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
Rice6 lbs.
All types of grains1 ½ lbs.
Animal or vegetable fat2 lbs.
Bath soap1 bar
Wash soap1 bar
Detergent1 medium packet or one large for  2 people
Toothpaste1 large tube for every 2 people or a giant-sized one for 4
Beef3/4 lb. a week
Chicken1 – 2 lbs. a month
Fish1/2 lb. per person every 15 days
Eggs5 monthly
Tubers3 ½ lbs. a week (2 additional lbs.of malanga/children under 7)
Butter1/8 lb./month
Leche1 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)

ProductQuantity
Rice5 lbs.
Grains (beans only)10 ounces
Cooking oil1/2 lb.
Sugar4 lbs.
Salt1 Kg (every 3 months)
Pasta1 lb. (every 3 months)
Coffee4 ounces
Matches1 box
Additional rice2 lbs.
Chicken17 ounces
Soy meat6 ounces
Eggs5 a month
Children:
Compote13 units monthly up until 3 years of age
Milk1 kg (every five days up until 7 years of age)
Beef or chicken6 ounces (monthly up until 13 years of age)
For seniors:
Cereal1 kg
Rice1 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

  • In capitalist societies food is imported and produced to meet the needs of the people. Cuba’s level of development was above most if not all European nations. Cubans never faced hunger and scarcity before Fidel.

    “Armando Hart, a member of Castro’s innermost ruling group, made the extremely significant observation that:
    . . . it is certain that capitalism had attained high levels of organization, efficiency and production that declined after the
    Revolution. . . (Juventud Rebelde, November 2, 1969; quoted by Rene Dumont, Is Cuba Socialist?)

    Paul A. Baran, an ardent pro-Castroite in the equally ardent Monthly Review pamphlet, Reflections on the Cuban Revolution (1961) substantiates what every economist, as well as amateurs like Castro, has been saying:
    …the Cuban Revolution was born with a silver spoon in its mouth.

    .the world renowned French agronomist, Rene Dumont, has estimated that if properly cultivated as intensively as South China, Cuba could feed fifty million people. . . the Cuban Revolution is spared the painful, but ineluctable compulsion that has beset preceding socialist revolutions: the necessity to force tightening of people’s belts in order to lay the foundations for a better tomorrow. . .(p. 23)

    Theodore Draper quotes Anial Escalante, (before he was purged by Castro) one of the leading communists, who admitted that:
    …in reality, Cuba was not one of the countries with the lowest standard of living of the masses in America, but on the contrary, one of the highest standards of living, and it was here where the first great . . . democratic social revolution of the continent burst forth. . . If the historical development had been dictated by the false axiom [revolutions come first in poorest countries] the revolution should have been first produced in Haiti, Colombia or even Chile, countries of greater poverty for the masses than the Cuba of 1958. . . (quoted in Draper’s Castro’s Revolution: Myths and Realities; New York, 1962, p. 22)

    Castro himself admitted that there was no hunger in Cuba:

    Cuba, the “Pearl of the Antilles,” though by no means a paradise, was not, as many believe, an economically backward country. Castro himself admitted that while there was poverty, there was no economic crisis and no hunger in Cuba before the Revolution. (See Maurice Halperin: The Rise and Fall of Fidel Castro, University of California, 1972, pgs. 24, 25, 37)

  • The ration book is the poster image of the failure of the Cuban regime to feed its people adequately even during the period of the Soviet subsidies.
    It also illustrates the destruction of the Cuban agriculture by the regime.
    One fact I will always remember: it took Castro only two years to halve the rice production in Cuba. Before Castro Cuba was self-sufficient in rice with consumption level two to three times what the rationing ever provided. Two years later rice production was halved and Castro turned to China first only to get in to bed with the Russians which ended any possibility of Chinese rice shipments making the rationing inevitable.

  • 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”?

  • 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’

  • 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.

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