OFICODA (the Office of Food Distribution Control) —an abbreviation that in Spanish always sounds like an obscene word— is the traditional name for what is known in Cuba today as the Consumer’s Registry. There are OFICODA branches in practically every town and community across the island.
As bureaucratic offices at the grassroots level, with their time-worn tables and crumpled files, the storefronts of the OFICODA branches constitute a complete symbol of a social paradigm or model.
At these facilities, various officials —usually women— are in charge of keeping a list of everyone who has permanent residency in the area. Only the registration of the National ID Card, issued by the police, is as wide-scale an operation as OFICODA. This is because it is mandatory for permanent residents in the country (Cuban citizens as well as foreigners) to carry an ID card, just as it is that they possess a “ration book.”
Registration with the local OFICODA office is demanded when a person moves to a new town, as this constitutes an important bureaucratic step for the legalization of their “official” presence in the new locale.
The ration book allows the buying of one bun of bread per person daily, as well as monthly purchases of several pounds of rice, a few eggs (not many), chicken and peas – whose quantity varies depending on what part of the country they are in. In relation to the rest of the country, people registered with OFICODA in the city of Havana are privileged; they also get coffee, sugar, salt and cigarettes.
The very existence of the ration book —for some a symbol of social justice, for others a metaphor for backwardness— has been the object of much debate.
Many believe that it’s an exclusive feature of Cuba, but in the Imperial War Museum in London, I had the privilege of seeing ration books used by the British during the Second World War; one could even buy a facsimile copy for a few pounds sterling.
Similar ration books existed in Russia, Germany, and other countries that have been in war. Many foreigners find it easy to identify the Cuban ration book as a feature of certain spirit of barracks socialism. Likewise, Cubans still polemicize over whether this distribution system is good or bad, since it now provides very little in comparison to what the average family requires.
Twenty years ago —without shame or glory or prior warning— we saw the disappearance of the other ration book that was used for buying manufactured products, everything from trousers to photographic cameras; however, the book for buying deeply subsidized food remains in place.