No free lunch in Cuba's “new socialism”

HAVANA, Cuba — A vast system of workplace cafeterias doles out lunch on this island every week, serving rice, beans and maybe a little meat to some 3.5 million Cubans — a third of the country’s population. In a state-run economy where the average salary is about $20 a month, the meal can be an added incentive to show up for work.

But while the practice of furnishing workers with a hot lunch may stem from noble intentions, it has left a foul taste in Cuba after several decades of uninspired cuisine. Food supplies are often stolen and diverted to the black market, employees routinely complain about the quality and variety of the fare, and the Cuban government forks over more than $350 million a year to keep the whole thing running.

As a result, the cafeteria system is now on the chopping block — viewed as one more of the “infinite subsidies and freebies” of Cuban socialism that the Castro government can no longer afford, according to a recent article in Cuba’s communist party daily Granma.

Starting Thursday the government will launch a trial program at four state ministries, giving each worker a cash stipend in place of a hot lunch. The stipend of 15 Cuban pesos a day, or about 60 cents, is enough for a meal at snack bar or cheap restaurant, and will practically double the salaries of workers who pack a lunch instead of eating out. Employees must show up for work to receive the money, thus creating a new inducement for workers in a country that struggles with absenteeism. The stipend program will be tested with the goal of expanding it nationwide and eliminating the free lunches at most workplaces, the government said.

Such a change would have symbolic implications for Cuba that extend well beyond the dining hall. For the nearly half-century that Fidel Castro ruled the island before officially stepping down last year, Cuba’s socialist system has tended to place ideology and egalitarianism over efficiency, creating a series of entitlements guaranteed to all Cubans, often at the expense of quality.

Thus all the workers at a state-run company or government ministry, regardless of their title, rank or income, were provided the same lunch, and nearly every workplace had its own cafeteria, even when there might be another one in the building next door. This arrangement has saddled the country with additional transportation costs and relies heavily on imported food that further drains government coffers.

Since taking over Cuba’s leadership from his older brother last year, President Raul Castro has been warning Cubans that the days of the Daddy-state are over. Cuba’s system of cradle-to-grave subsidies simply isn’t sustainable, he said.

"Nobody, no individual nor country, can indefinitely spend more than she or he earns. Two plus two always adds up to four, never five," Castro declared in an August speech. "Within the conditions of our imperfect socialism, due to our own shortcomings, two plus two often adds up to three," he said.

The country must stop providing freebies to people who don’t need them, Castro added, and should pay workers according to what he called “socialist principle”: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution.”

For Cubans, that’s a clear message that deeper reforms are in the offing as part of the country’s move toward a “new socialism.” With the island struggling financially from declining export revenues, a lack of foreign credit and nearly 50 years of U.S. trade sanctions, other cornerstones of the Cuban system are also being called into question. The most significant is Cuba’s food ration system, which provides every island resident with about two weeks’ worth of basic foodstuffs at virtually no expense. That system could be replaced by one resembling traditional welfare-style programs for low-income residents — and require an open acknowledgement of the country’s economic inequalities.

As for the worker cafeterias, some will continue to serve meals, which Cubans will be able to buy using the 15-pesos stipend. But the group most likely to benefit from the new arrangement will be the small-scale entrepreneurs who sell fast food, sweets and other items at privately run snack stalls.

“A lot of people already eat here because they don’t like what’s offered in the cafeteria,” said Walter, a snack-stand operator selling coffee, milkshakes and pork sandwiches a few blocks away from one of the government offices where workers will soon have 15 more pesos a day to spend. “I’m sure business is going to pick up even more,” he said.

At another stall nearby, a weary-looking proprietress named Esperanza scooped out strawberry ice cream in the sticky afternoon heat, earning 3 Cuban pesos per cone. Sales of her 7 peso pizzas had dipped since the government relocated a popular bus stop that used to be directly in front of her snack bar, but she was hopeful business would pick up again. “Maybe we can bounce back,” she said.