Butting out in Havana

Smokes for seniors are among the targets of Castro’s austerity drive

Enrique de la Osa/Reuters

When Fidel Castro overthrew Cuba’s military leader and president, Fulgencio Batista, in January 1959, he and his brother Raúl made a pledge to each other: their socialist model of governance would not make Cubans wealthy but could provide each citizen with basic necessities. A little more than half a century later, with Fidel slowly making his way back into the public spotlight after a lengthy illness, Raúl is in the process of altering that promise to preserve his country’s future. He has called for the elimination of all state-related subsidies that impoverished islanders have relied on for decades. The country’s ailing economy, one plagued by bureaucratic inefficiencies and the effects of the global financial crisis, is to blame.

In November, monthly allotments of chickpeas and potatoes were eliminated, along with sugar, and Cubans have since watched their state-sponsored honeymoons and vacations disappear. In addition, as of Sept. 1 some 2.5 million people over the age of 54 are no longer receiving their long-standing monthly allotment of four packs of cigarettes that was part of the country’s ration program. A government statement in the state-run Granma newspaper defended the action by declaring that cigarettes “are not a primary necessity,” and that the move was “part of the steps gradually being applied to eliminate subsidies.” Forgotten in the message was the health benefits of quitting smoking, and the fact that retirees frequently sell their rations or trade them for staples such as salt, eggs or bread. Also on the chopping block: inexpensive cafeteria lunches for state workers that earlier this summer were replaced with stipends, forcing nearly 250,000 employees to buy their own lunches.

And more drastic austerity measures are on the way in an effort to modernize the economy. Part of that plan includes laying off one million government workers over the course of the next five years—roughly one-fifth of the labour force. Indeed, in the National Assembly in August, Raúl warned underemployed or unproductive state workers that they will be forced to find other work in order to get by. “We have to end forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where you can live without working,” he said. The regime also wants to encourage more family farming, self-employment and the creation of small businesses.

So far, no cuts or drastic changes have been brought forth concerning the country’s free health care, education and social security programs. Yet given Raúl’s maverick style of governance and his apparent penchant for change, it might only be a matter of time before they come into his sightlines.