No more free lunch in communist Cuba

Cuba rolls back the free lunch program that feeds one third of the island. Will other state subsidies be cut too?

It's not often Republicans and the Castros find themselves on the same side of the economic coin. But there’s an unexpected voice now on the anti-subsidy scene: Cuban president Raúl Castro.

No one expects a liberalized economy in the only communist state in the Americas any time soon. But the Caribbean island – the only recipient of a US “Trading with the Enemy” embargo for 47 years – has started to roll back the state-sponsored free lunches that feed one-third of its people.

In his recent speech to parliament, the Cuban leader – who took the reigns from brother Fidel in February of 2008 – said that the lunch subsidies “are ineffective or, even worse, make some feel that they don't need to work,” according to the BBC.

The state-run Granma newspaper announced the lunchroom shift in late September. Four government ministries closed their canteens this week in a trial run of the policy that could mean an end to the long-standing program.

But the state isn’t giving stones to the 3.5 million state employees who ate at "comedores obreros" (workers' cafeterias) at an annual cost of $350 million – not including facilities and energy costs – according to the Agence France-Presse. Workers will instead get a daily cash allowance of 15 pesos – give or take 60 cents.

It might seem like poco. But it's not spare change in a nation where the average worker makes less than $20 a month.

There are other signs that the gulf between the communist nation and its neighbor to the north is narrowing. Though US President Barack Obama renewed the trade embargo on the Caribbean nation, he also loosened restrictions on Cuban-Americans sending money to the island. The BBC cites the recent discussion in the Cuban press to change the government monthly ration of subsidized food staples like beans, oil, and chicken. It could be replaced with a need-based program.

Meanwhile, the US has taken the opposite tack with state coffers. The Treasury Department announced today that more than half a million homeowners have lowered their monthly mortgage payments under the government’s “Making Home Affordable Program.”

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Cuba under Raúl: creeping toward capitalism? Read more here.

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