By Anett Rios
HAVANA – Tobacco is being removed from the Cuban ration cards starting Wednesday, just as potatoes were removed in 2009 within the framework of the “updating of socialism” process whereby President Raul Castro intends to put an end to the excesses of the island’s welfare state.
The end of the cigarette quota received by Cubans virtually at cost is stirring up controversy regarding whether or not it is appropriate to continue with the ration cards and fueling expectations of yet more changes.
In use since 1962, the ration cards give Cuba’s 11.2 million citizens the right to buy at nominal prices grains, sugar, chicken, fish, eggs, rice, coffee, cooking oil, pasta and bread, among other products, according to a meticulous system of regulations that takes into account factors such as the person’s age and place of residence.
Many Cubans say that the monthly allocation of goods supplied to them at subsidized prices does not last them more than one or two weeks, after which they must turn to the hard-currency stores at unregulated prices or to the black market.
Magalys Huerta, a 43-year-old worker, says that the best option would be to eliminate the card but the state has guaranteed a constant supply of products at prices commensurate with wages, which average around $17 a month.
“Nothing that (the card) provides is enough. In the end, I have the pressure of seeking a shopkeeper who will sell me what I need before things run out. I’d prefer to buy what I need when I need it,” Huerta told Efe.
Beatriz, 29, says the card “doesn’t fulfill expectations” and it is absurd that products like sanitary napkins are still distributed in accord with the system that for years has favored “illegalities.”
While some people sell – illegally but openly – what they have left over from their monthly quota, there are more who have to resort to the black market to get the products they can’t acquire with the cards, and often the same shop owner who distributes goods according to the quotas also offers cooking oil, sugar or rice under the table.
Beyond the situation of tobacco, which for many people is not a necessary product, the real debate in Cuba is about the possibility that the government might decide to remove things that are truly indispensable from the quota system, like bread, eggs and grains.
President Castro has called for the elimination of “excess arbitrariness” and “unwarranted subsidies,” with an eye toward better administering scarce national resources and reducing imports in a country that imports more than 80 percent of the food its people consume.
In recent months, official media outlets have reported expressions of public opinion that show that a sector of Cuban society is not ready to survive without the ration cards, and others who see them as an impediment that perpetuates state “paternalism.”
Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe believes that the disappearance of cigarettes from the card is a decision that points down the “correct road,” but it must be accompanied by “collateral measures.”
“It’s clear that there is a policy of gradually liquidating rationing in Cuba, but I think that it’s necessary to seek compensations for specific sectors of the population who are going to be harmed a great deal by those policies,” he told Efe.
In addition to the measures related to the card, other regulations to reduce state expenditures and imports are emerging, including the closure of workplace coffee shops.
After the controversy caused by the partial closing of the eateries, journalist Ariel Terrero mentioned that the “routines” of “extreme paternalism” are being misinterpreted as a synonym of socialism.
“Changes usually cause bitterness, stomach aches and controversy. Even moreso, if they touch on food. It’s not important that social consensus is clamoring for economic transformations in Cuba,” said Terrero in Bohemia magazine.
The Cuban economy is now facing the challenge of “overcoming the state practice (of being) the big and sacred administrator of all resources, to advance toward true participation of the workers in the execution and control of spending and profits,” he said. EFE