No Lunch for Grandpa: the Impact of Social Assistance Reform

Foto: Bradys Barreras.

By Dario Gonzalez  (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Ibrahim’s apartment is on the top floor of the building. An eaten-away door and a doorbell covered in scotch tape welcomes visitors. He always opens the door wearing his Cuba baseball cap and he apologizes for keeping you waiting. In spite of his limitations walking because of a swollen ankle, he always takes a few minutes to fix up the house a little before letting his visitor in.

The crutch leaning against the Panda TV and the Beatriz Marquez poster also welcome visitors. In his living room,  with the sound of Frank Sinatra’s voice playing, as well as books and diplomas for his years as a livestock engineer, three armchairs and a sofa barely fit. It’s there that Ibrahim used to wait for the lunch that was brought to his home as part of the Family Assistance System (SAF), during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve been receiving SAF services ever since I retired in 2016. I get lunch from Monday to Friday, only lunch though, because if they bring you dinner with your lunch, it gets cold by nightfall and it’s difficult for me to heat it up. I would normally go to pick it up, with a little bit of difficulty because of my swollen ankle, but luckily young people would bring them to our homes in the first few months of lockdown,” Ibrahim says.

During March and April 2020, the first months of lockdown, a courier system began to be set up by students at Havana University and CUJAE, to deliver SAF lunches to those depending on them. It was developed as an efficient means to reduce infection rates among this population group, by preventing them from having to leave home.

Ibrahim received SAF lunches all year round, as an everyday solution for his nutritional needs. However, his reality has been blurred since January 2021, to his disadvantage.

SAF, a means to sustain many

Before January 1st, the day the Tarea Ordenamiento (economic reforms) began, SAF lunches and dinners cost 1 peso each. They had been subsidized by the Government up until then, as a way to help those registered with SAF.

Today, this system provides assistance to 76,176 people, 47.7% of whom are retired people; 21.9% are social cases; 15.9% are protected by Social Security; 7.5% are disabled; 6.8% are not retired; and 0.3% are pregnant women.

Before this year’s currency reform, SAF services were 100% subsidized for its beneficiaries. Now, they are only subsidized by 15.9%, via Social Assistance. Cuban authorities insist that it’s only this group of people whose pensioin isn’t enough to cover SAF costs and who have problems getting to the end of the month with their income.

Photo: Bradys Barreras

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security governs Cuba’s Social Security System, which operates in two systems: Social Security and Social Assistance. The first is responsible for protecting workers and their families, providing benefits to cope with risks in the face of illness, permanent total or partial disability. The second is geared towards people without resources or family protection and are not fit to work, including many old people, who are given the bare minimum needed to eat and cover living expenses.

The Social Security System is responsible for managing the incorporation of people into the SAF program, who apply via their local People’s Council and are then approved. This program was born in 1998 with the mission of supplementing diets of the elderly, disabled, high-risk pregnant women and social cases. The lack of income and family members in conditions to help out are the conditions that these people share as a highly vulnerable group.

According to this system’s principles, nobody should be left unprotected or with their basic needs neglected if they are unable to work, in compliance with Article 68 of Chapter 2 of the Constitution (2019).

Social Assistance, within the Social Security System, doesn’t deal with everyone registered with SAF, but only the most critical cases in terms of financial income. Everyone protected by SAF are beneficiaries of Social Security, but not precisely of Social Assistance. Only those who declare that their income, via their pension, isn’t enough to pay for SAF services, the basic food basket, electricity bill and other expenses, are taken on by Social Assistance.

Ibrahim reached SAF by applying in Havana’s Colon neighborhood, via the Social Security System. “Once I started getting my pension, I asked for them to sign me up, and because of my physical handicap and low financial solvency, they approved my application straight away. I’ve gone to every canteen belonging to the People’s Council, from the one on Zapata and Paseo, to the one on 23rd and 12th streets, and everybody knows me already,” he says chuckling.

There is only one way to sign up to SAF, but there are many intermediaries. Applications can be sent to the People’s Council by the delegate, social worker in the community or the board of the Young Communist League or the Communist Party. Even so, not everyone who applies for this service is taken on. The people who are refused this service outright, because they aren’t considered “extremely vulnerable”, are put on a waiting list.

Manuel doesn’t get lunch anymore

Manuel is 78 years old and is Ibrahim’s neighbor. He says that ever since the economic reforms began (in January this year), he was deregistered from SAF without being told the reason why.

A former war Navy pilot and an avid reader, he raises an eyebrow as if he wants to give you a piece of advice and says: “Having your family and children far-away is hard enough as it is, but having them far-away during times like these is like a bitter divorce for an old man like me.”

Just over 50% of those registered with SAF are senior citizens, amidst an accelerated process of population aging. This population group went up from 18.3% to 21.3%, between 2012-2020. Former chairman of the Communist Party’s Guidelines for Implementation and Development Committee, Marino Murillo, said the following on this issue: “A society ages not because there are more people aged 60+, but because not enough children are being born for the population to reproduce. This phenomenon, tied to the health issue with the universal healthcare we Cubans have, makes the situation today very difficult, because there are many people with a higher life expectancy.” In addition to there not being enough births, high emigration rates among those of reproductive age and working, represents a permanent drain.

Based on objectives to improve the economy, currency reforms should help those registered with SAF, and all beneficiaries as a result. However, the number of people at SAF canteens has dropped, according to statements by Marta Elena Feito.

Low numbers of diners show a deterioration in the wellbeing of many elderly people in extremely vulnerable situations, as these lunches represented half of their weekly diets. The minister has said that one of the causes identified was the change in prices and the ministries of Domestic Trade, Finance and Prices quickly began to investigate what exactly had happened. “In fact, there is a group of people today, a MINCIN working group, that is studying the SAF situation,” the official added.

“The first day with the new prices, they cost 10-something pesos, and there was outrage, because people aren’t used to paying this much, as they only used to cost 1 peso. In my case, I went from getting a monthly pension of 602 pesos to a pension of 2389 pesos. It’s true that pensions went up, but they didn’t multiply ten-fold like the lunches did. In order for this all to be proportional, my pension would have had to go up to 6000 pesos. We used to pay 1 peso for lunch, and now it’s approximately 10 pesos. I don’t have the luxury of being able to buy a packet of hamburgers at the store for 100-something pesos, but I’m not dying of hunger,” Ibrahim says as the conversation goes on.

Ibrahim doesn’t stop talking. He talks about highlights of his younger days: his mother’s death when he was 25 years old, how he was left alone with his father and he managed to graduate in Livestock Engineering, and he attributes the merit in equal parts to the Revolution and himself. He remembers the Socialist Bloc and Gorbachov, the Camarioca boatlift, he talks about his children who left years later. He insists that prostitutes from his time were different, “they were decent people,” he says. He goes back to talking about SAF prices going up.

Photo: Bradys Barreras

New prices, different challenges

SAF prices went from representing approximately 5% of pensions to 12%. This increase follows the logic of eliminating subsidies. Marino Murillo has said this has been done with the intention of making progress: “To try and fade out different prices of the same product. A significant amount of resources are being handled by SAF; for example, you can’t put a pound of chicken for 60 cents, when it costs 20 pesos somewhere else.”

Many people have realized that even though pensions have gone up, they still aren’t enough to buy lunches and dinners at this new price. The Government has promised that those who feel their pensions aren’t enough to live on, because of the latest prices introduced, will be taken in by Social Assistance, which will ensure they receive SAF services at affordable prices, in other words, a new subsidy.

Both Marino Murillo and Marta Elena Feito have called for calm among those in extremely vulnerable situations, and have said that nobody will be left unprotected. If pensions aren’t enough to cover their living costs, they should send an application for social assistance and they’ll be approved within three days. However, in terms of Social Assistance, just over 15% of people registered will be able to join because there isn’t an endless budget (divided basically between those registered with SAF, the elderly in homes, women with high-risk pregnancies, as well as people with severe handicaps and low incomes too).

The limited number of social assistance coupons could create controversy, delays and not very much security in the process that follows after sending in your application, in the interest of covering the expense of SAF food.

Currency reforms were implemented at the beginning of the year, but official media insists that the government studied this strategy for a good while [at least 10 years].

“Like I just told you, it’s true that the meals have gone up in price, and it’s also true that my pension allows me to buy it even if it has got more expensive; but it isn’t only a matter of price, but also the quality of the service. The food is normally cooked quite well, but there isn’t very much protein, there’s almost no chicken sometimes between all the bones and skin. Normally, it comes with a soup and rice,” Ibrahim says whilst shrugging his shoulders.

Other citizens from the People’s Council in Colon, such as 85-year-old Luis, who has now retired and was a former soldier, agree with him. They believe that prices going up isn’t the only problem, that the quality of this service is always deteriorating. He expresses his disapproval with SAF and the assistance he receives as an old man with very little financial means. He predicts his final days are on the horizon, but he says he doesn’t want to leave this world with the life he has now.

“I don’t think it’s right that the price of these meals has gone up, firstly, because there isn’t much variety and secondly, because of the poor quality of the food. I was a soldier, and what good was it devoting my entire life to the revolutionary process if I’m not given the assistance I deserve now? I’m only asking for basic assistance, which begins with a decent diet. The quality of the food is the main issue here, but on top of that, it’s not right that you have to pay 300 CUP per month for a meal that isn’t even a proper meal. All I want is to have the assistance I deserve, as I’ve given my life to my country.”

Luis says this as he tells people off for resting in the doorway to his home while waiting in a line to buy at the dollar-store next door, which he has never stepped foot in because he doesn’t have access to this currency.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.