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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.

"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.