17 02 2011

The document that will be discussed at the 6th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, being held this April, is entitled: “El Proyecto de la Politica Economica y Social del Partido y la Revolucion” (The Political, Economic and Social Project of the Party and the Revolution).

This document has been the subject of meetings that have been held throughout the island during the last six weeks. Every CDR (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution – which exist on every block, a bit like a cross between a Neighbourhood Watch Association and a local political organisation) has held meetings, as has each workplace and the mass organisations that play an important role in the political system here, such as the Women’s Federation, the Trade Unions, the Student Federation, the small farmers’ organisation etc.

I have observed a number of the CDR meetings when I have passed. They have been held on street corners, with the local residents assembled. I have observed five or six, always at about the same time, when I am on my way to my friend’s house for dinner. They all consisted of somebody – presumably the CDR President – reading from a prepared script. It may be that this was followed by a spirited discussion, I don’t know. I have spoken to a few people about the meetings in their workplaces. They said that there was not a lot of discussion there. Some expressed the sentiment that the meetings were pointless, as nobody would listen to what they had to say. Whether this is fair or not, I do not know, but the same would probably be said by many about any official consultation exercise in my country as well.

 The one item that has produced more discussion than any other, though, is Lineamento 162, which proposes the: “orderly elimination of the libreta de abstecimiento”. The libreta de abstecimiento is the ration book issued to every Cuban household, which provides an amount of highly subsidised food and other products each month. These include oil, bread, eggs, rice, sugar, meat, fish, salt and beans. This system was introduced early on in the revolutionary process, in order to ensure that the people were guaranteed a certain amount of food and to counteract against hoarding and speculation.

It has become a vital part of the household finances of most Cuban families. The argument for its elimination is that it is very costly for the state to provide and benefits many people who either do not need it, because they have sufficient income; or do not deserve it, because they do not work or contribute to society. This is undoubtedly true. However it is also true that without the libreta, many low income households, including pensioners, would find it impossible to survive. In order to avoid causing real hardship, the abolition of the libreta would need to be accompanied by a significant increase in pensions and the minimum wage.

A sign of what may be to come was an article on the back page this Saturday of Juventud Rebelde (one of the two national daily newspapers here), which announced that, from now on, the state-run chain of shops selling in moneda nacional entitled Mercados Ideales, would start selling rice at a price of 5 CUP (about £0.15) per pound; and sugar at 6 CUP for unrefined and 8 CUP for refined. Currently, each citizen receives five pounds per month of both rice and sugar, at a price of about a penny per pound, on the libreta. If they need more, they can buy it from the chopis (shops selling in CUC), or more likely, on the black market.

Could this be a sign that rice and sugar are about to eliminated from the libreta? Fifteen pence per pound for rice may sound cheap to me, but would represent an increase of something like 1500% and would be impossible for people on very low incomes to afford. Some items (such as peas and potatoes) have already been removed from the libreta in the last year or so, along with the two packets of cigarettes that each pensioner received monthly. Ceasing to subsidise cigarettes to pensioners may sound like a good idea on health grounds, but many did not smoke them, but sold them on at a profit to others, so their elimination meant a reduction in their disposable income. Since potatoes were removed from the libreta, they seem to have disappeared from sight, at least here in Santiago and in Havana.

It is very important that, if the libreta is to be eliminated, the interests of the poorest in society are protected properly.



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