HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 28 (IPS) — “This is getting bad. We hear that they’re going to take away the ration books,” says an elderly man, his elbows resting on the countertop of a small shop in the Cuban capital. “Well, for whatever it’s worth,” replies a woman in a low voice as she makes her monthly ration purchases.
It’s not just a rumor. Since the 1960s, ration books have provided the basic food basket of products at government-subsidized prices to the entire Cuban population, which now stands at 11.2 million. But the ration book’s days are numbered — and not everyone will mourn its passing.
This regulated distribution system no longer meets the food needs of Cuba’s families, although it is still seen as important for the more vulnerable segments of the population, such as retirees with no other income but their pensions, or women heads of household with few other resources.
“It’s true that it doesn’t solve much, but at least it gives the security of having the monthly quota of rice, sugar, eggs, some oil and protein, especially for children. The question people are asking is if there will be products available and how much they will cost if they get rid of the ration books,” Ana, a middle-aged woman who did not want to give her surname, told IPS.
The proposal for the “orderly elimination” of this system is among the points –
– many which would have heavy social impacts — included in the Draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy, prepared for the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), which has been governing this Caribbean island nation since 1959.
The text will serve as the focus of popular debate from December 2010 to February 2011.
President Raul Castro, according to the official press, said there is no alternative but to implement the measures necessary for resolving the host problems afflicting the Cuban economy. But he also sought to reassure Cubans that the text is just a draft and urged the meticulous collection of all opinions because, he said, it is the people who have to decide.
Not a new process
This sort of popular consultation process is not new, although this time it is generating clashing points of view. For some, the result of these discussions will not be substantive, nor will they change the course of the decisions already taken. Other sources said the process is nothing more than an attempt to create the “perception” of popular participation.
For Castro it is apparently a way to determine and “systematize” what the Cuban people think and what their hopes are for this “updating” of the Cuban economic model by the PCC Congress, and also to build social consensus ahead of implementing tough economic policies.
Economic adjustment measures — like cutting a half-million jobs, eliminating state grants and subsidies, increasing the tax burden, among others — have already created unease among Cubans that the official explanations have so far failed to assuage.
Some observers have noted that, since the PCC Congress date of April 2011 was announced on Nov. 9, the Cuban president has been making it clear that his brother, former president Fidel Castro has been kept apprised of the project. Fidel, historic leader of the Cuban revolution, stepped down in February 2008 due to health problems.
A week after the announcement, Fidel himself met with university students, reminding them that he had delegated all his powers when he fell ill in July 2006. “I am happy because this country is moving; but it has all of these challenges,” he said, which has been interpreted as support for his younger brother’s administration.
According to an academic expert who asked not to be identified, “the next step is to explain to the people and help them think through” economic issues that can be very complex. “At the same time, what people say in the debates could enrich the final text. I believe that is the idea,” said the source.
This practice of public debate was utilized in 2007 when Raul Castro — at the time, interim president — called for opinions on his Jul. 27 speech in which he acknowledged the difficulties and shortages that Cubans faced in daily life, ruled out short-term solutions and announced “structural and conceptual changes.”
An unofficial survey conducted at the time by IPS found that the wide range of topics in those debates included the deterioration of free health services and education, shortages of food and other basic items, and the excessive limitations and prohibitions that extend to all areas of people’s lives.
There were also many demands for expanding the possibilities for self- employment (independent of the government, which is the largest and nearly sole employer in Cuba), opening of cooperatives and small businesses, and devising a concrete plan for eliminating dual currency circulation.
Castro later said that these neighborhood and workplace consultations served as a practice run, thinking ahead to the Sixth Congress of the PCC, postponed since 2002 and now slated for the latter half of April 2011. The people’s input, he assured, proved “very useful for the subsequent work in leading the country.”
The PCC congresses are supposed to be held every five years to draft political, economic and social guidelines for the country for the next half-decade. This time around, the focus will be on the economy, leaving aside other issues for a National Conference to be held at a later date.