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Rationing Has Saved Cubans from Undernourishment

by Istvan Ojeda Bello

The rationing book has been one of the main the targets of the propaganda war against the Cuban revolution. According to the codes of liberal western societies, everything that standardizes people's lives is interpreted as an attack on their freedom, signalling dictatorship or at least an evocation of the years of food rationing in the United States and Europe during World War II.

Preventing malnutrition

Ironically, the country that supposedly limits the freedom of its citizens is the only one in Latin America where there is not malnutrition. Such a claim was not made by Cuban authorities but by a representative of the UN World Food Program (WFP).

Myrta Kaulard told the press recently that barely two percent of Cuban children had some kind of nutrient deficit, mainly caused by inappropriate nutritional habits.

What is portrayed in the US media as an aggression against an individual's free will, is in fact a synonym for nutritional security for most Cubans. This, because independent of people's income or whether they receive remittances from relatives abroad, each month Cuban families are able to buy a given amount of food and hygiene products that are heavily subsidized by the state at prices well under their production cost.

For instance, in eastern Las Tunas province, the four-member household of Teresa Jardines and Luis Jimenez, which also includes their daughter and Teresa's mother, was guaranteed 9.04 Kg of rice and the same amount of sugar every month in 2005. Although the world market prices of oil continued to rise, that family was also supplied with 1.28 Kg of salt, 2.32 Kg of grains and 0.88 Kg of cooking oil each month.

With the tightening of the US blockade on Cuba in May 2004, the Jimenez-Jardines family does not receive the remittances that Teresa's brother sends from the United States with the same frequency as they did before. That same year the Cuban economy lost around 100 million dollars in revenues from the tourist industry.

However, the Las Tunas family did not fail to receive 24 eggs and a pound of coffee every 30 days.

Between May 2004 and April 2005, Cuba lost some 3.98 billion dollars to the cost of chartering freight and the use of middlemen to purchase food as a result of Washington's pressures to hamper sales to the island nation.

Notwithstanding, in that same period, the family of these two Las Tunas teachers each week purchased with their ration cards varying amounts of protein: either chicken, fish, or ground meat mixed with soy.

The cost of the entire monthly ration was under two US dollars.

A matter of equity

According to estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the world produces enough food to feed all the planet's inhabitants. Currently, international agriculture turns out 17 percent more calories per person than it did 30 years ago, despite the fact that world population has grown 70 percent in the same period.

FAO has set a person's minimal nutritional average intake at 2,720 calories per day. However, the same organization has warned that the main problem is that many people around the world do not have enough land or income to buy food.

To counter the problems, ration books are still being used in Cuba for the purchase of food at heavily subsidized prices. The food bought with these booklets guarantees an overall 1,232.2 cal per person: around 53 percent of FAO's nutritional recommendations.

In 2005, however, food served for free at public institutions –such hospitals, schools, and daycare centers or at very low prices, as is the case of workers cafeterias– amounted to 3,305 calories per person a day and 85.5 grams of protein, which are figures above FAO's standards.

Are Cuba's food subsidies about to be ended?

To the surprise of many people around the world, Cuban President Fidel Castro is the principal opponent of the subsidized food ration. In many of his latest speeches, the head of state has talked about the government's intention to eliminate that distribution system.

International studies have revealed that in developing countries, 70 percent of people's incomes is dedicated to the purchase of food. Cuba does not escape that trend; therefore the government gives priority to optimizing resources for national production and the purchase of food on the world market.

It should be kept in mind that the country's annual consumption of rice amounts to nearly 700,000 tons; but according to Pablo Fernandez, a specialist from the Cuban Ministry of Economy and Planning, nine out of every ten tons bought through public institutions and privately using ration books.

Meanwhile, the annual nationwide consumption of beans, says Fernadez, is estimated at 240,000 tons. Of these, only 10,000 tons of the staple are sold through ancillary "farmers markets." Therefore most beans consumed in Cuba which are purchased abroad are distributed through rationing or institutions.

Nevertheless, the current distribution system does not guarantee that all people's tastes are met. For instance, the 18-year-old daughter of Las Tunas couple Teresa and Luis does not drink coffee; nevertheless she receives a ration for that product every month.

President Fidel Castro has said that the state seeks to maintain and even improve the current nutritional levels, but that purpose is not in contradiction to maintaining the nation's financial well-being.

Among the most recent efforts by the Cuban government to meet that goal is a program to increase the egg output, which is expected to produce 200 million in 2006.

Likewise, other program is underway to improve pork production so as to reach an annual target production of 80,000 tons in 2006 and 100,000 tons in 2007. These measures are intended to increase domestic production to an adequate nutritional level and make the ration book unnecessary.

Does this mean that the revolution is abandoning the people in the meantime? Of course not. Because at the same time the government is providing systematic attention to any children found nutritionally deficient through a program that measures the height and weight of all Cuban children under 15.

Also, a comprehensive study of all infants was recently concluded. It assessed such standards as nutritional state, education, family environment and living conditions in order single out any particular segment of the population to give them direct attention.

The ration book has saved Cubans from undernourishment for over 40 years, despite the relentless siege that United States has imposed on Cuba's food imports. Yes, rationing will be eliminated when the country's economy is able to satisfy fully the essential needs of families.

The island authorities and its people are working hard to meet that goal. However, the blockade continues to be the main obstacle. The solution depends on Washington rather than on Havana.



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