Cuba Considers Withholding Food Subsidies to Citizens Living Overseas

The National Assembly is meeting Friday and Saturday in Havana.

14ymedio biggerEFE (via 14ymedio), Havana, 21 December 2019 — In an effort to reduce expenses, the Cuban government announced on Friday that it will consider denying citizens who remain outside the country for long periods of time the right to receive monthly food rations.

Consumers may buy a number of basic products from the so-called “family basket” — including rice, cooking oil, bread and eggs — at nominal prices using a ration book, an anachronism whose high cost has become a major headache for the government.

The subsidy remains vital to low-income sectors of the Cuban population for whom it has become their only reliable source of certain staples.

Many of the thousands of Cubans who emigrate give their ration books to family members or friends on the island, who are still able to buy the products which would otherwise go to those who are no longer in the country.

 Case by case

The proposal was approved on Friday during the last full session of the National Assembly after a representative from Havana called for studying “the possibility that people who leave the country for a prolonged period of time not continue receiving the legally prescribed basic family basket, which involves significant outlays [by the State].”

The minister of Domestic Commerce, Betsy Díaz, indicated that similar proposals have already been considered. They involve issuing new rules which would set a minimum length of time before someone is removed from the “consumer registry,” a government list of nuclear families and their members.

Díaz insisted, however, that any new policy also must take into account the reasons for extended stays outside the country.

“There are those who leave to go on missions and not for recreational purposes,” she said in reference to medical professionals who are sent to work in other countries.

Each family receives a ration book in which the names of family members and the foods they receive are recorded. Currently, the head of a nuclear or extended family is the one who decides whose name is added to or removed from the document.

Currently, Cubans who have emigrated or who spend long periods of time overseas may continue receiving the subsidy, resulting in added expense to the government, which is looking for ways to cut costs as it faces one of the worst economic crises of recent decades.

A useful anachronism

Now a symbol of food shortages and economic difficulties in Cuba, the ration book was introduced in 1962 and initially included — along with grocery items — grooming products, cigars and cigarettes.

After former President Raúl Castro introduced reforms intended to “update the Cuban socialist model,” the ration book “lost weight,” and today you can use it only to buy dried beans, sugar, chicken, eggs, rice, oil, salt, pasta and bread at a total cost of less than two dollars per person.

Although the number of foodstuffs has been reduced over the years, the family basket remains a widely popular benefit in a country where the average monthly salary of a state worker does not exceed forty-five dollars a month.

In 2011 the government proposed doing away with it, warning that the it benefitted “both needy citizens and those not in need” while encouraging “bartering and resale practices” and “an underground market.”

It later decided that the phase out would be gradual but, for now, the ration book still exists.

Cuba spends more than two billion dollars annually to import 80% of the supplies it consumes.


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