The Story of the Ration Book in Cuba
March 18, 2014
HAVANA TIMES – No, it’s not a fairy tale and the “happily ever after”
ending remains to be seen. Rather, this is the chronicle of a little
book that’s been part of the lives of Cubans for many years: the Ration
The information is a little contradictory regarding the date in which
this little notebook was instituted as a regulatory mechanism. According
to official sources it came into use on July 12, 1963 for the
distribution of subsidized food products to the population, with the
purpose of controlling the quantity and frequency with which a person
could buy food. But articles published outside of the government sites
assure us that it was March of 1962. The fact is, when I arrived in this
world the ration book was already here.
When Washington decided to deprive Cuba of money and supplies, they
believed that the resultant hunger and desperation would lead to the
rapid overthrow of Fidel Castro’s government. They hadn’t the least
notion of the inventive capacity of those who aimed at perpetuating
themselves in power; much less of the power of resistance of a people
who have been the only real victims of these two clashing forces for
over half a century.
In this way, the ration book was born. Under the pretense of
counteracting the economic war that the country was facing, a ration
booklet was instituted to assure the “equitable” distribution of food
products. El Mundo (a newspaper of the time) published in their edition
of Tuesday, March 13 1962, an article titled, “Not more for some, nor
less for others; the same for all.”
The Ration Book (National distribution, per person per month)
Rice 6 lbs.
All types of grains 1 ½ lbs.
Animal or vegetable fat 2 lbs.
Bath soap 1 bar
Wash soap 1 bar
Detergent 1 medium packet or one large for 2 people
Toothpaste 1 large tube for every 2 people or a giant-sized one for 4
Beef 3/4 lb. a week
Chicken 1 – 2 lbs. a month
Fish 1/2 lb. per person every 15 days
Eggs 5 monthly
Tubers 3 ½ lbs. a week (2 additional lbs.of malanga/children under 7)
Butter 1/8 lb./month
Milk 1 liter daily for every 5 persons older than 7, or its equivalent
in 6 cans of condensed or evaporated milk monthly per person. In
addition, 1 liter daily for each child under seven.
However, this measure didn’t arrive by itself. Instead, it generated a
new bureaucratic mechanism: the creation of OFICODA (Office for Consumer
Control and supply distribution). This entity with its numerous
employees would also serve (as became evident as years passed) as an
apparatus for citizen control, under pretense of controlling consumers.
Considered by some as the worst year of the Cuban economy; barely 11
years had passed since the triumph of the Revolution, but the people of
the island already shared a sentiment of longing for the past, that
eternal nostalgia for what was and no longer is. Remember how it was
before..? Those classic lines that have persisted up until today were
already being heard: And it’s because by then the now customary ration
booklet was very different than what it had been in the beginning, in
that the quotas assigned to each citizen had diminished considerably.
These well remembered years that some characterize as “the time when
Cuba still laughed” took advantage of Russian protection and aid from
the socialist camp. The ration book lost a little of its central
importance because many products began to be sold freely at prices that
were accessible to the average Cuban. During this epoch any family could
buy enough food with their salary. Nevertheless, complainers were not
lacking, and the reductions of the period, as well as the disappearance
of some products from the ration book generated discontent. The most
notable example was with beef; from ¾ of a pound weekly, this product
went to ¾ lb. every nine days, then to every 15 days and finally to a
month, 45 days, until we never saw it again.
With the fall of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the USSR, the
supply of products to Cuba was reduced drastically. In the midst of the
economic crisis, the country opened its economy to foreign investment.
Tourism began to develop as a source of income, and inequality in
personal income began to be felt. The ration book lost its character as
a symbol of equality. Nonetheless the government continued subsidizing
basic foods and with the ration book it was able to share out the little
that entered or was produced on the island.
2000… the death sentence
The point is – Cuba is no longer the same. Now there are many
self-employed workers and a considerable number of people receive money
from family members abroad. The salaries and living conditions of those
who are employees of foreign companies or of tourist enterprises mark
another difference. Artists, athletes or other professional sectors that
travel frequently outside the country and the members of the military
who receive large amounts of stimulus pay have higher incomes and other
options for places to buy their products. To be truthful, they no longer
need the ration booklet.
But there is a great deal of concern in one sector of the population for
whom the ration book is still utterly necessary. With the little that
they receive through it, this group of Cubans resolves a large problem.
Up until now they have eaten, badly or well, thanks to the ration book;
if it is taken away from them, given the fact that the majority of the
salaries and pensions are so low, they won’t have enough to live on.
This vulnerable group: retired people, those who don’t have any family
outside the country and those who live exclusively on their salaries,
live in fearful anticipation of the day that the ration book no longer
exists. They feel certain that the ineffective Social Security System
will not resolve the problem for them.
The ration booklet has also served for decades as a way to deliver extra
food quotas to people on special diets as prescribed by their doctors;
sometimes including items such as meat, milk, tubers and fish. This has
actually become a new type of business, since some unscrupulous doctors
and other health workers sell the certificates for special diets to
people who have no diseases whatsoever, but who can pay for this fraud
to alleviate their problem of filling the cupboard.
The ration book is today a pending task for the State, as part of their
much touted policy of “economic changes”. They have been talking openly
for years about its slow elimination. The Vice President of the Council
of Ministers, Marino Murillo, has expressed that they are studying how
to eliminate it, but that it’s too complicated to take it away all at once.
According to this functionary, guaranteeing the basic products to the
family units costs the State US $1.16 billion a year, without counting
the additional expenses of transportation and other logistics. He claims
that with this distribution the Government has assumed 88% of the cost
and the population pays only 12% of the cost of the food. President Raul
Castro has affirmed that the country’s economy can’t continue to assume
such an expense, and that the elimination of the ration system has
already begun by reducing the number of products that are sold this way.
The Current Ration Book (monthly per person distribution)
Rice 5 lbs.
Grains (beans only) 10 ounces
Cooking oil 1/2 lb.
Sugar 4 lbs.
Salt 1 Kg (every 3 months)
Pasta 1 lb. (every 3 months)
Coffee 4 ounces
Matches 1 box
Additional rice 2 lbs.
Chicken 17 ounces
Soy meat 6 ounces
Eggs 5 a month
Compote 13 units monthly up until 3 years of age
Milk 1 kg (every five days up until 7 years of age)
Beef or chicken 6 ounces (monthly up until 13 years of age)
Cereal 1 kg
Rice 1 kg
NOTE: The municipalities and villages have smaller assignations of some
products than in the cities.
So what will become of those old people for whom the Ration Book is a
sort of fifth limb if it is eliminated? We’ll never again hear those
frenetic shouts in the street of “The chicken’s here!” “They just
brought in the cooking oil!” Or “They’ve got macaroni!” The comedians
won’t be able to make any more jokes about the celebrated ration booklet
over whose last days of life we are currently presiding.
Source: The Story of the Ration Book in Cuba – Havana Times.org –