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No free lunch in Cuba's “new socialism”

A trial program that will give each worker a cash stipend instead of a hot lunch portends deeper reforms.

Enrique, a Cuban film director, buys vegetables at a farmer's market in Havana Center, Dec. 28, 2008. The government is launching a trial program at four state ministries, giving each worker a cash stipend in place of a hot lunch. (Enrique De La Osa/Reuters)

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.