By PAUL HAVEN | Associated Press
Cuba has cut two staple foods from the monthly ration books that most islanders depend on, edging closer to a risky full elimination of the decades-old subsidies.
Potatoes and peas were dropped from the list of rationed foods this week, meaning Cubans can buy as much of the products as they want _ as long as they are willing to pay as much as 20 times more than they used to.
The move comes amid efforts by Raul Castro’s government to scale back Cuba’s subsidy-rich, cash-poor economy. Nearly free lunches were eliminated from some state-cafeterias in September. In October, the Communist Party’s Granma newspaper published a full-page editorial saying the time had come to do away with the ration books altogether.
Authorities say their goal is to encourage more productivity and free the state from a crushing economic burden. Critics _ including some on the streets of Havana _ argue that the moves break with what had been a sacred covenant of the revolution Fidel Castro led in 1959: that socialism would not make people rich, but would provide all Cubans with at least the basics.
Even with the changes, the state pays for or heavily subsidizes nearly everything, from education to health care, housing to transportation. But many Cubans see the ration book _ or “libreta” in Spanish_ as a flawed but fundamental right, and shoppers on Friday bristled at the new changes
“This is crazy. They should be adding products to the ration book, not taking away from it,” said Roberto Rodriguez, a 55-year-old delivery man buying rice, sugar and coffee at an official store in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. “If they don’t produce enough, people will start to hoard products and things will get even worse.”
He said he worried that Cubans with access to money sent by relatives abroad would buy up all the potatoes and peas they could, leaving ordinary people in the lurch if there are shortages.
Previously, Cubans were entitled to buy up to four pounds of potatoes and 10 ounces of peas a month, with the price set at about a penny per pound for potatoes and just under a penny per pound for peas. Both were available only in state-owned ration stores or on the black market.
Now, official buying limits are gone, but Cubans must pay 5 cents a pound for potatoes and 17 cents a pound for peas at the same ration shops.
That may not sound like much, but it’s significant in a country where the average salary is about $20 a month.
“I would prefer that the ration system continue. It assures people that they will have food,” said retiree Juana Rodriguez, 78, who was also shopping at the Vedado shop but was no relation of Roberto. “There are many poor people who simply can’t afford to buy food on the open market.”
Cuba’s ration system began in 1962 as a temporary way to guarantee basic food in the face of Washington’s new embargo. Today, however, Cuba spends more than $2 billion on imported food, nearly all of which goes to the ration system, assuring subsidized rice, legumes, bread, eggs and tiny amounts of meat. The government estimates the ration provides a third of what the average Cuban consumes.
Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Washington-area think tank the Lexington Institute, said the move is part of a well-publicized if slow-moving effort to overhaul Cuba’s economy.
“They’ve been very clear that they want to move away from the libreta and from subsidies in general,” he said. “They are doing it piecemeal.”
Peters said the government is also trying to dramatically increase the amount it pays farmers for their crops in an effort to spur more productivity. As a result, it must cut or reduce the subsidies to consumers.
He said dropping the subsidy on potatoes and peas was a good way to test the waters before making a more aggressive move because neither is central to the Cuban diet.
“If they did it with rice and beans and the supplies disappeared,” he said, “people would go crazy.”