Insatiable: Cuba’s food ration system and the people of Cuba

Alexandra Archuleta,

The one and only man behind the counter is Juan Delgado*; today is his 25th birthday. He works from dawn to dusk, handing out rationed groceries and making marks in people’s ration books in the small government bodega far from the lavish shops and elegant hotels of central Havana. Here in this impoverished barrio, daily Cuban life crosses paths with history and culture in the form of the “libreta.”

To the unsuspecting tourist, it is easy to pass the street that leads from Parque Central to this desolate market. The sign on the front door marks the hours of operation, but nowhere is there a label that says this storefront is a bodega. The lack of signage and low-key presence makes you wonder if the bodega is a secret club for only those in the know, or a remnant of a bygone era that everyone would prefer to hide away from the eyes of outsiders.

“It’s not enough for any of us,” Delgado explains as he discusses the current rations provided by the Cuban Government. “No one can live off of just this.”


Starters: Historical context of “la libreta”

Cuban, government-owned supermarkets, otherwise known as bodegas, have been controlled by the Cuban government since Fidel Castro implemented a rations system in 1962.  From Castro’s regime to present day, families are required to bring their state-issued ration book, known as “la libreta,” each time they make a trip to the grocery store. Under the Cuban government, the food rationing system provides an allotted amount of food per household depending on age, gender and health status of the people living in the house.

Europe used wartime ration food books over 50 years ago during World War II, but ration books continue to be a part of modern-day life for many Cubans, even in 2017.

Each family’s “libreta” lists the name, gender, height and birth dates of each family member living in the household.  Age and gender determine which foods you can buy, although some Cuban people can get a doctor to prescribe a special diet to receive additional rationed groceries for a short period of time.  Other exceptions like sickness can allow a person to receive milk temporarily, and diabetes can allow for an exchange of fish instead of rationed chicken.

Today, the Cuban government uses a budget of $1 billion to provide subsidized food to its citizens. In decades earlier, the Soviet Union provided subsidies of $4-6 billion, but after the 1990s, they were strictly cut due to economic reform. With less funding came tighter restrictions for “la libreta.” What once was something that could provide a sensible livelihood for many families has turned into aid that can hardly feed families through half the days of the month. Endorsers of the ration system claim that “la libreta” epitomizes the Cuban government’s commitment to public health and welfare.

Cuba’s “libreta” food rationing system passed its 50-year anniversary in 2013, with little sign of it ending anytime soon, despite the death of Fidel Castro. For 55 years and counting, Cubans have experienced food rations along with limited access to household goods; however, they have been thriving despite the trade embargo with the United States and tight Cuban government restrictions.


Rice and Beans: Getting by on the bare necessities

Under Cuba’s “libreta” food rationing system, foods are listed as a per-person and monthly basis. Allowances vary vastly and by season; however, “la libreta” currently allows citizens to receive the following:

  •      5 eggs
  •      1 liter of cooking oil
  •      1 pound of spaghetti
  •      3 pounds of refined or white sugar
  •      3 pounds of unrefined or dark sugar
  •      6 pounds of white rice
  •      20 ounces of black beans
  •      2 packets of “mixed coffee”
  •      Daily bread (dinner roll)

Meat and fish products are distributed at separate markets and following a different protocol. Typically, the ration is about 2 pounds of chicken per person, per month.

It is to be noted that “la libreta” and the bodega is not the sole means for Cuban people to acquire goods, as there are other avenues such as a “mercado libre,” or “free market,” that privately sells goods available to purchase with the Cuban peso, along with government-owned markets comparable to an American farmer’s market that sell fruits, vegetables and other goods enjoyed by those who can afford to shop there.


The main course: What does “la libreta” mean to the people of Cuba?

Gilberto Alfonso is a merchant who sells a variety of cured meats at the 17 and G Street Market in Vedado, a neighborhood of Havana. Gilberto has been working as a merchant at the market for the past 14 years, however, he has been selling cured meats specifically for the past nine months after losing his job in the same market selling fruits and vegetables. The market is entirely owned by the Cuban government; Gilberto leases his space by paying a tax in order to run his business. He says he does not have a hard time acquiring his supplies for his business, and he is able to make a profit despite the tax and fees he has to pay to the government.  

Despite Alfonso’s positive outlook, the reality is he has to drive pretty far outside the city of Havana to the countryside to pick up his supplies. Many of the Cuban people have no hangups with completing time-consuming tasks. It’s almost as if an essential part of Cuban culture allows people to get away with little to no productivity. For Alfonso and other Cuban people, no task is too time-consuming, nor is any line too long of a wait.  Simply being on this island gives anyone, local or tourist, a valid excuse to take life in at a slow pace.  As a tourist from a country infatuated with efficiency, this is a life I struggle to understand, and my curiosity grows as the days go on.

“It gives us only about 10 days’ worth of food for the whole month,” Gilberto Alfonso said referring to the current rations the government has set in place for its people.

Juan Delgado*, the 25-year-old Havana local, spends his days running his neighborhood bodega just outside of Havana Vieja. Upon walking into Delgado’s bodega, you see empty shelves and a large chalkboard on the wall with dates of when certain foods are going to be arriving. Behind the counter sit huge barrels filled with oil, rice, sugar, black beans and more.  Atop the counter sits a funnel for pouring into shoppers’ recycled water bottles and a scale to ensure appropriate allotments are distributed.

Delgado is responsible for around two to three city blocks, or about 120 families. He is the only worker for this bodega, leaving him entirely responsible for receiving the exact allotment of food for its assigned residents for the month, rationing out the food and keeping track of it all in a three-part, seemingly antiquated bookkeeping system. There is a record of what is picked up in the resident’s “libreta,” in the shop’s book and in another book to show the government if necessary or requested.

Cuban-American photographer Roberto Salas can remember a time when “la libreta” was implemented to be a temporary solution to the shortage of food, medicine and other supplies as U.S. economic sanctions changed. He recalls a time in history where households had multiple ration book systems, one for groceries that was much more wholesome than what we see presently, one for clothing and one for pharmaceutical goods.


“Para llevar:” The takeaway  

Undoubtedly, Cuba’s “la libreta” food rationing system may come as a huge culture shock to Americans. So many of us are accommodated to this 24-hour access, one-hour express delivery, order-ahead kind of lifestyle. Unplugging from these deep-rooted comforts gave me a better sense of my socioeconomic privilege. Although the reality of some underprivileged people is unfathomable, researching the rationing system on a person-to-person level is intimate, difficult and ultimately humbling. Many Cuban people are still happy and make everything work despite their perceived hardships.

For someone coming from a capitalist economy, it can be quite easy to see misfortune in broken down buildings, people in tattered clothing, and mandatory food rations. In looking further, and with an altered perspective, it is apparent that these buildings have lived through a colorful history, the people smile no matter what kind of clothes are put on their backs, and aid from the government doesn’t discriminate against income.  

Juan Delgado closes his shop at the end of the day. He remembers a time where “la libreta” provided a stipend for a birthday cake when it was your birthday. Today, he will not receive a cake from the Cuban government. Rather, he will close up shop and enjoy a dinner at home with his family.



*Name has been changed to protect the identity of this individual.