Cuba’s Ration Booklet: A Catalogue of Privations

Ernesto Perez Chang

The Cuban ration booklet. Photo: Rene Bastiaasen.

HAVANA TIMES — This is the basic consumer basket of the average Cuban: five eggs and some pounds of rice (the kind that “gets sticky”, not cooked) every month, enough sugar to turn a regular glass of water into an emergency breakfast, one kilogram of table salt (with crystals the size of Ping-Pong balls) once every who knows how many months. Placing these product quantities on the same plane as monthly needs entails a complicated mathematical operation.

Often, ration stores dish out a few grams of ground-up tendons and fat mixed with soy flour, a bit of seasoning and chemical preservatives that no laboratory could identify. People eat this concoction without knowing what it is, exactly, but they have learned to swallow without asking too many questions. The formula may well be one of the country’s best-kept secrets and this business of eating blindly one of the most intelligent of consumer strategies.

When the beans one buys aren’t eaten through by worms or weevils, they smell of fumigation chemicals. Often, they are so old and stale that there’s no way to turn them into something humans can eat.

The “bodega” neighborhood store where rationed items are purchased. Photo: Juan Suarez

The cooking oil, with flies floating on the surface, is good, not for dressing, but for dirtying the bottle it comes in, and the only cheap bread a working-class person can afford has such a sharp taste and weird texture it sometimes ends up as pig fodder.

If the ship everyone gawks at from behind the seaside wall happens to dock here, then people will get their one pound of chicken (meant to last them for thirty days). Sometimes, one manages to bribe a doctor into prescribing you a special diet and, after some difficult bureaucratic procedures, can get their hands on a little bit more food for a few months. Commonly, people develop complications as the years go by because of prolonged malnutrition – and getting the extra bit of food is like winning the lottery, such that the illness arrives as a blessing in disguise.

The food ration booklet doesn’t put much more on our tables. Every year, the authorities take something out of them, such that the booklet never thickens, it only gets thinner. That’s what the incessant re-editions amount to. The product slots that manage to survive these regular trimmings end up as empty as the inside of our fridges, to say nothing of our bellies.

Perhaps it is in order to justify its persistence in our lives that the document, a true catalogue of privations, is furnished with other control functions and has become an essential means of regulating and determining the course of our existences. It is of such vital importance in many low-income homes that, on the cover, they have gone as far as printing a disclaimer to the effect that the ration booklet is not “an official document.” All of us, however, know that it is, and we take it everywhere, next to our identification card. We even affix it to our passport when we travel abroad. The devil is in the details.

Chicken for fish. Photo: Juan Suarez

The ration or “supplies” booklet (as it is officially referred to) deserves a place among the nation’s emblems – I don’t think anything represents our people and the history or privations it has endured more eloquently.

Only in certain privileged homes does the ration booklet disappear or, quite simply, is put to rest in a drawer or garbage bin. We are talking about the mansions in restricted areas or the realm of the gods of this island Olympus: the managers of large or small State companies, high-ranking military officers, government officials with effective powers, men and women who have known how to take advantage of the many and perverse control mechanisms or those who have simply discovered socialism is a big party where, if things aren’t going well for you, it’s simply because you were not invited.

4 thoughts on “Cuba’s Ration Booklet: A Catalogue of Privations

  • The ration system was introduced in Cuba during the so-called “war against the bandits”, which was in fact a war against anti-communist rebels from the July26th movement who tok up arms when they saw how the Communists were taking over the revolution. By controlling the distribution of food, the regime was able to starve the rebels out of the Escambrey mountains. The ration system had the added benefit of providing yet another totalitarian lever of control over the whole of the Cuban people.

  • The ration booklet (libreta) is not just a “catalog of privations” but also the poster that displays to all the failure of the Castro regime to meet even the most basic needs of the Cuban people.

    Statistics can be used and abused to hide a lot but reality never changes.

  • The owner of the casa particular in Central Havana that I stay in when I visit Havana pridefully declared to me that she had given her libreta to an elderly neighbor to use. Naturally, since this owner’s monthly income regularly exceeds 1000 cuc because of her rentals, she can afford to buy all of her food in the divisa stores. Still, I enjoy the flavored soymilk sold only in the bodegas so I asked her if she would ask the neighbor to buy as many extra bags of ‘leche de soya’ as possible the next time she talked to her. She agreed but with some hesitation since she did not want to be perceived as being interested in buying anything from the bodega since she is assumed to be financially well off. It would appear that there exists a stigma with using the libreta to buy food for the household. Those Cubans who can afford to buy all their food from the CUC stores are among the fortunate few. Standing in line in the sun or rain waiting to buy food rations is demeaning for them and reflects poorly on their upscale lives.

  • Communism brings equality to all. Equal misery and equal poverty. Except on this island some are a bit more equal than others.

    When we came from Cuba my parents somehow managed to bring over an old “libreta”. A few years ago I happen to come across the vile thing. What depressing recuerdos!

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