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Cuba cuts back on rationed products

By Paul Haven
Associated Press / November 7, 2009

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HAVANA - Cuba has cut two staple foods from the monthly ration books that most islanders depend on, edging closer to a risky full elimination of the decades-old subsidies.

Potatoes and peas were dropped from the list of rationed foods this week, meaning Cubans can buy as much of the products as they want - as long as they are willing to pay as much as 20 times more than they used to.

The move comes amid efforts by Raul Castro’s government to scale back Cuba’s subsidy-rich, cash-poor economy. Nearly free lunches were eliminated from some state-cafeterias in September.

Authorities say their goal is to encourage more productivity and free the state from a crushing economic burden. Critics - including some on the streets of Havana - argue that the moves break with what had been a sacred covenant of the revolution Fidel Castro led in 1959: that socialism would not make people rich, but would provide all Cubans with at least the basics.

Even with the changes, the state pays for or heavily subsidizes nearly everything, from education to health care, housing to transportation. But many Cubans see the ration book - “libreta’’ in Spanish - as a flawed but fundamental right, and shoppers on Friday bristled at the changes.

“This is crazy. They should be adding products to the ration book, not taking away from it,’’ said Roberto Rodriguez, a 55-year-old delivery man. “If they don’t produce enough, people will start to hoard products and things will get even worse.’’

He said he worried that Cubans with access to money sent by relatives abroad would buy up all the potatoes and peas they could, leaving ordinary people in the lurch if there are shortages.