Cuba's potato revolution
From Thursday's Globe and Mail Published on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009
8:14PM EST Last updated on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 3:06AM EST
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
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
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 Cuba."
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,"
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
Cuba's potato revolution – The Globe and Mail (12 November 2009)