Tackling Cuba’s Food Service Blues

Yusimi Rodriguez

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 17 – In a previous piece I wrote about the many tasks that a State gastronomy, or food service, worker has to perform in this country in order to carry out their job.  This isn’t an isolated instance.

Private tamale seller.
Restaruant in Havana's Chinatown. Photo: Caridad

The service and the quality of the products that are offered by the State food establishments leave much to be desired, although we should recognize that things have improved in relation to the decade of the nineties.

However, the quality of these eateries is still far below those where you pay in hard currency or in the so called private cafeterias.  Such comparison by the clients is nearly inevitable.

The salaries in the food service sector also offer no stimulus to the workers.  Hence, it has become a normal practice to give the client less than the portion established by the companies in order to generate leftovers that can be sold later under the table.  This has become the principal goal of a food service worker.

The 1968 Offensive and its Consequences

Could this be the consequence of erroneous policies from the past?

On March 13, 1968, five months after the death of Che in Bolivia, Fidel Castro announced a “Revolutionary Offensive” against “the last vestiges of capitalism and the bourgeois morality.”  Previous to this, in the years immediately following the 1959 revolution, the large US owned companies in the country had been nationalized and the Agrarian Reform law had been proclaimed.

However, the revolutionary offensive of 1968 came out of the goal of constructing “true communism” in Cuba.  Under communism the means of production should be placed in the hands of the workers, who up until that moment owned nothing more than the force of their labor.  As such, they were forced to work for a salary – minimal to say the least – and to put up with very long work days.

In the 24 hours that followed the 13th of March of 1968, 58,012 small businesses including shoe repair shops, tiny watch repair shops, barber shops, old linotype businesses, fried food stalls, small businesses and even ovens for making charcoal were nationalized or closed.

The Cuban workers who, as I’ve said, up until that moment owned only the force of their labor…continued to possess nothing more than this force, since all of the means of production then became property of the State.

But in this way the State also acquired a burden.  It wasn’t really evident during the eighties, because we still enjoyed a comfortable economic situation, thanks to our trade with the now defunct socialist camp.  The state establishments were well stocked with merchandise at prices affordable to the public.

The Government Had No Choice

But in the decade of the nineties, with the arrival of the so-called Special Period there was less and less available in the cafeterias and restaurants.  An acquaintance who worked as an administrator during that era told me of his experiences.

Private tamale seller.
Private tamale seller. Photo: Elio Delgadp

The company directors told them that they had to be apt administrators and be able to work within the circumstances of the Special Period; they had to find a way to supply the eating establishments and resolve problems regarding transportation of the supplies they obtained, all without making waves within the State enterprise, since the company couldn’t take on these problems.

The government had no choice but to permit individuals to work for themselves; not only to cover those necessities that the State couldn’t, but also as a source of employment.  People received licenses to open small culinary establishments, or to make handicrafts on their own, repair household appliances, etc.  But the State has continued to control a large part of the small eating establishments and stands.

As of almost a year ago, Granma, the newspaper that is the Official Organ of the Cuban Communist Party, has included a page where readers have the opportunity to discuss and offer their criteria regarding the realities of Cuban life (as long as they aren’t directly criticizing the government or the system).  This page is published each Friday.

Getting Beyond a Burden

On November 27, a revolutionary comrade who is also a member of the Cuban Communist Party recalls how he supported the Revolutionary Offensive in its time.  Years later he came to understand that the State had taken on a burden.

This comrade argues that today the State should stop running small food service enterprises; that the food service workers should all become self-employed workers.  In that way, the State doesn’t have to supply them with the merchandise that they offer, nor pay their salaries.

I share his opinion. Perhaps the State could sell them products at a lower price than the general population pays, since they would be buying wholesale.  This would allow them to obtain a profit from their work without having to sell their finished products at prices so high as to affect the population as a whole.

I also believe that the State could rent them their sites at a price that’s not too high, so that these independent food service workers could carry out their work.  They could be the same people who currently are working in food service, but the State wouldn’t have to supply them with merchandise or pay a salary.

The State would then not have to concern itself with theft or misappropriation of resources.  By working for themselves, the worker would become the owner of the means of production and would not want to steal from themselves.

6 thoughts on “Tackling Cuba’s Food Service Blues

  • In fact, Grady, small business could–and should–be a natural ally of socialism. (Does this make me a Revissionist?!) In the U.S.most new jobs now are created by small businesses. On the other hand, the giant corporations not only ally themselves with the imperial state, they now control it. In every community which is invaded by these giant corporations and their “big box” stores,small businesses are destroyed, replacing good jobs with bad, no fringe benefit wage slave jobs. They destroy the vitality of our downtowns, making them ghost towns of boarded up stores. Increasingly, though, there is a reaction to these soul-killing corporations. If alternatives still remain, as in my town, we patronize small, locally-owned businesses, even if their products cost a bit more (not always the case). Their employess are more knowledgable about the products they sell and, with food, it is more lovingly made than flash-frozen, reheated fare served by the large corporate chains.

  • I think one of the most destructive, splitting elements of Marxism was and is the silly idea that small business persons and families are somehow reactionary and anti-socialist. This idea has in effect handed the small business community over to the political leadership of the monopoly bourgeoisie. This has given the monopolists, military-industrialists and international banks a free hand to bestride the world and implement all their evil.

    Sure, some small business people might tend to be reactionary and anti-socialist, but what does that prove? Many are progressive and pro-socialist. Even classical proletarians can be reactionary and anti-socialist.

    It is so tragic that the Cuban Party has taken a wrong attitude to the small business sector, including restaurants, small farms and ranches, and etc. Not only tragic. In the end it is political suicide for socialist Cuba.

    Real, workable socialism would value and assist small entrepreneurial individuals & families.

  • u should know about the enormous recalls of meats we have in the US..At least here i do not have to worry about death from bad meat..as i am a Veggie and have been so for 25 yrs..?

  • (continued) “Peasant Stock” was started by two professors of theology who took a year’s leave of absence from the Andover/Newton Theological Seminary. The restaurant had simlpe decor: picnic tables, candle lanterns, painted black, on the walls and tables, made out of tin-cans with hammered-out designs. Best of all were their incredible stews, made from scratch from local vegetables and meats. After their sabatical was up, they decided to stay with the restaurant, the feeding of bodies with food, lovingly made, in a welcoming atmosphere, another way to feed both the bodies and the souls of their “parishoners.” Occasionally, In the 35+ years since, I find such places, and cherish them.

  • Perhaps it is time to send for Master Chef Ramsey! Cuba should pirate his show, “Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares,” (BBC), wherein he tries to whip failing restaurants into shape. I agree with Grady, that it is only establishments where the chefs, waiters, hosts, etc. have real sense of ownership that are successful. So far, in Cuba, these have been limited to the paladores and the meals served in casas particulares. I wonder if this problem can be solved, though, while the dual currency is still the practice? On the other hand, whether the CUC/CUP dicotomy, or even with the coming of a single currency, pricing most Cubans out of the market is hardly a worthwhile end (and most of the restaurants presented in “Kitchen Nightmares” are upscale. My ideal? An economical, hole-in-the-wall restaurant I frequented in the early 1970’s in Somerville, Massachusetts, “Peasant Stock,” where two or three stews, made from scratch, were served each night..

  • Yusimi, you don’t yet understand it, but you are basically a “modern cooperative socialist.” This means, for one thing, that the concept of Cuba (and the US and other countries) becoming a socialist Cooperative Republic should click with your revolutionary soul. Modern coop socialism is “entrepreneurial” socialism.

    What does this mean? Not that it is capitalism, but that (1) the special person, the person with leadership genius, is allowed and encouraged to found and lead all sorts of employee-owned coop enterprise; & (2) the special person is also allowed and encouraged to own such things as small service enterprises, farms, ranches and the like.

    You see, real socialism–pre-Marx socialism–valued private property rights and the market. The original idea was direct ownership of the means of production by those who produce. This included the farming and restaurant owning families.

    Modern coop socialism it such a pluralistic system, led by a socialist Party.

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