RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Cuba, everyone gets a basic monthly food ration from the communist government. That's not enough to survive on, but the idea is that no one starves either. Now, with changes coming to the island's economy, one of the hallmarks of Fidel Castro's revolution is in doubt. Nick Miroff reports from Havana.

NICK MIROFF: 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.

(Soundbite of items being poured)

MIROFF: This dismal bodega in Havana's Vedado neighborhood 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 seven.

Ms. JULIA RIVAS: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: We get dish detergent, but it only comes every three or four or six months, explains Julia Rivas, who 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.

Raul Castro's government now says it can't 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.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: Cubans mostly supplement their diets by shopping at produce markets, like this one next to the bodega. It's one of the few spaces set aside for private enterprise. And while it's 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.

Dr. RAUL PEREZ (Retired Pediatrician): They never sell you the right weight for what you are buying, so they are stealing your money. Before you go to buy it, you know they will rob you - you know it - but you really can't do anything.

MIROFF: Some Cubans resent the monotony of the rations or the government paternalism they symbolize. But they are a lifeline for most people, and one that has been steadily thinning. Potatoes and peas were cut last year and their street prices have shot up since then. Sugar and salt 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.

Ms. EDENIA RIVERA: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: Edenia Rivera says she'd die without the subsidized food.

She's picking up her family's monthly allotment of six pounds of rice per person, shipped all the way from China. Rivera says she didn't have the extra 40 cents it would cost to buy a pound of rice each day for her family at market prices. I hope they never take the ration book away, she said.

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. Only there's no income tax system here, or a 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 Fidel Castro's egalitarian model further unravels.

This classic Cuban espresso bar in Old Havana is one of the last good deals around, selling shots of sweet cafecito for less than five cents. But just as Cuba now has to import sugar, its coffee collapse is another embarrassment. The island harvested less 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 said she's heard the rumors that coffee rations will be cut next.

Ms. PATRICIA RODRIGUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: A Cuban without coffee? Rodriguez said. I can't believe that they would cut it from the ration book. That's something you don't mess around with, she said.

Two other customers sipping espresso nearby said 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 said. He just shook his head and walked away.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Can't do without the coffee here. If we did, this show would already be over.

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