About Dining Rooms and Diners / Miriam Celaya

Luis Orlando photo

Several days ago, I was reading some works published on a site that switches between the informal and the official. Contrary to what many may believe, it is interesting to meet views opposing to one’s own, especially if they provide elements that force us to tune-up the arguments, or – as in this case – when it deals with personal testimony that allows us to face facts that, no matter how you look at them, affects many, independent of their individual political preferences or ideology.

I do not intend to hash out an article, but to comment on one of the topics to be addressed: the elimination of workplace lunchrooms as a way to alleviate the extreme “subsidies” hanging over this indulgent father they call the State. The “measure” was announced loudly over a year ago in the national media and was implemented experimentally in several work places, whose workers would now receive the sum of 15 pesos (national currency) in place of each lunch. Many of these workers received the news of the end of their mess halls with real pleasure, and with good reason: those who worked all 24 workdays of each month would receive a total of 360 pesos under this model, in addition to their salary. In some cases, taking into consideration that the amount was the same for all workers regardless of salary scales or complexity and responsibility of their positions, lower-income employees would have a substantial increase in income over their own salaries. It goes without saying that the workers who were not chosen for the experiment hopefully and anxiously awaited the measure to be extended to everyone in the work centers.

With the enthusiastic immediacy that characterizes any revolutionary initiative in this country, the experiment began with the purpose of verifying the results in order to extend the measure to all workplaces. However, though the matter has not been mentioned again, the lunchrooms have gradually been disappearing from countless workers centers without workers getting any compensation in return, since they were not among the elected at the start of the great experiment. The ones who were excluded, therefore, do not have lunchrooms or the benefit of the redeeming 15 pesos, though compliance with the rigorous 8-hour workday established by law is maintained. It must be noted, by way of parenthesis, that these laws also state that a 9-hour shift without a lunch break cannot be fulfilled, so – with their wicked skill — management of each work center has been careful to maintain an hour of recess intended for workers’ lunch breaks, when they must find a way of eating, be it by reducing their meager incomes to buy whatever “street” food seems cheapest (therefore devoid of any quality) or by eroding their no less flagging household food stocks, with all the inconveniences that entails. By the way, in spite of the problems it causes, I don’t have any information that the slightest workers strike has taken place… nor will it ever. You can take that to the bank.

Beyond the small gastronomic and financial tragedy, however, isn’t it truly cynical that the government’s experiment decided to allocate 15 pesos to each worker to buy his own lunch? As I see it, if the officials themselves conceived that that amount was essential for an individual to obtain a simple lunch; if, in addition, it is well-known that a median Cuban income is approximately 300 pesos, isn’t it tantamount to official recognition that an individual’s income in Cuba is barely enough to guarantee one meal a day per person? This is, from my view, the crux of the problem. The drama lies not, as seems to be projected in the opinion of some who are affected, whether or not they are granted 15 pesos for each lunch or whether they maintain a trough (not “lunchroom”) which guarantees a miserable and generally bad food ration in their workplace at a nominal price. The real tragedies are that the salary earned after a month’s work is not even enough to satisfy the most basic feeding of an individual, let alone of a whole family; that the State Chiefs — aware of this — should wash their hands of the matter and that the ever-victims should continue to suffer in silence the scorn and arrogance of these XXI century slave drivers.

Translated by Norma Whiting

December 7, 2010