Each person in Cuba is assigned the same amount of food using the family Libreta de Abastecimiento (“Supplies booklet”). Food rations are not free, but they are subsidized. The libreta ration booklet was introduced in 1962 by Che Guevara, who was at that time the Minister of Economy, as a way of ensuring everyone had access to the basic foods.
The ration system details the groceries each family is allocated, depending on the age and gender of the family members, and which they buy at their local bodega (shop) at subsidized prices. The libreta booklet is distributed each year by the government and reflects the exact make-up of the Cuban family. The pages of the booklet are used to record what an individual or family is entitled to, and to check off what has been bought – for example, milk is not available except for children under 7 years old and pregnant women.
There are frequent foods and supply shortages and scheduled deliveries are often delayed. As I have mentioned, food destined for tourists (at casas particulares or todo-inclusivo resorts) is prioritized, to the impediment of locals. I read that Cuba imports twice the amount it exports, and after browsing products at bodegas (only for locals) and ‘supermarkets’ in many cities, even finding a choice of packaged food (or even a range of food) is difficult. Many products we take for granted as everyday essentials are imported and so well out of the reach of locals to purchase – butter and jam (Germany), pasta (Italy), and crockery (Spain). Even locally made products like soap, eggs, toothpaste and coffee and are often not available. When you see a large crowd outside a bodega, it means they have received a new delivery of produce (generally one item, perhaps sneakers). People will queue for hours, sometimes without knowing exactly what is on offer, just so they have a chance at buying whatever it is and maybe later reselling the item.
The government owns all cattle, fish, lobsters, crabs and shrimp. If you are a fisherman, the fish you catch is expected to be for everyone. In response to the numbers of people who have historically tried using boats, rafts and even rubber tires to cross the Straits of Florida to get to the United States, Cuban fishermen now must carry a GPS and a cell phone when they go out to sea, and if they stray too far, the authorities will call them to get them to return.
Cows are counted (seriously) and the numbers held by the government – you can actually go to jail for killing a cow without government permission.
1. He who, without prior authorization from the state agency specifically empowered to do so, slaughters major livestock, is punished with imprisonment from four to ten years.
2. Whoever sells, transports or trades in any way with beef cattle slaughtered illegally, is punished with imprisonment of six months to two years or a fine of two hundred to five hundred pesos or both.
3. Whoever knowingly acquire meat illegally slaughtered cattle, shall be punished by imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine of one hundred to three hundred pesos or both.
Source: Cuba Penal Code – Article 240.1 Illegal Slaughter of Cattle and Meat Sale
President Raul Castro has said that the government intends to phase out the libreta system. Some products like potatoes, peas and cigarettes have already been removed from the booklet which means Cubans must source these items themselves using the free (and/or black) market/s and higher prices. The libreta system provides food for about 2 weeks – you definitely couldn’t last the month on the supplies – and does not provide a balanced diet. Cubans barter goods and services with their neighbours and friends, and it seems that everyone has learned to augment the libreta system in order to try to keep their families fed and healthy. Through necessity, Cubans are the masters of making a little go a long long way.
This post is part of a series on Cuba.