Op-Ed: How an economic embargo put in place by JFK is making Cubans go hungry

A man sits against a wall looking at stacked crates of eggs
A worker waits for clients at a government store selling eggs in Old Havana in 2012.
(Javier Galeano / Associated Press)

For as long as most Cubans have been alive, they have both hoarded and hated a flimsy little booklet of cheap paper that reminds them daily how much they owe their government.

Known as la libreta, or little book, its 20-or-so pages dictate how Cubans can buy limited amounts of basic foods such as rice, beans and chicken at subsidized prices. Resembling wartime rations, the system has been in place since Fidel Castro laid it out on Cuban television on March 26, 1962, little more than a month after President Kennedy announced the complete economic embargo of Cuba that remains in place today.

The booklet effectively determines what Cubans can buy, sell and, to a large extent, eat. For some, it is a lifeline. Others see it as a symbol of government control at the most intimate level, a handout intended to keep people dependent.


The embargo and the libreta dominate the lives of ordinary Cubans — and after 60 years, the time may have come for both to end.

The libreta has become a cultural touchstone for Cubans, a totem of either survival or subservience that they have been forced to obsessively hold on to through the many trials of revolutionary Cuba’s existence. It is celebrated officially but mocked incessantly. Cubans surely chuckle subversively when popular TV comedian Luis Silva, better known as his character Panfilo, regularly beseeches an oversized libreta for help tracking down precious food.

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Since rationing began, the booklet’s offerings have varied widely. At one point, even Christmas toys were rationed. Peas and potatoes come and go. Sometimes cigarettes are included (10 packs a week per person).

The allotments are always meager — five eggs per person per month, for example — but Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, in an address last September at the United Nations, asserted that the ration system guarantees every Cuban sufficient nutrition.

The reality is different. A Cuban human rights monitor contends that for six of 10 Cuban families, the libreta’s monthly supplies last about a week. Month after month, libreta stores run short, forcing Cubans to scurry from store to store or wait in lines for hours.

Cuba has been trying to end rationing for years because the system is inefficient and encourages hoarding. But new crises, most recently the pandemic, have won it reprieves. Since Raúl Castro took over in 2008, the government has also operated state-run stores that sell food without limitations, but at prices most people can’t afford.


Sometimes this inequity enrages. Today, there is a shortage of powdered milk, which the government has long guaranteed would be available at subsidized prices for young children and ill adults. Cuban mothers are infuriated when they see it at dollar stores, priced out of their reach. “We were used to not having chicken for a month, but milk, that was always sacrosanct,” one mother in Havana told the news agency AFP.

Cuba blames the U.S. embargo for creating many of the shortages that plague the nation — and that helped incite last July’s historic street protests. On Feb. 3, the 60th anniversary of Kennedy’s embargo proclamation, Cuban leaders again called for its end. And so did a number of American politicians, including Rep. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), who first traveled to Cuba in 1979.

“At the end of the day, we are responsible for inflicting a lot of pain on the Cuban people,” McGovern told me in a phone interview. He is one of 114 members of Congress pressing President Biden to suspend regulations that limit travel, remittances and the sale of food and medicine.

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Cuba’s underachieving farms and its inept centrally controlled economy force the country to import most of its food. Since the U.S. embargo was amended in 2000 to exclude food, much of the chicken that Cubans eat — when they can get it — has come from America. But because the U.S. demands cash, in advance, the cash-poor Cuban government often has to shop elsewhere for staples like milk, which comes from as far away as New Zealand.

American farmers and food producers have consistently lobbied to be able to sell to the Cuban market. The trade embargo long ago outlived its usefulness, except at election time, when Florida votes are in play. But are those votes worth it if they mean Cuban kids won’t have milk?

Some in Washington and Miami worry that lifting any restrictions now would reward the Cuban regime, but the members of Congress urging Biden to suspend the sanctions say they are not giving the Cuban government a pass. “We’re just saying our policies have made things a lot worse for the Cuban people,” McGovern said.


Denying humanitarian aid during the worst economic crisis in Cuba in a generation is unworthy of a great nation.

If the powdered milk that fills the shelves of libreta stores is labeled “Made in USA,” there would be little benefit to the increasingly unpopular Cuban government. But it could mean that someday the libreta might not need to be printed again.

Anthony DePalma, a journalist who has covered Latin America for close to three decades, is author of “The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times.”