By WILL WEISSERT (AP)
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 month.
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.