From the Archive — From the July 2016 issue

Rational Numbers

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Several days after I arrived in Havana I asked my host why all the toilet seats were missing. “We don’t use them here,” he replied, as if it were an ancient custom. I didn’t come across any toilet seats until several weeks later, when I visited the Swiss officials at the former U.S. Embassy while arranging my return to the United States. The toilet seats were my first encounter with Cuba’s shortage of consumer goods. Luxury items are rarely available and food is strictly rationed, except for such things as fish, beer, and soft drinks. Even sugar, Cuba’s principal product, would be limited to three and a half pounds monthly per person, assuming Fidel’s proposal is accepted. Other monthly rations per person include: six pounds of rice, three pounds of meat, three pounds of beans, two pounds of macaroni, two pounds of spaghetti, one and a half pounds of noodles, one pound of salt, twelve ounces of flour, six ounces of coffee, fifteen eggs, three containers of canned milk (fresh milk is for children and the old), fifteen servings of Jello, four containers of yogurt, two servings of cream of wheat, etc.

Despite the stringent diet, I didn’t see any Cubans who looked underfed, and the ones I heard complaining about the rations invariably were hostile to everything else about the Revolution. Most Cubans have ways of supplementing their rations even though the black market in food has been virtually eliminated. Workers usually eat an inexpensive and well-balanced lunch on the job: some eat all three meals there, leaving their rations to their families. Finally, the absence of most consumer products generally leaves families with plenty of money to dine out. Most Cubans say they eat better now than they did before the Revolution.

Clothing rations are a bigger problem than the food, especially for men, who every year receive two pairs of trousers, two shirts, and several pairs of shoes. Clothing can still be bought on the black market, but it has become increasingly scarce: it is sold mostly by clothing workers who are willing to risk stealing a few items.

Abulletin board at the University of Havana school of the sciences listed items to be apportioned among the students: two refrigerators, three televisions, three men’s watches, three women’s watches, five radios with batteries, and — I should have guessed that a device to get people to work or school on time would be plentiful — seventeen alarm clocks.

I had been told that schools and work centers distributed their allotment of consumer goods at mass meetings where it was decided who most deserved them. Later the process was explained to me by officials at a thread factory I visited in HolguÍn, a small city in northeast Cuba. A list of available goods is put on the bulletin board, and workers who are interested fill out forms, which are analyzed by a commission elected at a meeting of all the factory’s workers. The commission analyzes the attitudes of each worker and decides who will receive the goods. They then call a meeting and give their opinions. “If the opinions are correct,” an official said, “the workers accept them. If there are differences we argue about it.”

Have the workers ever rejected a commission decision?

“That could happen, but it hasn’t yet.”

What if the chosen worker doesn’t have enough money for the purchase?

“They can buy on a time plan if they don’t have the money right away.”

Do they pay interest?

“No, no, no. Only that the price is spread out,” the official laughed in surprise. He explained that each family receives its products through the working members’ work centers or schools.

What about a family without any workers?

“That’s not defined yet, because here in Cuba everybody works.”

From “Inside Cuba,” which appeared in the April 1973 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 166-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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