Rationing in Venezuela: A ‘Déjà vu’ for Cubans / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

The ration book (14ymedio)
The ration book (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, Miriam Celaya, 11 March 2015 — Commissar Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela to the misfortune of its people and – let’s admit it – also for the prolongation of our own misfortune, has just announced recently the installation of 20,000 digital fingerprint readers in state food markets and in several private sector retail chains that, according to him, adopted the initiative “voluntarily” after meetings held with the government.

Let’s draw a merciful veil over the aforementioned secret meetings and imagine the atmosphere that must have reigned there in the midst of the “permanent economic war” that Venezuela suffers, the successive “soft coups” that have been provoked almost bi-weekly in that South American nation – according to the president’s denunciations – and the growing repression of opposition factions and civil society that demonstrate publicly and openly against the government. It is not very hard to guess what caused the “voluntariness” of these businessmen, who are definitively representatives of the “oligarchies” constantly defamed in official speeches and press.

But returning to the topic of Comrade-President Maduro’s above-mentioned fingerprint readers, his lofty purpose is, while guaranteeing the feeding of the people, to counter smuggling, or more exactly, “the smugglers” since smuggling can exist without socialism but socialism has never existed without smuggling.

This way, the fingerprint readers – which will limit the purchase of foods and other products in high demand whose supply has been greatly depressed causing lines, hoarding and disturbances in the stores – now are added to the prior rationing through magnetic cards established in 2014. It is clear that the Bolshevik Nicolas has not the least ability to overcome his country’s economic crisis, but at least in contemporary times the new technologies permit digital management of the misery. It is without doubt a real contribution of Socialism in the 21st Century which the late Hugo predicted in his glory days, before being planted in the Mountain Barracks and turned into a tiny little bird dispensing bad advice*.

Decades later, the Venezuelan government model – if it is possible to call it that – is dragging the country in a sort of reverse race through experiences similar to those that we Cubans have gone through under Castro-ism.

Those of us born before or in the years immediately following the catastrophic accident of January 1959 remember clearly some of the bureaucratic variants created to manage poverty, an ill that the older ones among us believed had been almost overcome with the economic boom experienced in the 50’s.

This administrative strategy, typical of war and famine economies, was first established for food products, and a little later, with the decline of Cuban industries due to the extreme nationalization of the economy, it was rapidly extended to other consumer products, such as clothing, footwear and other goods. Then came the industrial products book, popularly known as the store booklet, which currently functions only for the acquisition of school uniforms.

This version of control not only indicated the limits of access to the said articles, but it also reached the point of establishing shopping schedules for groups, with subsections inspired in the strongly sexist standards of the Revolution, which assigned two days a week – Monday and Thursday – on which only women workers could shop; an enviable privilege in the widespread poverty that, moreover, took for granted in a Revolutionary way that trifles like shopping were not worthy of men.

Decades of shortages, manipulated in detail by those in power, sowed in ordinary Cubans an extreme dependence on the State – an always insufficient provider but the only one possible – and a whole culture of systematized poverty that includes a peculiar glossary with phrases that we drag around even today in popular speech: “what they are offering” in this or that establishment, “what’s assigned to you,” “what’s expiring,” “plan jaba**,” “chicken diet***” and many similar ones that reflect the national acceptance of misery as the common destiny, something that one day – hopefully not too distant – should embarrass us.

Rationing in Cuba has been quite an institution that has played a role in the socio-economic realm and also in the political, functioning more as an instrument of subjection of the people by the Government than as a true guarantor of a just distribution of consumer goods, established with a vulgar egalitarianism that annulled individual initiative and turned the citizen into dough.

The ration book has constituted a mechanism of social control, even to the point that currently the Government has not been able to eliminate it, on pain of absolutely abandoning the most disadvantaged social sectors, especially the elderly without filial protection and the many humble homes which receive no remittances from abroad nor have any other hard currency income. In spite of that, the food products rationed and subsidized through the book – that artifact that constitutes a complete leftover of the Cold War – are today fewer than a dozen, and they barely cover precariously some of the most pressing food needs while the rate of inflation keeps increasing and wages hardly have even symbolic value.

Bread lines (14ymedio)
Bread lines (14ymedio)

That is why, when I now witness the Venezuelan rationing process, when I hear the openness with which Comrade-President Nicolas Maduro disguises in modernity the cataclysm of misery that looms for his people, I cannot escape a kind of jolt, like déjà vu. We Cubans already traveled that path, we walked half a century over its thorns and we are convinced that it only leads to disaster. We have painfully and abundantly proven that misery is the only thing that, divided among many, touches more.

Personally, I hope that the poor Venezuelans, who lately pursue their food anxiously and stand in long lines at stores with empty shelves, manage in time to avoid that serious confusion that sometimes leads people to interpret as justice that which is the manipulation and burial of freedoms.

Translator’s notes:
* Nicolas Maduro says that Hugo Chavez appears to him as a tiny little bird, and dispenses advice. In this video, otherwise in Spanish, he imitates the sounds the bird makes flying around his head and then imitates the bird whistling a message. 
** “Plan jaba” is literally “sack plan” and can mean one of two things: (A) you leave your bag and come back and pick it up at a convenient time so you don’t have to wait in line all day, which is allowed for some working people; or (B) you get a “special bag of extras” because of age, illness or pregnancy, and again, you just pick it up.
*** “Chicken diet” means that you get extra protein because of age, illness or pregnancy.

Translated by MLK