HAVANA (AP) - A program that provided state-subsidized smokes to Cuban seniors is headed for the ash heap.
The communist government announced Wednesday it is cutting cigarettes from its monthly ration books effective Sept. 1, the latest in a series of small steps toward fully eliminating subsidies for food and other basic items that impoverished islanders depend on.
Cubans 55 and older had been eligible to receive three packs of "strong" cigarettes and a pack of milds - 80 cigarettes altogether per month - for 6.50 pesos, or the equivalent of about 30 cents, using their ration books at state-run distribution centers.
The island's lowest-quality cigarettes, the only kinds subsidized, normally cost 7 pesos, or about 33 cents, per pack, while imported or topflight domestic brands can go for $3 or more apiece.
Until the 1990s, all Cubans 18 and older received a monthly allotment of cigarettes, but the loss of billions of dollars in annual subsidies from the collapsed Soviet Union forced officials to scale back subsidized smoking. Now even older smokers are out of luck.
"I'm insulted because it's another thing they are taking away from us," said Angela Jimenez, a 64-year-old retiree who lives on a monthly pension of 200 pesos, or about $10.40. Jimenez first took up smoking at 17 but says she will now have to quit because she won't be able to afford them. "I don't know how far they're going to go with this," she said of the subsidy cuts.
The government's announcement made no mention of the health benefits of quitting smoking, saying only that the move was "part of the steps gradually being applied to eliminate subsidies."
Cigarettes are just the latest item to be scrapped from the ration book: Peas and potatoes were dumped in November.
In an additional cost-cutting measure this summer, the government shuttered scores of workplace cafeterias that had fed state employees for virtually nothing, instead giving qualifying Cubans stipends to buy their own food. So far, nearly 250,000 people have seen their government lunches disappear - and officials say further cuts are coming.
Under the existing subsidy system, even nonsmokers accepted cigarette rations, which they then sold on the black market, charging at least 2½ times the subsidized price per pack. Others traded them for rationed items such as salt, sugar, beans, meat, rice, eggs or bread.
Jesus Casanova, a 58-year-old security guard, described the quality of the rationed cigarettes as "awful" - but he collected them every month anyway to feed his elderly neighbor's smoking habit.
"He is a very poor man and he doesn't have the money to smoke anything else," Casanova said. "But now even that's over. I don't know what he's going to do."
Casanova prefers cigars, generally finishing one slender stogie during his 12-hour shift. The island's world-famous cigars were never provided as part of the ration program, however.
Fidel Castro, once the most famous cigar smoker in Cuba - if not the world - famously gave them up under doctors' orders in 1985, and has sporadically urged his fellow islanders to quit.
President Raul Castro's government is trying to cut the weight of subsidies for Cuba's cash-poor economy, a plan that could eventually mean eliminating the entire ration book. A full-page editorial in the Communist Party's Granma newspaper in October suggested the idea, which had long seemed unthinkable.
Critics argue the moves break with what had been a sacred covenant of the Castro brothers' 1959 revolution: that socialism would not make people rich, but would provide all Cubans with at least the basics.
Authorities say their goal is to encourage more productivity and free the state from a crushing economic burden.
Even with the changes, the state still pays for or heavily subsidizes nearly everything including education, health care, housing and transportation. Then again, in a country where almost everyone works for the state, the government only pays salaries of about $20 per month.
The ration program began in 1962 as a temporary way to guarantee basic food for all Cubans in the face of Washington's then-new embargo. It is designed to tide people over, providing a few weeks of food, as well as other occasional staples such as laundry soap and toothpaste.