Friday, March 27, 2009

The Cuban Ration System: A Look Inside the Libreta

“'On the cooking show today they showed how to fry a steak from a grapefruit skin,' her mother said. 'They turned a grapefruit skin into steak. Isn't that amazing? This is a revolution that is more amazing all the time.'”
from 'Havana Bay' (1999) by Martin Cruz Smith p. 48

The 'Libreta' and the 'Periodo Especial'

The title on the Cubans' ration booklets reads: “Control de Ventas Para Productos Alimentos” (control of sale of food products). Food rationing was introduced in the early 1990’s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet purchase of Cuban sugar at significantly higher than market prices, abruptly stopped. Soviet investment in and aid to Cuba likewise evaporated. As Cuba had been entirely dependent on the Soviet Union, and before that on the United States, this led to the complete collapse of the Cuban economy.

When Castro introduced food rationing, it was part of a larger program of austerity measures that he called the “periodo especial” (special period). Castro exhorted his people to tighten their belts. He did not, as did the leaders of other countries that had been dependent on the Soviet Union – countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and the countries of the 'Eastern Block' – encourage more individual industry and small scale agriculture as these countries did.

There would be no softening of the iron grip of communism in Fidel's Cuba. The state maintained control of all agriculture. And the state was in a mess. Cuba could neither grow or produce enough food for its people, or import enough. It was during this time that Cubans resorted to eating fried grapefruit skins, insects and worms. Food rations were simply not enough to keep them alive.

Although food rationing was introduced as a 'temporary measure,' it has continued now for almost 20 years. The 'periodo especial' has turned into an 'epoca especial.' And there is no end in sight.

Food rations are not free, but they are subsidized. Rationed foods are of uniformly poor quality; the amounts provided for each individual are not enough to sustain them, and certainly are not varied enough to represent anything resembling a 'balanced diet.' Cubans must look elsewhere to supplement their diet. Unfortunately, there is almost nowhere else to look.

At the beginning of each year, all Cuban families – people who are living together under one roof – are issued new 'libretas,' or ration booklets. The various pages of the booklet are used to record what an individual and a family is entitled to, and what it has bought.

We looked at the books of a couple of families in a small town, and have used these as the basis of the following list of items available through the ration system. Apparently these items may vary from place to place. Cubans from small towns consistently told us that the people of Havana are able to get many more things with their ration cards. From what we could see, this appeared to be true. Food is a little more plentiful in Havana. But it is still scarce. Frequently some of the things Cubans are meant to be able to buy with their 'libretas' are simply not available.

In the novel 'Havana Bay,” Martin Cruz Smith paints a humourous, and deadly accurate, picture of the Cuban ration shop, or 'bodega,' and the chronic food shortages within the ration system:

“The bodega was a warehouse with the dimmest light in Havana, and the fact that the lines were short and Ofelia was going to do the mule's work of carrying a sack of Vietnamese rice and a tin of cooking oil did nothing to improve her mother's mood. ...
'We're almost there.' Ofelia fixed her eye on the counter.
'We're almost nowhere. This is nowhere, hija.'
There were four counters in the gloom of the bodega, each with a chalkboard that listed goods, prices, ration per person or family, and the date available, the 'date available' clouded from many corrections.
'Tomatoes next week,' Ofelia said. 'That's good news.'
Her mother exploded with a laugh. 'My God, I've raised an idiot. There will be no tomatoes, no evaporated milk, no flour and maybe no beans or rice. This is a trap for morons. '
At the counter her mother made a show of having her book properly marked and announcing, 'You know, if you live on your rations you will enjoy a very balanced diet.'
'That's true,' one of the clerks was stupid enough to agree.
'Because you eat for two weeks and starve for two weeks.'”

from 'Havana Bay' (1999) by Martin Cruz Smith p.p. 300-301

Food and other items available through the 'libreta'

The following is a list of items we found on the ‘libretas’ we looked at, in January of 2008, along with the prices for each item, in pesos, the money in which Cuban workers are paid. Prices on the black market, which often trades in foods stolen from government warehouses, are much higher. Where I was able to get them, they're indicated in brackets. I have also included some notes about the nature or quality of the food item, from what I observed directly.

Each individual, each month is entitled to buy:
White rice: 5 pounds at 1.25 pesos per pound (5 pesos per pound on the black market)
rice is THE staple food, 5 pounds would make about 20 meals for one person
the bags of rice we saw were from Vietnam, and labeled 'broken rice'
Sugar: 5 pounds at 0.25 pesos per pound (6-7 pesos per pound on the black market!)
sugar may be white and/or brown, depending on what’s available
the sugar we saw was from Cuba, although Cuba does import sugar
many Cubans drink sugar-water to increase their caloric intake
Salt: 1 pound at 0.25 pesos per pound (0.80 pesos per pound on the black market)
Dried black beans: 10 ounces for 0.25 pesos (5 pesos for the same amount on the black market)
this is enough for about 2 meals, and is the primary source of protein for most Cubans
the beans often contain many little rocks and twigs, which must be picked out by hand
Eggs: a total of 10, the first 5 at 0.15 pesos each, and the next 5 at 0.90 pesos each (2 pesos a piece on the black market)
Fish: 6 ounces for 0.40 pesos (20 pesos per pound on the black market)
the fish were extremely small and bony, something we might use as bait
Cooking oil: 8 ounces for 0.20 pesos (45 pesos per litre on the black market)
Ground coffee: 4 grams for 5 pesos (20 pesos per gram on the black market)
the coffee was of extremely poor quality, mixed with peas or lentils

Each individual, every 15 days, is entitled to buy:
'Meat product:' 8 ounces for 0.50 pesos
this ground meat products includes all edible parts of an animal, including the eyes, heart, brain, etc.
it looks and tastes disgusting – we agreed with Cubans who said it was worse than Spam (Spam is sold in 'dollar stores,' but is too expensive for most Cubans to buy)
there is no black market for this product as no Cuban would pay any more for it than the subsidized government price
Bath soap: one bar for 0.25 pesos
not always available, and very poor quality
Laundry soap: one bar for 0.25 pesos
not always available

Each individual, every day, is entitled to buy:
White bread roll: 1 small bun for 0.05 pesos a piece (0.50 pesos on the black market)
Cubans must go to their local 'panaderia' or bakery to buy their one bun; queues are often long
bread is at least baked fresh daily, but has little food value

Each family, per month, is entitled to buy:
Toothpaste: 1 tube for 0.65 pesos
poor quality, and often not available

Occasionally, when it's available, families may be able to buy pasta – around 4 ounces per person. According to the people we talked to, this happens between 2 and 4 times a year. In December of 2007 families were able to buy one pound of cornmeal per person. This was particularly appreciated as cornmeal tamales are a traditional part of the Cuban their New Year’s dinner.

When the weather is unusually wet, each individual may be able to buy an additional 2 pounds of rice and 2 pounds of peas, and each family of four may buy one can of meat (often hot dogs). Some years, individuals are able to buy 8 ounces of 'real' meat, not meat product, but that didn't happen in 2007.

Although tinned tomatoes and crackers are listed in the 'libreta,' no one we spoke with to has ever seen these in a ration shop. Similarly toilet paper, listed in the 'libreta,' has never been available. Cubans use newspaper, or whatever other scraps of paper they can find. Some of them told us how they particularly relish using newspapers with Castro's photo as bum-wipe. Even using a page with one of his many interminable articles gives them some satisfaction.

When they are menstruating, Cuban women must take their ration cards and their ID cards to the store in order to be able to purchase sanitary napkins. Packages of these - enough for one cycle – cost just over one peso.

There are special rations for children:

Each child under the age of 7 years, every day, is entitled to buy 100 grams of powdered milk at 1.25 pesos per packet (20 pesos per packet on the black market)
Each child under the age of 7 years, every 15 days, is entitled to buy 8 ounces of ground meat product or chicken, every 15 days, at 0.50 pesos a packet (chicken is 23 pesos per pound on the black market; it is seldom available through the ration system)
Each child under 3 years of age, per month, is entitled to buy 4 small tetrapack boxes, similar to individual drink boxes, of pureed fruit
Each child between the ages of 7 and 13, every other day, is entitled to buy 500 ml of soy at 1 peso per packet (3 pesos per packet on the black market)

School children are also given one 'vitamin-enriched' biscuit each day. The biscuits looked and tasted like cardboard, and were tooth-breakingly hard. We saw many in the gutters of the streets near schools, where even Cuban dogs turned up their noses at them.

There are also special rations for pregnant women, sick people and people with special dietary needs. They may be entitled to a little bit more of some things, and a few additional items such as powdered milk and yogurt.

Buying Food outside the Ration System

Obviously the ration system provides only the most basic food staples: no fresh vegetables or fruits, no flour, grains or cereals, no fresh dairy products, no condiments, and certainly no “frills” such as nuts, crackers, or juices. Vegetables, fruits, meat and fish must be purchased either at local farmers’ markets (which in our experience were few and far between, and had pathetically few things for sale, most of poor or very poor quality), or on the black market.

Other products, such as dairy products, frozen chicken and pork, canned and packaged goods and juices, may be purchased in 'dollar stores,' where all of the prices are in 'convertibles.' 'Convertibles' are the 'other' currency of Cuba – the currency that all tourists must use for their transactions.

By way of explanation, 'convertibles' were introduced in the early 1990's, and were originally based on the American dollar, with one 'convertible' being equivalent to one dollar. (Hence the term 'dollar stores.') But Castro, in another fit of pique with the USA, recently decided the 'convertible' should be based on the Euro. In January 2008 one 'convertible' was worth 27 pesos.

The prices of foods and goods in 'dollar stores' appeared to be similar to, or higher than, the price we would pay for a similar, but higher quality, product in Canada. The only Cubans who can afford to buy things at these prices, and in 'convertibles,' are the Cuban elite – high-ranking politicians and their friends, and the military – or 'regular' Cubans who either have family or friends who send them money regularly or who work in some aspect of the tourist industry, which gives them access to tourist 'dollars' or 'convertibles.' That is not most Cubans.

Furthermore, it appeared that at least some of the food being sold in the 'dollar stores' was food that had been given, by countries like the USA, Canada, Spain and others, as food aid. In our several trips to Cuba we never saw, or heard of, any food aid being distributed to the Cuban people. Some of it may go directly to the Cuban elite – high-ranking politicians and their friends, and the military.

Similarly, used clothes and shoes that are donated to Cuba are sold in the very few shops that are allowed to sell clothes. Certainly these clothes are cheap by our standards, but they are used. Our friends told us that once one of their friends found $10 in the pocket of a pair of jeans, and another found a gold chain. Would that all of them could be so lucky!

Basic Living Costs vs Average Incomes

It's interesting – and alarming – to compare the cost of living in Cuba with the incomes of the Cuban people, not all of which, despite the communist economy, are the same. Far from it! The putative 'minimum wage' in Cuba, which is what most Cubans earn, is 200 pesos or around $8 A MONTH. The highest wage we heard of, made by specialist doctors like obstetricians and geneticists, was 500-600 pesos, or around $35 per month.

Assuming a family of four, with one child under 7 years of age and one over (no children under three), the cost of buying the basic staple foods available through the ration system, for a one month period, would be just over 120 pesos. Let’s also assume the family “tops up” their rationed food with food purchased on the black market – say another 5 pounds of rice, and another half pound of beans per person (no meat or fish). That would be another 240 pesos. And let's say they buy a few tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages, plantains and maybe a couple of oranges or bananas. Our Cuban friends told us that might cost another 40 pesos.

So for the most basic dietary items, the total cost is 400 pesos per month. That's twice what one Cuban making a minimum wage would earn, and most of what a 'high-paid' Cuban would earn. Clearly food 'treats' are out of the question: a small container of ice-cream costs 20 pesos. That’s a half a day’s wages.

What about other expenses? The Cuban government owns or controls all housing stock in Cuba. It assigns housing to families, some of whom are in fact still living in their old family homes. Some of these Cubans do not pay rent, but many Cubans, especially those living in apartments, do. And all must bear the costs associated with maintenance.

There are also such expenses as electricity and telephone. In a typical month, a family of four might have to pay 75-150 pesos for electricity, and 40-100 pesos for their phone. At the moment, Cubans do not pay for their water, but they are anticipating that this cost may also soon be added.

Additionally, the government of Cuba just recently required all Cubans to buy new, more energy efficient refrigerators. Their old ones were taken away; no one knew what had become of them. For their new fridges, Cubans must pay almost 60 pesos a month for a period of 6 years.

If we take the minimum amounts for electricity and phone, and assume one fridge (which many families do not have), the combined costs per month, not including the costs of renting or maintaining a house or apartment, would be around 580 pesos per month – well beyond what two workers getting minimum wages could earn, and all of what a top wage-earner might earn.

And this is before buying other necessary items such as household supplies, clothes, shoes, school supplies, medications, and the costs of transportation. Consider that a pair of shoes for a grown child or an adult costs 500 pesos. That’s a more than two months' wages for most Cubans.

This is also before paying for child-care, which used to be free, but now must be paid for. In many towns and cities, there are not enough places within the government child-care system for all of the children who need it, so some families have to pay even more for private child-minders.

Several of our Cuban friends told us that they would like to put Fidel and Raul Castro on a deserted island and give them only the food available through the ration system and see how long they would last. (This seemed to be a common Cuban 'dream.') They believe, and I heartily agree, that they wouldn’t last a minute. There is no way either Fidel or Raul, or anyone else with any self-respect, would eat the appalling crap that is SOLD to Cubans.

But to me the most degrading thing of all is the 'bone trucks.' Cubans are not permitted to eat beef, or to have it in their possession. All beef goes to tourists at the all-inclusive hotels and resorts – and of course to the Cuban 'elite.' After the meat's been scraped from the bones, the bones are collected. Once every week or two, a truck is filled with bones. It arrives at a town or village near the hotels and resorts and SELLS THE BONES to eagerly waiting Cubans. Our friends would get up at 5 in the morning to go and wait for the 'bone truck.' Sometimes it came, and sometimes it didn't. There was no way of knowing if or when it would come, so they waited every Saturday, just in case.

The image of Cuban government employees standing in the backs of trucks and selling scraped-bare bones to their fellow-countrymen is indelibly etched in my memory: it reminds, of course, of throwing bones to dogs.

Castro's callousness towards his own people, and in particular to their basic right to a reasonable diet, seems to know no bounds. Before we left Cuba we were told that Castro had declined an offer of food aid by the UN, saying that Cuba didn't need it. And undoubtedly he and his friends do not. But we know plenty of Cubans who would be very glad of it indeed.

A short vignette from 'Havana Bay,' again humourous, provides insight into how the ration system, combined with Castro's iron-fisted communist policies and regulations, affects the people of Cuba.

'She violated my trust. I took only my best students to the farm. To learn of the struggle in the countryside. Instead, she revealed herself as an anti-revolutionary and a thief.' Miss Garcia set a paper bag on her desk. 'On the way back on the bus this fell out of her shirt. I heard it fall.'
Ofelia looked inside the bag. 'A banana.'
'Stolen goods. Stolen by a daughter of an officer of the PNR. This is not going to end here.'
'Actually, a banana skin, no?' Ofelia lifted it from the bag by its unpeeled end. The skin was brown and blotchy, ripeness on the edge of rotting.
'Banana or banana skin, it makes no difference.'
'She had eaten it or not?'
'That doesn't matter.'
'You heard it fall. It's not likely you would hear an empty banana skin fall on a moving bus.'
'That's not the point.'
'Whose custody has it been in? There could be more than one person involved, there might be a whole ring involved with this banana. I will test it for fingerprints inside and out. We can do that. I'm glad you brought this to my attention. Don't worry, we'll get them all, each and every one. Do you want me to?'
'Well.' Miss Garcia sat back, and her tongue dabbed at the corner of her mouth. 'It was in my custody, of course. I don't know how it got eaten.'
'We can investigate. We can make sure the perpetrators never show their faces in this school again. Is that what you want?'
Miss Garcia looked aside, the eyebrows settled, and she said in an entirely different voice, 'I suppose I was hungry.'

from 'Havana Bay' (1999) by Martin Cruz Smith pp. 267-268

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