Vindication of the Rationing Card

Photo: Diario de Cuba

by Yassel A. Padrón Kunakbaeva

My generation grew up listening to the stories of when the rationing card was a big book, and included the distribution of products as varied as underwear and toys. More recently, Pánfilo has been able to exploit the prominent role the rationing card has in the imagination of Cubans, as one of the most noteworthy features of the revolutionary period. In all honesty, rationing has become an integral part of our daily lives, and it’s almost like second nature to us by now.

I remember the distant year 2011, when the Guidelines were set out. One of them was to progressively eliminate the rationing card. I, like many others, agreed with that measure, since the idea was to free the State of the heavy budgetary load it bore. The great illusion in those years was to leave the Soviet planning model behind and to create the conditions for the better development of a market economy.

In the end, that guideline did not materialize, though several products were taken off the rationing card. And we must say that, fortunately, the card was not eliminated. Time and reflection have made me realize that tool is extremely important and necessary. It’s enough to see the dire situation of some peripheral neighborhoods, where life has continually become more precarious, to realize that the disappearance of the rationing card could cast thousands of people into extreme poverty.

Since 2011, an increasing inequality has been added to the poverty in which many people already lived. Everyday life in some places where people of greater income live is not the same as in poor neighborhoods, where the daily struggle to obtain the bare essentials may be agonizing. Many people live in the gray fringes of the law. If one should want to know how the life of many people would be if the rationing card disappeared, it should be enough to look at the practical example of the immigrant quarters with people from the east of the country, the famous llega-y-pon(shanties), where the newly arrived lack regular access to social rights.

The rationing card represents a universal basic allowance for Cubans

Such as it is –with the products covering only about a week’s worth of needs and with more and more being taken off–, it’s something. It would be worse if it didn’t exist. And even if it were a burden for the State, I believe it should be maintained as a matter of principle.

I still believe that Cuba needs to develop a market economy. However, we must prevent capitalist relations from taking over our society. One way to achieve that is to maintain and increase that universal allowance. If there’s something that opposes the establishment of capitalism, it’s that people aren’t deprived of the fundamental resources for living. The right to life and capitalism are at odds. I not only believe that the rationing card should be kept, but I also support that, if at some point the economy improves, the range of products be expanded, as it was in the 80s and beyond.

Some consider that the rationing card shouldn’t be universal, that the wealthiest shouldn’t get the same, and that resources should be targeted at the people who need them most. But that path leads to significant risk, which is the same for all services when they are not universal. A bothersome bureaucracy would have to be created to decide who gets them and who doesn’t. Experience has proven that pockets of people with no access to social rights end up forming. It’s more radical and effective to maintain universality.

In the middle of this coronavirus crisis, many people have suggested that the more important products be regulated through the rationing card. This would allow the system to ensure access, and also to better avoid the gathering of people at shops. The popular initiative is not outrageous, and it reminds us that we already have a tool we can use in these times of coronavirus.

The Domestic Trade authorities, until now, have refused to regulate the products.

They argue that there’s not enough stock to distribute to each person. However, they haven’t said whether it would be possible to distribute to each household, for example, something which has been done before. Meanwhile, the detergent situation is critical, and huge lines soon form in the shops where it surfaces. Despite police intervention, these turn into optimal environments for the spreading of coronavirus.

If the crisis gets worse, I believe the government should seriously consider using the controlled products network in order to distribute what families need. Additionally, regulated product sale points may offer a better space to control lines and keep appropriate distance, in light of the community tradition that surrounds them.

These and others are my considerations when I think about the old, vilified, yet beloved rationing card. We shouldn’t forget the good things we’ve created in these sixty years of resistance.

Translated from the original