The Future of a Monumental Institution (I)

Dmitri Prieto

The ration book entitles Cubans to one bread bun per day. They can purchase more but at a much higher price. Photo: Caridad

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.

4 thoughts on “The Future of a Monumental Institution (I)

  • Why does Cuba practice aparthide? When visiting Cuba I was surprised to find out that they still had places nationals can not visit. Case in point, the Delfiniario in Guardalabaca. It was such an insult to me and my friends to find out we could not enter because we are Cubans. This is such a stupid law too because the government is out hundreds of dollars that it could use.

  • Cuba is indeed at war — & a certain segment of the population seems 2 wish this were not so — so that they could begin 2 live in the way they C & envy in the (very deceptive) imperial West. The REAL alternative 4 cubans, however, would B 2 simply allow everyone the ‘freedom’ 2 starve & die in gigantic barrio slums @ the principal cities — & not like in the (formerly) ‘genteel’ slums of the West (soon 2 B getting MUCH worse).

    With imperialist ‘freedom’, IMO @1/2 @ least of the population of Cuba would B living in squalor @ the edges of Havana. TAKE the semi-permanence of what should have been only a temporary measure 4 what it is: because U R indeed @ war with the totalitarian slavers. Hopefully U will B able 2 get rid of this burden in the near future. But not w/o ALBA & a planned socialist economy @ a higher level, AFAIC.

  • A nice reflection, Dimitri. Thank you.

  • Dmitri
    I was reading in Granma an article by Barredo I believe and he was hinting about the elimination of the rationing book. While I see this as step forward to eliminate the state paternalism. It is true that many poor families depend of the few items assigned for subsistence. It is fair that many well to do families get this assignments while they are really able to afford the market prices? Maybe if they give this only to the really needy then they could even give them more help since it will be fewer of them.
    I disagree about your “deeply subsidized food” at the end. Yes the prices paid are very small when one compare to dollars. But people in Cuba do not make dollars. and it takes them a great percent of their salaries to even paid for this “subsidized” items. This happens because their cuban peso have been devalued extraordinarily. As long as their salaries stay as low as they are they will hardly be able to afford something else.

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