Cuba: Downhill in 2015 / Miriam Leiva

Photo: The elderly are among the most vulnerable people in Cuba (File Photo)
Photo: The elderly are among the most vulnerable people in Cuba (File Photo)

Cubanet, Miriam Leiva, Havana, 29 December 2015 — Cubans greeted 2015 with joy and great expectations, but they are saying goodbye to it sadly and without hope.

Cuban officials will not be able to blame the United States government for the current crisis and the coming catastrophe that popular wisdom senses is coming. Throughout the whole year many people of all ages were heard to say, “Don’t tell me that the fault lies with the Americans,” as well as, “the [Cuban] government does not create openings for Obama’s measures to benefit us.”

Two news items have depressed the people even more: the Venezuelan election results, and the announced supposed growth of 4% in Cuba’s GDP. The first is because Cubans sense the imminent repeat of the blackouts and shortages of the 1990s,* and the second because daily life conditions put the lie to this statistic. The majority of the population has shown indifference toward Chavismo, but they fear that without Venezuela’s economic support, calamities will befall Cuba. Meanwhile, the Cuban government has been seen to be squandering the foreign investment interest that had gained momentum from the new possibilities arising out of the Cuba/US thaw.

Only the top brass within their own environment, and a small number of successful Cubans, were able to prepare holiday feasts with the traditional foods, drinks and ornaments of the season, throwing perhaps-lavish parties with gifts from Santa Claus or the Three Wise Men.

A 96-year-old woman, still a militant member of the Cuban Communist Party, recounted that she receives a monthly pension of 270 Cuban pesos (CUPs)–the equivalent of about US$10. Out of this she pays 57 CUPs towards the financing of her refrigerator, which the government sold to her on credit years ago. A professor for decades and a participant in all the projects of the Revolution, this lady was convinced that Cuba would achieve prosperity. Now she has no money to buy the needed ingredients for a holiday dinner, and even less for a New Year’s celebration. Sometimes her relatives abroad send her remittances, and her grandchildren help her out so that she can eat.

The Catholic churches were filled for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. After a 40-year ban on religion, open evangelization began, thanks to the visits by the three Popes (John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis) and the rapprochement of Fidel and Raúl Castro, garnering international recognition and support for restoring the ethical and moral values destroyed by them. During the homily at the church I attended, the priest explained the significance of the date and mentioned the great adversities that Cubans endure daily, in an effort to fill the congregants with the strength to face them.

In 2015, the population suffered increased prices for agricultural products, brought about by continued low productivity. The government announced that pork, a traditional part of the Christmas Eve meal, would be sold at low prices. Even so, quantity and quality were scarce, which drove the price up to 50 CUPs (about $US 2.00) per pound on the free market, while the average monthly salary is the equivalent of some $25.00.

The shortages affected even the pricey hard-currency stores. All year long, essential medications were unavailable, among them drugs for diabetes, heart problems, and blood pressure, because those are produced abroad were not imported on time, and nor were the raw materials for producing them domestically. Aspirin has been rigorously rationed in Cuba for years. These products were not available, either, in the hard-currency pharmacies.

Regardless, the government produced its modern version of the Roman circus, announcing with great fanfare a supposed opening: WiFi. The new way of deceiving the world and lessening social pressure was to enable precarious connectivity within 50 zones scattered throughout the country, where people of all ages, with great emotion, have been able to see and talk with their relatives and friends in Miami and other points around the globe. For the first time, crowds were allowed to gather on the sidewalks, in the parks, and at the fronts of hotels—well-supervised, of course. In addition, much hard currency was collected. Labeled a great accomplishment of the Cuban Internet, ETECSA announced that new WiFi zones will be activated in 2016—although private homes will remain unconnected.

President Raúl Castro, likely having been informed of popular discontent, declared in the Council of Ministers on 18 December that problems must be addressed, wherever they may be. “We must go where the problems are, we must talk with the people affected, we cannot leave the field open to defeatism,” he said, according to media reports.

More than ever, Cubans are watching freedom and progress in the US, while the Cuban government foments a migration crisis in Central America, taking advantage of the intention of some US legislators to modify policies regarding Cuban migration. Meanwhile, exit visas for Cuban doctors are again restricted, changes are not being implemented that would stimulate industrial and agricultural productivity; approved categories of self-employment are not expanded to include creative work and to compensate it well, it being a source of enrichment for all of society; we have yet to see the multi-million-dollar foreign investments that were predicted; the American president’s measures are blocked, beneficial as they would be for the average Cuban; and repression continues.

At the same time, the government ramped up its “ideological work” and propaganda to counteract the spontaneous displays of the Stars and Stripes that can be seen everywhere. Nevertheless, if Barack Obama were to not modify the existing migration policies, and were he able to ensure that his measures reached the people, he would be received with a jubilation never before shown to any visitor to Cuba, and he could increase the people’s empowerment.

*Translator’s Note: Leiva is referring here to Cuba’s so-called Special Period in the 1990s, a time of acute hardship in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison