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Debating the daddy state

As the economy slides, Cubans have been asked to rethink socialism.

Such a statement is “offensive” to the Cuban people, said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who has spent time in prison for his opposition to the government.

“This system was designed to control everyone, so it’s absurd that the official propaganda talks about the ‘daddy state,’” he said, referring to Cuba’s government-run media. “It’s as if the Cuban people were to blame for this economic debacle, and not the government. The government is to blame for the way Cubans behave, because this is the system it created.”

Espinosa Chepe said Cubans would gladly solve their own problems if the government would allow for more small businesses and other forms of economic independence. Furthermore, that could generate the tax revenues needed to preserve the country’s social safety net, he argued.

And as the governments’ finances dwindle, Cuba’s safety net is beginning to fray.

Two major rollbacks of the island’s socialist system are now under consideration, and both involve major government programs that, though often criticized, deliver basic nutrition staples to all Cubans.

The first proposed reform would gradually eliminate the workplace cafeterias that provide nearly-free lunches to a third of the island’s population each weekday, at a cost of more than $350 million a year. Instead, workers will receive a cash stipend, doubling the average workers’ salary.

The second major reform threatens to eliminate the ration-card system that provides every Cuban with about two weeks’ worth of food at highly subsidized prices, but is beset by inefficiencies. In the name of egalitarianism, the program doles out the same amount of food to everyone, even to those who don’t need it.

Earlier this month in a much-discussed editorial that appeared in the communist party daily Granma, editor Lazaro Barredo Medina said the ration book had become a drag on the state’s struggling finances and reform efforts. "The ration booklet was a necessity at one time, but it has become an impediment to the collective decisions the nation must take," he said.

His words touched off rampant speculation about the imminent demise of the ration system. But it’s not clear how the Cuban government would be able to quickly implement such a measure, since so many seniors and low-income families depend heavily on it. Cuba has no income-tax system and a vast black market economy, so ascertaining citizens’ real earnings for the purpose of welfare eligibility would be extremely difficult.

Then there is the threat of inflation.

“Getting rid of the ration book seems like a good move, but only if salaries can keep pace with the price of food,” said Aurelio Alonso, deputy editor of Cuba’s Casa de las Americas journal.

For Cubans to be able to pay market prices for food, worker salaries would have to double or triple, he said, and that would bring inflation if food supplies remain the same. “And that would be a big problem,” he said.

Still, Alonso said he sees the younger Castro as a practical man who understands economics, and he expects further reforms to follow. “You can’t have social justice and social goods if you don’t have an economy capable of sustaining it.”