Food Perks: “Material Incentive” or “Nutritional Blackmail”?

Photo collage / El Toque


By Claudia Gonzalez Marrero (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Since the decade of the 60s, there’ve been discussions in Cuba about the role of labor incentives. In the beginning, all bets were placed on the application within Marxism of accounting autonomy, self-financing, and a system of material incentives. Ernesto [“Che”] Guevara was a fierce critic of this tendency. He strongly advised against the use of methods he considered an inheritance from the past. Instead, Guevara promoted moral recognition, the mere satisfaction of a duty fulfilled in the construction of socialism. The ethical value of such incentives was tied up with the rigorous atmosphere of battle at that time; the clamor for exemplary production workers in the name of the “decisive effort”.

Following the failure of the all-out push for a ten-million-ton sugar harvest [in 1970], Cuba adopted the Soviet system. This utilized calculations linking a worker’s remuneration to the quantity and quality of their work. First came the distribution of the Soviet-made electrical appliances – television sets, fans, irons; then there were the Chinese products, like the bicycles in the nineties and the Panda televisions of the 2000s.

After the economic reform of the nineties, the beginning of trade with the ALBA governments, and, above all, the exportation of medical, technical and athletic services, work incentives were translated into a stipend in hard currency, representing a certain percentage of what the workplace generated. These incentives weren’t available at all workplaces but depended on each Ministry’s capacity.

Such hard currency incentives had more presence in those centers that were self-sustaining, and generated profits, typically from the production or export of products and services. They were also employed in the “strategic” centers, those linked or subordinate to the upper echelons of the Cuban Communist Party and the government.

In the last few years, however, we’ve seen the gradual disappearance of material products, now replaced by food packages. These generally include boxes of chicken, cold cuts, eggs or cooking oil, among other products of basic necessity. Good or not-so-good quality food products are today the most common incentives used to reward the work of the State employees, especially in the medical, technical, and sporting fields. Although the State has also used other perks – such as new income policies and distribution of goods (principally vehicles) – to recognize the diligent labor of the most outstanding personnel, food products are the most widely used incentives.

The majority of the Cuban athletes who received medals in the 2021 Pan-American Championship events in Guadalajara, Mexico, were received in Cuba by local government representatives with food baskets that included pastries, cooking oil, hot dogs and vegetables.

Another, more regrettable example, was that of the well-known Cuban actress Gina Cabrera, so famous for her acting skills that she’s popularly known in Cuba as the Queen of Drama. Cabrera passed away this month, but a few weeks before her death she received some food aid from her former employer – the now-defunct Cuban Radio and Television Institute.  Her son described the package as: “Some rice, peas, broken spaghetti, and bulk cooking oil – how offensive!”

In a system where the collective memory is marked by State policies, and the legacy of the workers is only formally recognized by the official entities, a food basket reward like the one given our “glories of national sports”, or granted to a historic cultural generation, of which Gina Cabrera forms part, is pitiful.

If the incentives are aimed at encouraging an individual’s potential, the distribution of food in Cuba has marked the slow transition towards the impoverishment of this social mechanism, until it’s become more like a government-sponsored survival mechanism. Food incentives have come to represent an effort to pad the established salaries, assets, and retirement pensions, because these aren’t fulfilling their intended role. The real, market value of such a program would, perhaps, put it closer to Guevara’s concept of moral incentives.

If the incentives are intended to raise workers’ self-esteem, it’s regrettable that products of basic consumption should be proposed for such an end, and even be desired by the recipients. Especially if we think about the sector of pensioned retirees, one of the most vulnerable sectors of the current Cuban population.

At a time like this, of chronic shortages, the partial State distribution of food products also creates an important social difference for those citizens unable to access these supplements. The State sector has historically been the most overlooked group, with the fewest economic benefits, a distinction that became more marked with the rise of the private sector.

Perhaps that’s the reason that the culture of incentives has always had a special place and meaning for the State sector. The food bags are awaited and hoped for after the emulation inspections in the ministries, or as Christmas gifts, according to the scope of each entity. Even those retired from different sectors of industry, the armed forces and other organisms gladly receive the possibility of having special access to certain products at modest prices. This creates, let’s say, a sense of belonging, reinforcing the idea of a paternalistic employer.

While the economic reforms have tried very unsuccessfully to benefit the State employees, any perk or restricted distribution of food, in a system where insecurity predominates like the one that’s been established in the last two years, marks a substantial difference in a society that’s ever more unequal.

The government knows that there’s large-scale food insecurity and uses that as a starting point to control and condition the militants in key sectors, “motivating” them with products that should be common, everyday purchases for all citizens. The basic, necessary, and common food supplies for a population shouldn’t become a chip to be exchanged, used for reward, or conditioned, much less used to mark a relationship between a citizen and its government. This, especially in a society marked by shortages and a deficient retribution from the State.   


Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

3 thoughts on “Food Perks: “Material Incentive” or “Nutritional Blackmail”?

  • I pretty sure government officials and their cronies are not living on food parcel handouts while their people and children are starving in their homes, as the saying goes “all people are equal, but some are more equal than others”.

  • Just check the list of food the Masters used to feed theirs slaves and it was way better than the diet the dictatorship is feeding their slaves. The Masters did feeds the slaves good and the Mayoral had the whip. The dictatorship feeds their slave poorly and have the political police with the whip.

  • Asere cuba is no good government. Everything is breaking down we all want to leave! Now they send food that is bad to the house so we don’t protest. Me no care, I will protest. Fidel and Raul are loco.

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