There are many economic injustices in Communist Cuba, admitted one of Fidel Castro's Cabinet ministers, "but it's still less unjust than capitalism."
One of the most worrisome injustices the Cubans admit to is the distribution of scarce consumer goods, luxuries like restaurant meals and high-quality Cuban rum and cigars. Just as in capitalist countries, they go primarily to those who have the money to pay for them.
According to Eugenio Baleri, president of the ministry-level Institute for Internal Demand, such inequities are temporary and unavoidable traffic jams on the long road to Communism.
"In this period," Baleri said, "it is not possible for everyone in Cuba to be equal."
Despite enormous economic strides over the past decade -figures quoted here say gross domestic production nearly doubled in the past five years alone - Cuba still does not have enough consumer goods to supply all of its more than 9 million people equally, especially with those goods that are considered "desires" rather than needs.
The fact that "desires" are now being considered at all marks a new stage in the Cuban revolution and a turning point that leaves behind nearly two decades of preoccupation with developing and industrialized economy and supplying all Cubans with basic needs.
"We've started to work on quality more than quantity in many things now," Balier said. "Before 1971, we weren't thinking about anything but survival."
By 1971, Cuba felt it was well on its way to providing each of its citizens with what it considered bare essentials -food, clothing, housing and education. Billions of dollars invested in agriculture, industry, schools and public housing were beginning to show substantial results.
At the same time, because virtually every necessity here is supplied and regulated by the government and is very cheap, rationed or free, employed Cubans - that is, nearly every adult - found their pockets filling with money and nothing to buy.
At one point in the early 1970s, Baleri said, the government estimated that Cubans had more than $3.4 billion in cash socked away in drawers and closets. Since banking interest rates early stages, there was little incentive to keep savings accounts.
There was so much money around, Baleri said, that "everybody in Cuba could have stopped working for a year" and not suffered a loss of income.
Enter the Institute for Internal Demand. Created in 1971, the institute was charged with determining what Cubans need and what extras they would spend their money on if they were available, as well as deciding what goods should be produced and how to distribute them.
The first priority was to make sure Cubans were using what they already had. Although the Cuban fishing industry had quadrupled its annual catch in less than 15 years as a result of massive government effort to provie a protein-rich substitute for expensive beef, Cubans traditionally did not like to eat seafood.
They quickly learned not only to like fish, but to consider it a patriotic food. In a massive institute-sponsored indoctrination program, schoolchildren and factory workers were given free fish lunches. Propaganda programs described the nutritional benefits fo fish, taught new, creative ways to cook different varieties, and hailed the successes of the fishing fleet.
Now, said Baleri proudly, "only very old people and real hard liners" don't eat fish.
After making sure that everyone was fed the guaranteed minimum of three ounces of protein per day, the institute set about discovering ways to soak up some of the extra cash in private hands, while at the same time giving at least some Cubans a modicum of choice.
One way was to sell beef at high prices to those who tired of the daily fare of unlimited fish. In luxury restaurants now open to the public, Cubans can now have steak dinners as often as they can afford a check averaging $20 per steak.
Then, Baleri said, "We started analyzing what luxuries we could produce in out own factories for domestic consumption," beginning with high-quality Cuban rum and cigars previously produced only for export.
Today, Cubans can buy for $28 a bottle - export-quality "Havana Club rum, which sells at special stores to foreigners for $6 a bottle.
Such luxuries as automobiles, television sets and electric fans are imported and distributed according to a Cuban's revolutionary contribution - decided by his coworkers - and ability to pay. At one of Havana's few department stores, Cubans can buy imported stereo systems at three times the price, in the United States pantyhose for a mere $8 a pair and poor quality aluminum saucepans for $22.
While the average Cuban laborer takes home approximately $120 per month, a university-educated economist or scientists may make as much as dollars $500. The highly paid worker, Baleri said, can, with the approval of a committee at his place of work, buy a car or a refrigerator. On his own, he can "smoke, dink, go to the most sophisticated restaurants, or travel abroad."
Eventually, Baleri said, such luxuries will be available to all Cubans. For now, however, the necessities of providing higher-level workers with higher pay - a disequilibrium that will eventually be eliminated - and the still-limited production of nonessential consumer goods means that such goods must be exchanged for cash.
The institute is now studying what luxuries to mass-produce first. Now that nearly every Cuban is guaranteed at least a small apartment in a concrete housing project, Baleri said, "They want nice furniture."