[R-G] Cuba's potato revolution
shniad at gmail.com
Fri Nov 13 13:00:08 MST 2009
Globe and Mail
November 12, 2009
*Cuba's potato revolution
Half the country's arable land is unused*;* plan to remove staple food from
the list of rations signals a move toward a new economic plan for the island
The humble potato has become the symbol of a new revolution sweeping Cuba.
The vegetable has been eliminated from the thick brown ration books that
Cuban nationals relied on for nearly 50 years to purchase
government-subsidized groceries, part of the socialist country's attempt to
ensure equal access to such staples as rice, beans and cooking oil.
If this is the beginning of the end for Cuban ration books – and many who
have been charting the series of changes instituted by new President Raul
Castro believe it is – the implications for the future of the struggling
country's economy are huge.
“It's an attempt to start a new model you might call market socialism,” said
John Kirk, a professor who specializes in Cuban studies at Dalhousie
University in Halifax.
“It's a survival strategy to a certain extent. Raul Castro is saying … the
model that we've used needs to be radically changed. The issue of ration
books is one breadcrumb along the path.”
Since he officially assumed the country's helm from his ailing brother Fidel
in February, 2008, Mr. Castro has been telegraphing reforms to Cuba's vast
array of subsidization programs, which cover everything from food to medical
care and electricity.
The movement to eliminate unnecessary financial backstopping intensified in
the wake of the global economic implosion, which delivered swift blows to
Cuba's main sources of income – tourism and nickel exports – and pushed the
country into one of its worst economic crises since 1959, when the
revolution brought Fidel Castro to power.
Upholding the island nation's expensive food subsidization program, which
has long been a critical building block of their system, is causing acute
strain. The inefficient use of Cuba's fertile farmland (half the country's
arable land is unused) has forced the country to import between 60 and 80
per cent of the food needed to nourish its 11.2 million people. The national
grocery tab hit $2.4-billion last year – the same amount generated each year
by its tourism industry.
“This is far too much,” said Beat Schmid, Oxfam's country director in Cuba.
“It's a huge economical problem because food prices are still very high.”
About two-thirds of every Cuban's daily diet is subsidized by the government
via ration coupons (which cover very little meat and few vegetables) and
free lunches provided at schools and in many government cafeterias. Cubans
are expected to draw on their meagre income, which averages about $20 per
person each month, to supplement the rest of their needs.
Although the official demise of rationing has not been confirmed, the
state-owned newspaper Granma recently began urging readers to prepare for
life without the rationing system. Many view it as a right even though
quotas have grown stingier in recent years.
“There's not a whole lot in it in terms of chicken, meat, eggs, but it's an
important start to the grocery shopping for the month,” said Phil Peters, a
Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “If
it were to disappear, it would be a big problem for most households in
There was no official announcement when the government removed potatoes and
chickpeas, two nonessential dietary items, from the ration list. Cubans only
learned of the change when they showed up to collect food from their
neighbourhood bodegas – suggesting it was an attempt to test consumer
reactions before more drastic changes are made.
Already many government workers have had to grapple with the removal of free
lunches in their workplace cafeterias. Instead of a hot meal, many are now
given an extra 15 Cuban pesos a day.
“This doubles their income, so some people think that's great,” said Oxfam's
Mr. Schmid. “Other people feel it's a loss. They liked to have a warm plate
of food at noon,” he said, adding that if people are fairly compensated for
changes to the rationing system, and if the changes are rolled out slowly
enough, they will ultimately be accepted.
“It's a step in the right direction economically, giving people more
capacity to choose, more liberty to do what they want with their money,” he
The small extension of financial freedom should not be seen as a shift
towards capitalism, though.
“Even though these are significant changes, and this is an attempt to make
the economy more efficient, this is still within this socialist system,”
Prof. Kirk said. “There is no attempt to change the Cuban system. Cuba just
needs to follow through in the 21st century.”
Not everyone agrees that the changes will be positive for the regime.
Antonio Jorge, a professor of political economy at Florida International
University and a former deputy minister of finance in Cuba, said the
government reforms are a measure of last resort.
“They are very savvy people. They know the last thing you want to do is
antagonize the population by depriving them of their subsistence. But if
they don't have the resources, what can they do?” Prof. Jorge said.
“This is a recipe for popular discontent and social turmoil. It could
undermine the stability of the regime,” he said, adding: “This is probably
the very last thing that the Cuban regime would have wanted to do.”
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