Is Cuba’s Rations Booklet Getting a Boost from COVID-19?

By Patricia Grogg (IPS-Cuba)

Police officers try to organize a line with social distancing outside a store selling some food items in Marianao, Havana. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

HAVANA TIMES – Shortages of food and other essential items are conspiring against the public health system’s efforts to fight COVID-19, as thousands of people are forced to wait in line for hours in front of retail stores.

It’s a cause for concern for the government, which is considering different ways to sell and distribute goods, and trying to give some order to never-ending lines of customers by enforcing measures, directly asking people to wear masks and to comply with physical distancing guidelines, and even giving a green light to police control.

Opening up e-commerce options hasn’t managed to keep things under control and it can’t keep up with demand, whether that’s because they don’t sell everything you need or because there are delays with delivery, payments being processed without goods being delivered, and phonelines to make a complaint that aren’t always open, as well as other problems.

The Cuban people have a wide range of opinions and anecdotes about the matter. Cubans are now talking about lines and the time you spend in them almost as much as they do about baseball, the national sport or the current soap opera. As a result of imposed self-isolation at home, phones and social media have become the perfect vehicles for people to exchange complaints and suggestions for a solution.

“This Sunday, I spent almost four hours in line to buy a tiny packet of ham and a liter of cooking oil. A police officer jotted down the ID card number of those of us who arrived, and then a sales assistant handed out numbers in the order of arrival,” a customer, who asked to remain anonymous, told IPS, in Havana’s Playa municipality.

Some days before, this same person – the only person who leaves the house to do the shopping – had complained about the commotion and lack of control in a line he stood in to buy chicken. “I have seen people who aren’t from the neighborhood come and line up more than once. They use their cellphones to find out what’s being sold and where. That’s why products run out so fast,” she said.

“I stood in four lines to buy detergent and it ran out before it was my turn to buy. I managed to get a hold of it the fifth time. They should include it in the rations booklet, even if I could only get it every two or three months,” Mayrelis Gonzalez said, who complained to IPS about the low perception of risk many people outside have.

The ration booklet is making a comeback as the preferred retail option for many people, because it offers certain quotas of rice, sugar, eggs, chicken and other meat, cooking oil and coffee to Cuba’s 11.2 million inhabitants. Prices are subsidized by the State.

Even though it helps to fill some of the dietary requirements of some of the poorer sectors of Cuban society, it isn’t close to enough and families need to turn to other non-subsidized markets to buy more for a much higher price. The rations booklet has existed ever since the ‘60s and there have been attempts to get rid of it or at least reduce its importance as part of Raul Castro’s reforms, but the current situation advises against this.

Documents from the UN Development Assistance Framework in Cuba consider that access to this food quota is a universal right in the country and highlight the existence of special diets for vulnerable groups, children, pregnant women and people with chronic illness.

An employee selling subsidized rationed products included on the rations booklet in a neighborhood store in Playa, Havana. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Commerce authorities have warned that supplies available at market price won’t be enough to transfer them to the rations booklet, and to regularly provide these goods to the 3,809,000 family units registered on this system, involving over 11 million Cubans.

Likewise, the number of families that require social benefits because of low income went up from 112,000 to 606,945.

“Shortages today aren’t related in any way to the pandemic. It had been a problem for months already, the result of scarce foreign currency funds in the country, which led to a cut in imports of certain foods,” economist Omar Everleny Perez Villanueva told IPS.

COVID-19 has worsened the dire Cuban economy, due to a recession in tourism, a drop in remittances, strong tensions in the energy sector and a harsher US embargo, which the government says is the main obstacle for progress in this country.

Within this context, the Perez believes that “the measure of redistributing products in a fairer way, during this crisis, would be to organize sales with the rations booklet,” even if it were just a temporary solution, and implemented as an “emergency need for survival.”

Consulting subscribers of its website in Cuba, IPS could verify that many people were interested in the rations booklet including more products to ensure a fairer and more organized distribution of available food items, although there were also plenty of opinions against this idea.

“I believe that the infrastructure of the rations booklet would allow for greater versatility in food distribution. Not only rationed goods, but also market priced ones,” Arantxa Fernandez said, who believes it would facilitate the elderly who have reduced mobility. “If I could get hold of more things at my neighborhood bodega store, I wouldn’t leave my block,” she concluded.

However, Oniel Santana Contreras said if the rations booklet were to make a big comeback, then these crowds would just move to bodega stores and butcher’s, which have poorer storage conditions and less freezers than the retail network of CUC [hard currency] stores do.

Economist Esteban Morales warned that the “rations booklet is ineffective,” if supply falls short, like it does right now. He believes that the alternative, while shortages last, is to accept lines and keep them in order, distributing “what they can” via the rations booklet and helping the disabled.

A woman leaving a fruit and vegetable market in a Havana barrio. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“I believe that with the shortages the country is experiencing, the rations booklet continues to be crucial, but the concept of how it is used needs to change, allowing bodega stores, markets, to sell not only rationed goods, but also other market priced products,” sociologist Reina Fleitas pointed out.

“The State needs to find more unifying and fairer modes of distribution. I support getting rid of subsidized goods and instead subsidizing people, but I am also in favor of the bodega store selling rationed and market priced, national and imported goods,” the expert said, as she believes the rations booklets plays a more important role in an economy dependent on imports.

The rations booklet was born on March 12, 1962, to navigate shortages caused by the US embargo, the government at the time explained, as the US had been the country’s main trade partner back then.

The US, with its southern shore just 90 miles away from Cuba, cut off all relations with the Cuban Revolution that year, and established an embargo against this Caribbean island, which it still upholds and is known here as the “blockade”.

The rations booklet was also conceived because of a growth of people’s purchasing power at a higher rate than the production of consumer goods and the State’s inability to import them. Basic quotas were ensured with the ration’s booklet for the entire population, at a subsidized price, sometimes even lower than production costs.

3 thoughts on “Is Cuba’s Rations Booklet Getting a Boost from COVID-19?

  • When hunger threatens, the assurance of even a very limited amount of food at a subsidized price, is of benefit. Naturally, Cubans wish to retain the libreta, they need food.

    For sixty long weary years, Cubans have had to keep their belts tight and for the last thirty years all those visitors with any agricultural knowledge, have urged the Cuban regime to re-develop the country’s agricultural assets. But all to no avail, five year plans, the political hierarchy led by Machado Ventura, plodding around agricultural experiments and sugar production plants, with a gaggle of so-called reporters from the State media, all has been a circus.

    Agricultural production has fallen, then fallen, then fallen ever further. Sugar was the mainstay, but in thirty years it has fallen from 9 million tons to 1.1 million tons per annum. The fertile land upon which the cane was grown, has not been diverted into growing other crops, but reverted to bush with a few scrub cattle wandering aimlessly around – no beef of those aged skeletal beasts.

    Incompetence rules. Such is Fidel Castro’s “Socialismo” in practice.

  • As has been mentioned in comments here many times, Cuba is fortunate to have very fertile soil. The fruit and vegetables grown are of very good quality. Unfortunately the agricultural policies have not achieved food self sufficiency which should be possible with better organisation. This is the root of the issue regarding food and it’s distribution.
    Regarding the ‘libreta’ or ration book, it’s a bit of a paradox. For years I have heard people saying that if they could get the country organised properly then it wouldn’t be needed.
    For years I have heard people saying that it doesn’t provide enough food to get by on.
    But as soon as Raul Castro, a few years ago, hinted that they may start to phase the ration book system out, there was an uproar. ‘You can’t take the ‘libreta’ away !!!’
    As Hal states, I think most Cubans want to see the Ration Book System updated rather than phased out.

    The lack of food self sufficiency and the Ration Book System are two of many Cuban paradoxes.

  • The ration booklets are helping the poorest of the population. Sadly the amount of each ration is so small it could not supply enough for 1 person to survive for more than a couple of days at the most. As well the rationed products are of poor quality at the edge of it’s shelve life. The ration booklet has it’s place in Cuban society but it does need to be updated!

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