HAVANA TIMES – No, it’s not a fairy tale and the “happily ever after” ending remains to be seen. Rather, this is the chronicle of a little book that’s been part of the lives of Cubans for many years: the Ration Booklet.
The information is a little contradictory regarding the date in which this little notebook was instituted as a regulatory mechanism. According to official sources it came into use on July 12, 1963 for the distribution of subsidized food products to the population, with the purpose of controlling the quantity and frequency with which a person could buy food. But articles published outside of the government sites assure us that it was March of 1962. The fact is, when I arrived in this world the ration book was already here.
When Washington decided to deprive Cuba of money and supplies, they believed that the resultant hunger and desperation would lead to the rapid overthrow of Fidel Castro’s government. They hadn’t the least notion of the inventive capacity of those who aimed at perpetuating themselves in power; much less of the power of resistance of a people who have been the only real victims of these two clashing forces for over half a century.
In this way, the ration book was born. Under the pretense of counteracting the economic war that the country was facing, a ration booklet was instituted to assure the “equitable” distribution of food products. El Mundo (a newspaper of the time) published in their edition of Tuesday, March 13 1962, an article titled, “Not more for some, nor less for others; the same for all.”
The Ration Book (National distribution, per person per month)
|All types of grains||1 ½ lbs.|
|Animal or vegetable fat||2 lbs.|
|Bath soap||1 bar|
|Wash soap||1 bar|
|Detergent||1 medium packet or one large for 2 people|
|Toothpaste||1 large tube for every 2 people or a giant-sized one for 4|
|Beef||3/4 lb. a week|
|Chicken||1 – 2 lbs. a month|
|Fish||1/2 lb. per person every 15 days|
|Tubers||3 ½ lbs. a week (2 additional lbs.of malanga/children under 7)|
|Leche||1 liter daily for every 5 persons older than 7, or its equivalent in 6 cans of condensed or evaporated milk monthly per person. In addition, 1 liter daily for each child under seven.|
However, this measure didn’t arrive by itself. Instead, it generated a new bureaucratic mechanism: the creation of OFICODA (Office for Consumer Control and supply distribution). This entity with its numerous employees would also serve (as became evident as years passed) as an apparatus for citizen control, under pretense of controlling consumers.
Considered by some as the worst year of the Cuban economy; barely 11 years had passed since the triumph of the Revolution, but the people of the island already shared a sentiment of longing for the past, that eternal nostalgia for what was and no longer is. Remember how it was before..? Those classic lines that have persisted up until today were already being heard: And it’s because by then the now customary ration booklet was very different than what it had been in the beginning, in that the quotas assigned to each citizen had diminished considerably.
These well remembered years that some characterize as “the time when Cuba still laughed” took advantage of Russian protection and aid from the socialist camp. The ration book lost a little of its central importance because many products began to be sold freely at prices that were accessible to the average Cuban. During this epoch any family could buy enough food with their salary. Nevertheless, complainers were not lacking, and the reductions of the period, as well as the disappearance of some products from the ration book generated discontent. The most notable example was with beef; from ¾ of a pound weekly, this product went to ¾ lb. every nine days, then to every 15 days and finally to a month, 45 days, until we never saw it again.
With the fall of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the USSR, the supply of products to Cuba was reduced drastically. In the midst of the economic crisis, the country opened its economy to foreign investment. Tourism began to develop as a source of income, and inequality in personal income began to be felt. The ration book lost its character as a symbol of equality. Nonetheless the government continued subsidizing basic foods and with the ration book it was able to share out the little that entered or was produced on the island.
2000… the death sentence
The point is – Cuba is no longer the same. Now there are many self-employed workers and a considerable number of people receive money from family members abroad. The salaries and living conditions of those who are employees of foreign companies or of tourist enterprises mark another difference. Artists, athletes or other professional sectors that travel frequently outside the country and the members of the military who receive large amounts of stimulus pay have higher incomes and other options for places to buy their products. To be truthful, they no longer need the ration booklet.
But there is a great deal of concern in one sector of the population for whom the ration book is still utterly necessary. With the little that they receive through it, this group of Cubans resolves a large problem. Up until now they have eaten, badly or well, thanks to the ration book; if it is taken away from them, given the fact that the majority of the salaries and pensions are so low, they won’t have enough to live on.
This vulnerable group: retired people, those who don’t have any family outside the country and those who live exclusively on their salaries, live in fearful anticipation of the day that the ration book no longer exists. They feel certain that the ineffective Social Security System will not resolve the problem for them.
The ration booklet has also served for decades as a way to deliver extra food quotas to people on special diets as prescribed by their doctors; sometimes including items such as meat, milk, tubers and fish. This has actually become a new type of business, since some unscrupulous doctors and other health workers sell the certificates for special diets to people who have no diseases whatsoever, but who can pay for this fraud to alleviate their problem of filling the cupboard.
The ration book is today a pending task for the State, as part of their much touted policy of “economic changes”. They have been talking openly for years about its slow elimination. The Vice President of the Council of Ministers, Marino Murillo, has expressed that they are studying how to eliminate it, but that it’s too complicated to take it away all at once.
According to this functionary, guaranteeing the basic products to the family units costs the State US $1.16 billion a year, without counting the additional expenses of transportation and other logistics. He claims that with this distribution the Government has assumed 88% of the cost and the population pays only 12% of the cost of the food. President Raul Castro has affirmed that the country’s economy can’t continue to assume such an expense, and that the elimination of the ration system has already begun by reducing the number of products that are sold this way.
The Current Ration Book (monthly per person distribution)
|Grains (beans only)||10 ounces|
|Cooking oil||1/2 lb.|
|Salt||1 Kg (every 3 months)|
|Pasta||1 lb. (every 3 months)|
|Additional rice||2 lbs.|
|Soy meat||6 ounces|
|Eggs||5 a month|
|Compote||13 units monthly up until 3 years of age|
|Milk||1 kg (every five days up until 7 years of age)|
|Beef or chicken||6 ounces (monthly up until 13 years of age)|
|NOTE: The municipalities and villages have smaller assignations of some products than in the cities.|
So what will become of those old people for whom the Ration Book is a sort of fifth limb if it is eliminated? We’ll never again hear those frenetic shouts in the street of “The chicken’s here!” “They just brought in the cooking oil!” Or “They’ve got macaroni!” The comedians won’t be able to make any more jokes about the celebrated ration booklet over whose last days of life we are currently presiding.