By: Julia Salvatore
As Americans begin to trickle into Cuba, exploring a communist country that had been off limits to them for the past 50 years, they’re often stunned by what the see.
"It's different from what I thought it was going be – in some ways nicer,” remarked Rich DeSimone, a 66-year-old Huntington, N.Y. resident who accompanied fellow retirees to Cuba in January with Road Scholar of Elderhostel, an organization that provides educational travel tours. “I expected there to be some kind of poverty on the island, and you see that. But [it’s] much better than what I thought it was going to be."
Fellow traveller, Joan McGee, 67, of Huntington, N.Y., agreed. "It's different from what I thought it'd be.”
Cuba, of course, has problems. But Americans who have visited often report that this situation is not as dire as they’ve been led to believe by American media outlets and history textbooks.
There is poverty but not misery. One big reason is that Cubans receive free food rations from their government.
But with the United States beginning to normalize relations with Cuba, after a 50-year embargo, there has been talk that the rationing system will be ending within the next few years as Cuba incorporates more capitalistic aspects into its economy.
“It’s a big deal, this opening up, and it could really change Cuba … quite dramatically,” Stephan Meier, an economist and professor at the Columbia University Business School, told U.S. News & World Report .
Nick Miroff, the Havana correspondent for The Washington Post, said the food ration system creates a “safety net” for Cubans.
Many Cubans worry about how they’ll get by, if such welfare disappears.
“If it was to stop, I would starve,” said Eduardo Jimmenz, a retired teacher. “The prices [of the foods] are too expensive at a supermarket.”
For nearly 50 years, Cubans have been able to count on the government for food.
After the 1959 revolution in Cuba, Fidel Castro created the first Communist state in the Western Hemisphere. He sought social equality for all citizens and nationalized the country. He immediately expropriated the telephone company and reduced rates in half, granted free social services, health care and education, to every citizen equally.
Then, in the 1960s, a rationing system of goods, known as “La Libreta” was set up to counter U.S. sanctions against Cuba. This system was intended to provide the basic needs to Cuba’s 11 million citizens at greatly reduced prices. It is estimated that items available through this program are sold at about 12 percent of the actual cost, according to Reuters. This costs the government about $1 million per year.
When first created it included many more items than currently offered, such as clothing, hygiene products and other foods in greater quantities. The Soviet Union helped subsidize items by about $4 million per year by selling oil at reduced rates and buying Cuban sugar at inflated rates, according to Medea Benjamin , author of author of No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba. But that ended in the 1990s when the Soviet Union broke up, causing cuts in the items provided to Cubans.
At the moment, all Cubans are still eligible for the food handouts. In order to receive rations, each household must register with Office for the Control and Distribution of Abastecimientos, according to InsightCuba, a non-profit travel organization that assists Americans who want to travel to Cuba. One booklet is issued annually, specifying how much of each item members are entitled to each month at the reduced rates. Age and medical conditions affect what items each person is entitled to.
The system does not always run efficiently. Food is distributed through government-run stores called bodegas. Cubans can only go to their designated bodega to obtain the goods. There are often shortages and items are not always available. A sign in the bodega usually tells when items will be available, causing long lines. Clerks keep records of the quantities received to prevent fraud.
Currently, the subsidized items only last for about 10 out of the 30 days, therefore Cubans have to buy items at market value for the rest of their needs. Given that the average Cuban income is $20 per month, this is a hardship, especially for Cubans like Vivian Ortega, who has three children to feed.
“It is hard to always provide for them,” she said. “Sometimes there are people like [tourists who share spare change] to help me.”
But some Cubans say it’s time to overhaul the ration system. University of Havana economics professor Juan Triana says the system is flawed. Instead of everyone receiving help it should only be offered to those who truly need it, similar to the U.S. welfare system.
“Instead of focusing on the total population, there should focus on the people who actually need the help and could use the extra food,” he said. “There would be a lot of benefits if they just help the people who need it.”
However, critics of such proposals say it will be difficult for the government to determine each household’s need since they do not know which citizens receive money from relatives living in other countries and how much those working in the tourist industry make in tips.
Some Cubans are optimistic that normalizing relations with America will reduce the need for government assistance, such as La Libreta. Americans will bring more tourism and investment – and the jobs that go with it.
“There’s no doubt that there will be people getting rich [if the embargo lifts],” said former Cuban diplomat and U.S.-Cuba relations pundit Camilo García López-Trigo. “But there will be a way to get rich but not that rich, which will create a prosperous and sustainable socialism. [Mean income] is not a lot, hello, but it’s in the mind of the Cuban people that they can get by happily with what they have.