Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Wednesday, 7 October 2009 10:56 UK

Cuba 'to end' free-lunch scheme

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

A worker eats in the factory canteen during lunch time in Havana. Photo: 5 October 2009
The Cuban state provides about 3.5 million free lunches a day

They say there is no such thing as a free lunch - but for years the majority of Cubans have been given free meals at state-run workplace canteens.

But in a bid to balance the budget, the Cuban authorities are about to abolish the scheme.

This week, four government ministries closed all their free lunchrooms across the country.

Instead, workers are being given an extra 15 pesos (70 cents) a day to buy their own meals.

If this trial is successful, then all such workplace canteens could be abolished.

Monthly ration card

It is a small tentative start to what could become a major overhaul of communist Cuba's welfare state.

The state provides about 3.5 million free lunches a day.

The government says in these tough economic times it can no longer afford $350m a year it spends on the scheme.

In his most recent address to parliament, President Raul Castro said subsidies "are ineffective or, even worse, make some feel that they don't need to work".

Next on the list could be the monthly ration card. Every family here receives a supply of heavily subsidised staples, such as rice, beans, cooking oil and chicken. Most of it is at below cost price.

There has been talk in the Cuban press of this system being replaced by some form of means-tested support, where only those in real need receive such help.

The move to close workplace canteens is also seen as an attempt to cut the amount of food stolen from state-run enterprises.

Workplace theft is common in Cuba, where it is viewed as a way of supplementing salaries, which average less than $20 a month.

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