Joel, a fifty-five-year-old engineer, remembers the summer of 1994 when, after finishing his day job, he came home to roast two or three pounds of peanuts. After packaging them in paper cones fashioned from the pages of school textbooks, he went out to sell them on the street and make a little extra money.
As a result of sudden inflation, his salary lost its purchasing power. “At first I was embarrassed,” he recalls. “I was a skilled professional, but I had to feed my children. The Special Period was terrifying. The peso’s value evaporated. My wife and I had to look for other options to survive. I sold peanuts and she became a landlady.”
Cubans over twenty-five would like to forget this period of daily twelve-hour blackouts, one meager hot meal a day and a primitive, subsistence economy. The Special Period most closely resembled a war without aerial bombardment.
Oxen replaced tractors and public transportation turned into an ordeal. Cats, frogs and pigeons became sources of protein in the family diet. Along with food shortages, Cubans had to get around by taking long walks or pedaling heavy Chinese bicycles. People lost weight. Others fainted due to malnutrition and many became ill.
The dollar soared. The exchange rate was one dollar for 150 pesos. An avocado cost 100 pesos and a pound of rice went for 120. The constant pressure of Fidel Castro’s unbending single-mindedness erupted in the so-called Maleconazo* on August 5, 1994. This mass uprising in Havana was sparked because men and women of all ages were desperate to emigrate.
Then came Hugo Chavez. He was like a Caribbean Santa Claus. An ideological ally of Fidel Castro, he hooked up the island to a petroleum pipeline.
Officially, the ongoing economic crisis in Cuba has not ended, though inflation has been reduced. Modest reforms have allowed small private businesses to open and independent farmers to sell surplus produce at market-rate prices, which have improved daily life.
But now people suspect that, given the economic, social and political crisis in Venezuela, we may once again be seeing a period of extensive blackouts, malnutrition and a 35% contraction in GDP looming on the horizon.
Sources have confirmed to Marti Noticias that, starting on July 1, a series of cuts to public services will be implemented. Luis Alberto, a bus driver in Havana’s Lawton district, says that “in the coming days the number of trips along various routes will be reduced in order to save fuel. Some drivers will be laid off and will have to join work brigades or fumigate houses in the fight against the Aedes aegypti mosquito.”
Daniela, an employee of the telecommunications monopoly ETECSA, says that “after a company meeting it was decided to make some adjustments. The amount of fuel for transport will be reduced. Air-conditioners in offices will be turned off after 2:00 PM. Some staff will see their salaries and work schedules cut by half or will be assigned to other duties. It won’t affect all branches of ETECSA, though. Crews working on the internet pilot plan in Old Havana, for example, will not see cuts.”
Nuria, an official at the electric company says, “New measures are definitely being taken to reduce fuel and electricity consumption but not to the degree that many people think. For now, there are no scheduled blackouts planned. The electrical distribution network is powered by domestically produced diesel and is not dependent on Venezuelan oil. But if fuel consumption targets in all the provinces are not met, there could be blackouts.”
A worker at CUPET, the state petroleum company, points out, “So far, there has been no reduction in the number of barrels of oil imported from Venezuela. But it is true they have taken measures to reduce fuel consumption, which has shot up, and to have a larger reserve in case there are negative developments in Venezuela.”
“And what if Nicolas Maduro and his party lose power through a recall vote and the Venezuelan opposition cancels the energy contracts? Is the Cuban government prepared to deal with the loss of this supply?” I ask him.
“I assume the government is prepared for this eventuality but I don’t have any evidence to support this,” he adds.
Conrado, an economist, does not believe this amounts to a second phase of the Special Period but the Venezuelan crisis and the contraction of the Cuban economy in 2016 are worrying signs.
“There’s no denying that, if the state of affairs in Venezuela were to change, our economy would suffer,” says the economist. “But it wouldn’t be like the years that coincided with the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe. Imports and exports are more diversified now than they were then. I must add, however, that the country’s purchasing power does not allow it to buy ninety to a hundred barrels of oil a day on the world market, even with prices at less than thirty dollars a barrel. In the worst case scenario there could be significant fuel reductions in some industrial and service sectors, and blackouts might return, though they would not be as prolonged as they were before.”
For Carlos, a sociologist, the million-dollar question is whether people are prepared for a new period of shortages and blackouts.
“Since 1994, the harshest year of the Special Period, more than 800,000 Cubans have emigrated, either legally or illegally. The country has felt the impact. The emigres included professionals and, more significantly, young people. There was no sector of society — whether it be sports, culture or industry — that has not suffered significant losses due to the exodus.”
He adds, “The aging of the population and the dissatisfaction of most citizens with what they consider to be a bad government places Cuba in a different context today than it was in twenty years ago. In spite of Raul Castro’s economic reforms, emigration has increased. And another Special Period, no matter how mild, would increase social anxiety, which is already quite high. In a hypothetical situation like this, the reaction cannot be predicted.”
Faced with the silence of the official press, Havana residents often turn to the internet to communicate with family members and friends overseas and to search for information on international and independent Cuban websites. This was the case with Elvira, a sixty-six-year-old retiree who — after reading the article “Alarm in Cuba” on the Florida-based Cuban news website Cubanet — decided to look further into the alarming news.
“A few days later, I read a Reuters article about anticipated electricity and fuel cuts in Cuba,” she says. “For me this confirmed that things are serious. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. I told my children that we must be prepared for this Special Period so that we are not as unprotected as we were the last time.”
Misinformation generates rumors. Cuban state media tries to control them by offering the public clear explanations about the country’s 2016-2017 economic and financial situation.
It is the least they can do for those Cubans who who lived through the era, labelled by Fidel Castro the “Special Period in a Time of Peace,” as well as for those who are too young to remember it.
Neither Joel the engineer nor Elvira the retiree think there will be a new Special Period, barring “a time of war.” But neither do they believe the government has a Plan B to deal with the approaching storm.
Marti Noticias, July 4, 2016
*Translator’s note: A spontaneous demonstration named for the seaside promenade and avenue where it began. After Cuban authorities seized four boats headed to the United States without authorization, demonstrators attacked police, looted stores and shouted anti-government slogans. It later spread to other parts of central Havana and over one-hundred people were arrested before it was put down. It served as a prelude to a mass exodus from the country which occurred later that year.