In Cuba, the Ration Book’s Goodbye Causes a Stir

Interior of Cuban ration store, a hallmark of the Revolution. Photo: Glass&Tubes via Flickr.

14ymedio biggerElías Amor Bravo, Economist, January 28, 2021 — I recall that not so long ago, around October of last year, Cuban economics minister Manuel Murillo said during one of his many appearances on Cuban TV’s Roundtable program that the “elimination of the ration book would be very gradual.” It was in response to a question by the journalist Randy Alonso on the future of Cuba’s controlled distribution of consumer goods.

They then began discussing the ramifications of eliminating subsidies and grants as part of the government’s currency unification process, a cause of great public concern which sparked Alonso’s question to Mr. Murillo, who must have been annoyed judging from his blunt and unequivocal response.

The issue raised questions and several days later President Diaz-Canel had to assure the public that, during the first phase of currency unification, the rationbook would be maintained as a tool to guarantee citizens’ access to staple goods that are in short supply and to prevent rampant speculation. He added that, once market conditions had improved and a new set of economic and financial relationships had been established, “we will have reached the point when it is time to phase out the rationbook.”

He was not hiding the fact. He was very clear. For the regime’s leaders, who set the currency unification process in motion, rationing is an extremely expensive proposition. They believe the retail practices of state-owned neighborhood grocery stores are flawed and present more than a few problems. The quality of the goods these stores carry has been steadily declining and, all things considered, they have been thinking it may be time to finally say goodbye to this thing Fidel Castro himself dreamed up back in 1962.

Authorities, however, credit the rationbook with having a certain efficiency when it comes to dealing with shortages. So much so that every time the Population and Housing Census is carried out, it is compared with the consumer registry. That is why they defend it as a method of distribution and why it seems to make sense to leave it alone for now. Today yes, tomorrow no, and after that, we’ll see.

In reality, the eventual phase-out of the ration book, which is as part of the currency unification process, was first announced back in 2011. At that year’s Sixth Communist Party Congress, Raul Castro said that suspension of the rationbook was not an end in itself nor an isolated decision but rather one of the principal measures that had to be applied “with the objective of eradicating the existing and profound distortions in the economy and society as a whole.”

Raul Castro, who was there during the rollout of ration book back in 1962, understood and admitted at the 2011 communist party congress that the book essentially contradicted the socialist principle of “from each according to his ability to each according to need.” So having acknowledged the uselessness of the ration book, the decision now is when to say goodbye to this monstrosity that has prevented eleven million Cubans from exercising their freedom of choice as consumers.

Things being what they are, a rumor started several days ago that fines of up to 5,000 pesos ($208) are being levied against those persons who do not remove the names of deceased relatives or household members who are not currently living in Cuba from their ration books. The agency in charge of this, the Consumer Registry Office (OFICODAS), has been around for awhile but it is going about enforcing it with a rigor and zeal that suggests authorities have issued an order to speed up the phase-out of the ration book. Or perhaps not.

In recent days, in the midst of a raging pandemic, long lines of people terrified of being fined have been observed outside OFICODAS offices to take care of this paperwork. It seems absurd that, in a country where the state maintains absolute control over the economy and society, this agency has to rely on citizens to provide this information.

State-run media later reported that the fines in question would not be imposed. At the same time, however, it explained that Resolution #78/91, adopted by the Ministry of Domestic Commerce, requires heads of households to remove the names of any person listed in ration book who has died, been imprisoned, or been living in a nursing home or hospital for the more than three months, or has been out of the country on a permanent basis for more than ninety days. The issue becomes complicated when it is not clear who this “head of household” is, a frequent situation on the island.

This happens over and over. When the communist regimes drafts rules people must follow, they either end up being too homogenous to cover everyone or highly asymmetrical, favoring some people over others. This situation seems to be an example of the former. There have been complaints about difficulties finding the required documentation or information as it pertains to ration book itself, which helps explain why so many have disdain for and little interest in this obsolete throwback.

Perhaps the measure is a way of getting things in order before the final shutdown. There were complaints in the National Assembly about people who had emigrated or died but were still receiving their benefits, a symptom of low-level corruption that indicates Cubans’s needs go well beyond what the regime wants to recognize.

The rationbook will say goodbye, sooner rather than later. Correcting certain problems created by poverty, scarcities, and the reduction in supplies provided by the state may be fair and necessary but, at the same time, the communist regime should take responsibility for creating these conditions. Cubans are not satisfied with what they are getting, and they want more and better choices. Until that happens, which under the communist social model is not feasible, the best thing is to do is finish off the ration book once and for all.


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