Cuban lunchrooms closing, food service boom looms
* Cuban ministries to close lunchrooms, others to follow
* Workers to receive stipend boosting food service demand
* Theft, waste and inefficiency seen as cause
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, Sept 1 (Reuters) - Cuba plans to close state-run office lunchrooms, put more money in employees' pockets and let them fend for themselves as it cuts budgets and food imports and works to wean people off the dole, government sources said.
"The order is already out to close the lunchrooms of the ministries in Havana and pay the employees 15 pesos more per day," a mid-level government administrator said this week, asking that his name not be used.
"If all goes well many more will close in the city and around the country," he added.
The plan, in its pilot phase and which could involve hundreds of workplace cafeterias by next year, will fuel demand for food services provided by private vendors and other state-run food services.
On the always crowded market-lined Tulipan Street in the Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, state and private vendors said they had heard of the measure and some were preparing for the increased demand from employees of the nearby agriculture and transport ministries.
"I'm training two people to help me as I can't meet the demand that's coming. I have to think big," pizza maker Jorge Perez Diaz said.
Roselia, an employee at a state-run cafeteria who asked that her last name not be used, was less enthusiastic.
"They are going to have to give us more resources and employees because what there is now will not do even to start," she said.
Cuba, like other Caribbean countries, has been hit hard by the global financial crisis, which has slashed revenue from key exports and tourism, dried up credit and reduced foreign investment.
The government has cut imports by 30 percent and local budgets by around 10 percent, implemented energy savings and adopted other measures this year to cope with the crisis.
President Raul Castro has railed against government inefficiency, pilfering and hand outs since taking over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro last year. Last month he called for "elimination of free services and improper subsidies -- with the exception of those called for in the constitution (healthcare and education)."
The decision to close lunchrooms comes even as the government considers turning over some retail food services to workers as cooperatives and perhaps increasing licenses issued for private food vendors, frozen in recent years.
Popular state television commentator Ariel Terrero recently suggested that sectors such as food services could perform better if they were run in a new way.
Terrero pointed to Castro-led reforms in the island's agriculture that include decentralization of decision-making, greater emphasis on private cooperatives and farms, and the leasing of state lands to about 80,000 individuals.
"The leasing of state lands, which in the end is the placing of state property in the hands of producers, could be applied in other sectors, for example food services ..." he said.
The lunchrooms are a major source of black market activity, with a minimum 20 percent of the tons of imported food assigned every day stolen, the government believes. Waste is also rampant.
A local economist said the plan killed numerous birds with one stone, from theft and employee grumbling over poor lunchroom meals to the need to transport supplies and supervise the lunchrooms, but what still needed working out was how the new demand for food on the street would be met.
"The daily lunch stipend represents a doubling of Cuba's average base pay of just over 400 pesos per month and will greatly increase demand on the street for state and family-based food service providers," he said, asking his name not be used.
The economist said many employees were expected to bring a meal to work, but others would buy the sandwiches, pizzas or bigger box lunches of rice, beans and pork or chicken typically offered by private vendors and state-run food services for 10 to 20 pesos.