Cuba expands program cutting free lunches
By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA -- Nearly a quarter million Cuban workers are discovering there's
so such thing as a free lunch.
The government is dramatically expanding a program that shuts workplace
cafeterias while giving people stipends to buy food on their own. It is
part of a larger plan to chip away at the raft of daily subsidies that
have long characterized life on the island.
The Communist Party newspaper Granma reported Friday that a pilot
program begun in October to eliminate free lunches for 2,800 government
workers will grow to include another 225,000 as of July 1. The move will
save the cash-strapped country $27 million.
The reform is being extended to state bank workers, employees at the
tourism, transportation, foreign investment, natural resources and
foreign relations ministries, as well as workers at the government
retail giant CIMEX and the Office of the City of Havana Historian and
the Cuban Chamber of Commerce.
The new round of cafeteria closings means that in all, about 5 percent
of Cuba's official work force of nearly 5 million will have to fend for
themselves at lunch time, though the government will provide about 70
U.S. cents per work day to help pay for it.
The government controls well over 90 percent of the economy and almost
everyone works for the state. Education through college and health care
are free and housing, utilities, transportation and food are heavily
subsidized, but government workers earn an average of less than $20 per
The reform represents a change in philosophy for the government, which
has traditionally micromanaged many aspects of Cubans' lives - from
monthly ration books to determining who can own a car.
Cuba's always-fragile economy has been hit hard by the global financial
crisis and President Raul Castro, who took over from his elder brother
Fidel in February 2008, has said he wants to cut costs by streamlining
the stifling bureaucracy and putting a measure of decision-making in the
hands of citizens.
A simple meal like a pork sandwich from a street stand costs about 25
cents, while pasta bought from a vendor may run about twice that -
meaning some workers could save money.
Still, some were dubious.
"It doesn't seem good to me," said Susana Garcia, a 35-year-old who has
worked in the Havana City Historian's office since 1998. "If you don't
go to work or you get there late they dock you, and what you get isn't
enough to buy anything - it's two packets of chicken per month."
Others affected by the new rules told The Associated Press they were
called to meetings at work last weekend and informed that their
free-lunch days were numbered.
Interviews Friday with six state employees who will lose them yielded
only complaints, though many declined to give their names for fear of
landing in hot water at work.
Some said that even if they can find a way to bring food from home - no
small feat in a country where things like plastic kitchenware are hard
to come by - they have no way to heat it up without access to state
cafeterias. Others said they work nontraditional hours and will have
trouble buying food during the times they have to eat it.
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