The Story of the Ration Book in Cuba

Dariela Aquique

A neighborhood store to purchase rationed products. Photo: Juan Suarez

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.

1960…

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)

Product

Quantity
Rice 6 lbs.
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
Eggs 5 monthly
Tubers 3 ½ lbs. a week (2 additional lbs.of malanga/children under 7)
Butter 1/8 lb./month
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.

1970…

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.

Happy New Year at the “bodega” store. Photo: Juan Suarez

1980…

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.

1990…

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.

A Cuban ration booklet. Photo: Rene Bastiaassen

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)

Product Quantity
Rice 5 lbs.
Grains (beans only) 10 ounces
Cooking oil 1/2 lb.
Sugar 4 lbs.
Salt 1 Kg (every 3 months)
Pasta 1 lb. (every 3 months)
Coffee 4 ounces
Matches 1 box
Additional rice 2 lbs.
Chicken 17 ounces
Soy meat 6 ounces
Eggs 5 a month
Children:
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)
For seniors:
Cereal 1 kg
Rice 1 kg
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.  


11 thoughts on “The Story of the Ration Book in Cuba

  • March 19, 2014 at 5:31 am
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    John: you keep stating the US is waging an economic war with Cuba. Yet, you will never acknowledge that the US is sending Cuban people about $5 Billion a year in cash and goods. That is about the same value or possibly greater than the oil Venezuela is giving Cuba in return for all the doctors and other personnel. Simply put, those US remittances are keeping the Cuban economy alive.

    Is this an “economic war”?

  • March 18, 2014 at 8:58 pm
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    Moses,
    I am explaining socialism and the difference between it and capitalism which has everything to do with Cuban-U.S. relations.
    In Cuban society rationing is required because the U.S. is waging an economic war on the island which requires stretching thin resources ACROSS the broad spectrum of Cuban society in an equitable manner which they choose to do with a ration book system.
    A question for you:
    I am assuming you can do sixth grade multiplication .
    The Chinese, as of December 2013 had/have a 34.9 petaflop computer array .
    Moore’s Law ( an effing genius like yourself will know what Moore’s Law is ) dictates that that capacity will double every 18 months . At that rate the Chinese WILL have a faster-than-human /smarter-than-human computer by 2021 .
    Morons like yourself envision a swarm of Arnold Schwarzeneggers and such but that is to be expected amongst the unread and I do not mean this especially derogatorily . It’s just the limited way you view the future, if indeed you envision anything but an apocalyptic one which you really don’t want to think about.anyway.
    Cheer up- IMO the future will be far, far better than you think.
    Unless someone shoots you for being egregiously disingenuous between now and then.
    And no, I will not fly out to San Francisco on that occasion to piss on your grave.
    Like Cubans, I too hate standing in long, long, long lines.
    Nothing personal.
    Just sayin’

  • March 18, 2014 at 6:38 pm
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    The problem with pure socialism is that it lacks the incentive for individual effort. Cuba has figured this out. They are reforming such that market forces can exist side by side with state industry while maintaining socialized health, education and national security.

  • March 18, 2014 at 2:15 pm
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    Hmm… I have a faint memory of my visit to the Revolution Museum a long time ago, but I’m fairly sure it displayed an area with the severe shortages following the naval blockade during the missile crisis and explicitly show it as the origin of the “libreta”.

    Anyways, anyone who ever bothered doing researching the subject knows that the list is missing a few things, like the infamous daily bread (ask Panfilo for details) and it does include extra supplements targeted to segments of the population like the so called “diet”.

    Also, for some reason, the list of items from the 60s is at odds with what Cubans have told me (some items are listed together where they were separated items, and it looks like is missing some other stuff)

  • March 18, 2014 at 11:48 am
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    In a blog named Havana Times, you never mentioned anything having to do with Cuba, Havana, the Castros, ni nada. Instead, your post blathers on about your kooky theory on the near future already made famous in Hollywood science fiction blockbusters. Three words…Stay…on…topic.

  • March 18, 2014 at 10:23 am
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    In ANY capitalist society, there are always some very poor people simply because the economy is set up to make money for the people who own the businesses and not to supply the people of the country with essentials of life.
    ( That’s socialism or communism or capitalist social welfare statism. )
    Since that big chunk of the population is fated to poverty , it is necessary for the ruling elite to ease the effects of that chronic/eternal poverty or face demonstrations, riots and other forms of social unrest .
    In the case of the U.S., FDR had to institute a great many social programs that are certainly socialist in nature, to ease that immense poverty during the Great Depression .
    If the world persists in sticking with capitalism , it faces enormous, unprecedented transformational and revolutionary changes as the ongoing technological leapfrogging we are experiencing results in super-human capability computers and artificial (machine) intelligence ( AI) that will eliminate most human jobs.
    The people in the know about such things have an early 2020s date for the evolution of a smarter-than-human AI and a late 2020s date for the elimination of nearly all human jobs as much smarter than human ( the process never ceases getting smarter) machine intelligence coupled with sci-fi -like robotics produce everything we need in abundance, faster, cheaper, cleaner ( better in every way) than we dumb humans could ever do.
    So…ask yourself: “What happens to capitalism without those hundreds of millions of paychecks ?”
    Last thought on this: All this technological development is happening right under our noses and unless a person is delving into the news about the vast leaps in all computer- related technologies , we may be seeing just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in things like smart phones and some of the miraculous -seeming medical developments .
    And this rate of development is accelerating at present at what seems to be far in excess of what is mandated by Moore’s Law and points to an even earlier date for the evolution/development of that super-human capability AI. and all that flows from that
    All this to say that IMO , you will not have to worry about ration books, poverty, oppressive governments or the problems of capitalism , cancer, and all diseases in just a short few decades.
    You can Google “when machines replace humans ” and read for a few weeks about what is happening and what will happen.
    I am far from being alone in thinking about the future as I do. ,

  • March 18, 2014 at 10:00 am
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    Very sad. I feel sorry for cuban people.

  • March 18, 2014 at 8:52 am
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    I lived through the through similar ration system in China in the 70s and 80s. I saw how did the Chinese Government get ride of it in the 90s. It might serve a interesting topic.
    The ration book was first replaced by vouchers, because the good thing about vouchers was that the Government can give more to people who really need them and reduce the amount from people who don’t need it that much.
    Then gradually use cash to replace those vouchers, so at the end, people who are more rely on the vouchers will have given more money to buy food, on their own choice. This even up the wealth distribution, because people who are better off, already have money…

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