than $20 a month on average. The government provides milk to pregnant women and children up to age 7.
On a recent day, Julia Rivas is picking up rations for herself and her daughter. She says she depends on the provisions to get by, even if they don't last through the month.
"We get dish detergent, but it only comes every three or four or six months," she explains.
The government of President Raul Castro now says it cannot afford to maintain this system. More than 70 percent of the island's food is imported, costing the cash-strapped government $1.5 billion a year. Castro has been turning over idle state land to private farmers and cooperatives, hoping they'll produce more, but so far the experiment hasn't delivered.
Cubans supplement their diets mostly by shopping at produce markets. They are among the few spaces set aside for private enterprise; one is located next to the Vedado bodega. While it is filled with fresh local items, prices are steep for Cubans on fixed incomes. The vendors are widely despised for trying to cheat customers with faulty scales.
Raul Perez, a 78-year-old retired pediatrician, says he can no longer muster the energy to argue. "They never sell you the right weight for what you are buying, so they are stealing your money. Before you buy it, you know they will rob you, but you really can't do anything," Perez says.
Some Cubans resent the monotony of the rations and the government paternalism they symbolize. But they are a lifeline for most people, and one that has been steadily thinning.
While the government has not proposed an alternative to the ration system, the availability of potatoes and peas was cut last year, and their street prices have shot up since then. Sugar and salt rations have also been reduced.
A major editorial last October in the Communist Party newspaper Granma called for abolishing the ration system outright, a signal that it may be only a matter of time.
Edenia River is picking up her family's monthly allotment of 6 pounds of rice per person at the Vedado bodega. The rice is shipped to Cuba from China. She says she would "die" without the subsidized food. Rivera buys a pound of rice each day for her family and says she doesn't have the extra 40 cents it would cost at market prices.
"I hope they never take the ration book away," she says.
Not everyone in Cuba needs the assistance, but even government critics agree it would have to replace the current system with one that still protects the neediest Cubans, including children. Only there's no income tax system in Cuba, or way to assess who is poor, and who deserves help. The government's new market-oriented reforms may increase productivity, but inequalities will also widen, as Castro's egalitarian model further unravels.
A classic Cuban espresso bar in Old Havana is one of the last good deals around, selling shots of sweet cafecito for less than 5 cents.
But just as Cuba now has to import sugar, its coffee collapse is another embarrassment. The island harvested fewer than 6,000 tons last year, down from 60,000 tons a half-century ago, forcing the government to spend $40 million on imported beans.
University student Patricia Rodriguez says she has heard the rumors that coffee rations will be cut next. "A Cuba without coffee?" Rodriguez asks. "I can't believe that they would cut it from the ration book. That's something you don't mess around with."
Two other customers sipping espresso nearby say they expect the coffee ration to disappear any day. But they shrugged off how Cubans might react.
Is there anything we can do about it? one of the men says. He just shakes his head, and walks away.