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Government may cut a Cuban staple of life

HAVANA — Cuba may soon be saying adios to ration books.

The system that allows islanders to buy food at deeply subsidized prices each month has long been one of the central building blocks of the country's socialist system, providing everyone from surgeons to street-sweepers the same allotment of basic foods like rice, beans and a bit of chicken.

Now, state-run media are suggesting the "libreta" that Cubans have depended on since 1962 to put meager helpings of food on their tables has outlived its usefulness and is hamstringing the government as it tries to reform the ever-struggling economy.

"The ration booklet was a necessity at one time, but it has become an impediment to the collective decisions the nation must take," Lazaro Barredo Medina, editor of the Communist Party's Granma newspaper, wrote Friday in a full-page signed opinion.

He said the government ought not do away with rations by decree, but suggested readers should start preparing for life without a system that people on this island both covet as a birthright and complain is woefully insufficient to meet even the most modest needs.

Barredo's words carry no immediate policy weight, but such a lengthy and frankly worded editorial written by the editor of Granma could very well presage major governmental changes down the road — though it is impossible to know exactly when.

The thick brown ration booklet offers 11.2 million Cubans a diet including rice, salt, legumes, potatoes, bread, eggs, sugar and some meat. Many complain it only provides 10 to 15 days of food and that quotas have gotten stingier over the years.

The idea of such a transcendental change in the Cuban experience made Barredo's opinion piece the talk of the town, with strong opinions on both sides.

"I was born and raised under the revolution and I have no idea what would be available to buy on the free market," said a skeptical Silvia Alvarez, 50. "It seems to me that in these critical times ... we ought to keep it at least for a while longer."

Economists also had their doubts.

Antonio Jorge, who once served as Cuba's vice finance minister and now is a professor emeritus at Florida International University in Miami, said he "cannot imagine how this proposal could be implemented."

"This is the bare minimum of food, of nutrition," Jorge said, especially for the half of the Cuban population that has no access to remittances — money sent from abroad, usually by relatives in the U.S. "How will they live? How will they fend for themselves?"

Cuban President Raul Castro has said several times that the ration book costs too much and provides too little. Since taking power from his brother Fidel in February 2008, he has been critical of Cuba's paternalistic system, saying deep state subsidies don't give people an incentive to work.

Barredo called his column "He's Paternalistic, You're Paternalistic, I'm Paternalistic," a swipe at the cradle-to-grave guarantees Cuba has always provided its citizens, and which now are losing favor.

With the country's economy hit hard by the global credit crunch and three disastrous hurricanes last year, Raul Castro has been looking at ways to cut state costs while imploring his countrymen to produce more.

While Cubans make low wages — about $20 a month — the state pays for or heavily subsidizes nearly everything, from education to health care, housing to transportation.

Last month, the government announced plans to close almost-free cafeterias in state ministries and instead give employees a stipend to buy food. And Castro has suggested other big changes, like doing away with the nation's dual currency economy, which puts many imported items outside the reach of most citizens.

He has also promised to reform the country's pay structure, allowing better workers to earn more, and he has made modest openings in the economy that have allowed for some limited free enterprise.

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