A Lighter Version of Cuba’s Special Period / Iván García

Photo: Ernesto Perez Chang, Cubanet.
Photo: Ernesto Perez Chang, Cubanet.

Iván García, 23 July 2016 — It was announced on Friday, July 8 that Cuba had experienced an economic recession in the first half of this year and that there would be cutbacks in fuel consumption. If the country had a stock exchange or a convertible national currency, their fall would have been dramatic.

It was a black Friday in Cuba, where there is not even a semblance of Wall Street and the local currency is nothing more than paper. Businesses and direct investments that increase GDP are scarce. Prominent businesspeople and well-known multinationals survey the scene like birds of prey yet do not dare to swoop down on their targets.

Cuba is a veritable marketing operation. While there is an abundance of optimistic headlines, the public perceives no real impact from an improved economy. More than a few Cubans feel cheated.

Just ask Dario, a man who takes care of cars and motorcycles in a parking lot in eastern Havana, his opinion about the looming austerity and you will notice the anger in his terse reply.

“Man, don’t these guys (in the regime) realize they are playing with fire? How long will people tolerate this ’prosperous and sustainable’ socialism? I don’t believe any citizen of any country in the world would put up with what we Cubans put up with. I don’t know what we have done to deserve such a shameless and dishonest government,” he stresses as he shelters from the blazing sun under the covered entryway of a grocery store.

The first round of cutbacks, which have occurred amid hot weather and shortages, have already caused widespread discontent.

“I spent three hours waiting for the P5. A bus inspector told me it used to come every fifteen or twenty minutes at peak hours. Now the wait is forty minutes or longer. With this new Special Period, you can’t venture outside anymore,” says a woman who has just attended a theater performance with her granddaughter.

Air conditioners at stores, markets and business offices are turned off from eight in the morning until one in the afternoon. “But my company doesn’t turn it on until after three in the afternoon,” says an employee of the telecommunications monopoly ETECSA.

“You can’t go into the stores. The heat is unbearable; it feel like a microwave. Then there are the scowls of the employees. The best thing we can do is to escape by boat and for anyone who can to leave this shit country,” says Gustavo, a retiree who spends two hours scouring the shops in the old part of the city looking for a six-pack of malt sodas and two containers of fruit-flavored yogurt.

People are feeling the impact of cutbacks in fuel consumption and services. However, the government has said that, for the moment, there are no plans to cut electricity.

“The ones forced to spend huge amounts of time at bus stops or having to do their banking and shopping without air conditioning are the people. There aren’t any electricity cuts in hotels and resorts, the air conditioning there isn’t turned off and food isn’t scarce. If by chance blackouts do return, I think people will explode. We can’t take it anymore,” muses Manuel, a construction worker.

The new belt tightening is affecting salaries in some segments of the workforce and could cause the prices of certain goods and services to skyrocket.

“Because of changes in bus schedules, I now fumigate houses for a living,” says a laid-off bus driver. “I was making eleven to twelve hundred pesos a month, which they were ripping me off in taxes. Now I only make six hundred pesos as a fumigator. I would be better off staying home and seeing what else I could do.”

Several taxi cooperatives have already raised fares and cut back on the number of rides. “It’s impossible to get a taxi from Vedado to La Palma. Now the taxi drivers divide the trip into thirds and you have to spend thirty pesos to get to La Palma. If you’re going to one of the beaches in the east, the trip will cost at least three or four convertible pesos (75 to 100 non-convertible pesos),” notes Diana, a hairdresser.

Rigoberto, an independent taxi driver, says, “On Sunday and Monday I went around to some gas stations but they didn’t have fuel. Some people were selling petroleum for twelve pesos and gasoline for twenty. If prices go up a lot, I’ll raise the fare to twenty pesos a ride.”

Orlando, a produce warehouse manager, hopes fuel cuts do not affect agriculture. “If Acopio* was not transporting the crops on time before and harvests were being lost, things could get complicated if there are fuel shortages. And if food supplies becomes scarce, ’the cane (the situation) will get sliced in three’ and you can expect outbreaks of mass violence. There have already been two cases in Havana,” he says.

In a country mired in a continuing economic crisis that has lasted for twenty-seven years, it seems too much to ask for new sacrifices from citizens and for more austerity in their daily lives.

In an ultra-sensitive but politically apathetic society, the disastrous combination of poverty and the inability to emigrate is like adding phosphorous to gasoline. Remember August 1994.

 *Translator’s note: The state-run procurement and distribution agency.