Testing positive for Covid-19, missing a line to buy chicken or misplacing the ration book are some of the worst situations that can be experienced these days in Cuba. Amid the crisis, some products that until recently could be bought on the liberated, or open, market are once again controlled by the booklet with gridded pages that has been with us for nearly six decades.
In my building, a neighbor almost suffered a heart attack this Saturday when he discovered that on one outing he had lost the booklet that allows him to buy his rationed quota for each month. This retiree had stopped going to the bodega (as the ration store is called) to look for rice, sugar and a few other goods that are sold in a regulated manner, because his two emigrated children send him enough in remittances to stock up in the unrationed stores – which we call “the shopping” – that sell in convertible pesos.
But those times are behind us. With the arrival of the coronavirus on the Island, the ration book has gained prominence and some food and hygiene products have become controlled again. So my neighbor was forced to return to the fold and this month he woke up very early to be one of the first to buy his rationed goods, along with a module for people over 65, which was also sold to him.
As convertible peso stores have also regulated the quantity of each product that each customer can be purchased, it seems that we are witnessing the bodeguization of “the shopping” and the shoppingization of the bodegas. In this case it’s more or less the same because both types of markets are already characterized by shortages, the abuse of customers, long lines and rationing.
On the verge of turning 57 years old, the Cuban rationed market has lived through many stages in its long life. I remember that a few years ago people even talked about its imminent end as proof that the country was doing well economically. In the streets the rumors put a date for the funeral of the ration book and some officials threw out phrases, like winks, that confirmed its early burial. But the exact opposite happened.
Now, whoever does not have access to a ration book on this Island is in a very difficult situation. This is the case of a man who sells cakes in my neighborhood and who has spent a year “without papers” in Havana. The last time I saw him he asked me if I knew of anyone selling “quota rice” or the right to buy the senior module. Even if he earns some money selling his desserts, in his case those pesos can hardly become food.
Given this situation, I wonder if these now regulated products will return to the liberated sale when the pandemic ends. It is difficult to foresee what will happen. When the ration book was implemented in 1963, many bet that it was a temporary thing for just a few months, but it ended up staying and shaping the lives of at least three generations of Cubans. Now, once again the prominence it had been losing at Cuban tables has returned, it reigns supreme in our existence.
My neighbor spent hours retracing the path he had taken that fateful day that he lost such a vital document, but could not find it. The process to get a new ration book will be long and tedious in the midst of the pandemic, and it is very likely that, when June starts, he will not be able to buy his quota in the first days of the month. He will then be in the same situation as the cake seller.
Will my grandchildren also be born in a Cuba with a rationed market? For the moment I focus on surviving Covid-19 so that I can at least one day hold those restless children in my arms. I hope that for them the ration book is merely an object hung in a museum and not the pass to get some rice to put on the plate.
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