The Special Period: The Return Of The Cuban Middle Ages / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

 Cubans try to repair an "almendrón" (old American car) in Havana. (SN)
Cubans try to repair an “almendrón” (old American car) in Havana. (SN)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 6 August 2016 — She split the plate into two meager rations. “Mommy, you’re not going to eat?” asked one of the daughters voraciously swallowing the mashed banana without oil, free of protein and with hardly any salt. The image of this skimpy dinner in the summer of 1993 is recalled by Maria Luisa, 59, a Havanan who now fears the return of the hardest moments of the Special Period. Like her, many Cuban families are alarmed by the worsening economic crisis.

Announcements during the last session of the National Assembly about the island’s liquidity problems, amid the falling prices of nickel and oil, have only confirmed what has been palpable on the street for months. The reductions in annual growth forecasts from an initial 2% in GDP to a more realistic 1%, is one of many signs of the worsening living conditions of Cubans.

For much of the island, Venezuela’s collapse is much more significant than the flutter of a butterfly’s wings and its effects could be a true economic tsunami. A scenario that could aggravate the migration crisis in a nation where few are willing to relive the deprivations of the 1990s.

The return of those rigors would be perceived like the reopening of a still painful wound. Once again, the languid faces whose features display hunger. The smell of sweat and grime that fills the air in the absence of hygiene products. People launching themselves en masse on the sea. The images when that period is evoked are like slides passing over and over again before the eyes.

There is no worse nightmare for a nation than to perceive that the past it is trying to distance itself from is returning in an endless loop. But the difference from that first period of misery, is that a new edition is not finding the same naiveté in its protagonists. Cubans know very well what is coming: it is called despair.

Official sources themselves warn of the possibility that the population will not react with the same complacency to the turn of the screw. Karina Marrón, deputy director of the newspaper Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party of Cuba, predicts that “a perfect storm is forming” on the island, due to the reduction in the supply of fuel to the state sector, the increasing blackouts, and the food shortages. Others also predict a situation that could lead to episodes of popular protests like the Maleconazo of August 1994.

Unlike then, the pressure cannot be released by decriminalizing the dollar, opening agricultural markets, or authorizing self-employment.

The most likely outcome is that increasing scarcities will increase the number of people emigrating. The repetition of a drama creates in the minds of those who have lived it the feeling that it will go on forever, without any possibility of changing it or influencing its ends. The looming economic collapse, whose real scope can barely be imagined, could be the shot that sets off the great stampede.

To convince the youngest to stay here and face it is harder every day. For many of them, who grew up practically without toys after the implosion of the Soviet Union and in a society divided by the dual currency system and with a generation in power that is exhibiting a threatening longevity, there is no argument strong enough to make them endure in their own land the effects of a profound economic crisis.

However, the Special Period, a Cuban Middle Ages, a dark age of despair and hunger, never ended. Its worst symptoms have only been appeased with the subsidy coming from Caracas. Cubans have remained in a “survival mode” all this time and the misery has shaped their character, determined their physical abilities and left an irreversible injury on their minds.

Although some, in the last two decades, have managed to work for themselves, benefit from remittances from family abroad, or open thriving businesses filled with the foreigners now flooding the island, Cubans have not lost the feeling of insecurity, the shock of store shelves that can be emptied in a second, and the dread of the so-called Zero Option—a fallback plan devised in the depths of the Special Period to feed the people of each block from a single collective pot.

Maria Luisa’s daughters are already mothers in their turn. They know that if the financial meltdown in the country continues to worsen, they will have to choose between carrying their children on their backs through the Central American jungles or once again lying, telling them: “Eat, eat all your mashed banana, I’m not hungry.”


This text was previously published in El Nuevo Herald