Playing dominoes under a battery powered lamp during a blackout in Cuba.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 23 September 2019 — As of the beginning of next year, Cuba will have spent more time under the rules of the Special Period in Times of Peace than it did trying to comply with the fundamental laws of the so-called Real Socialism.

To date, there has been no reversal of the principal measures taken at the beginning of the decade of the ’90s to implement the Special Period, or, and it’s the same thing, to interrupt the construction of socialism. Even those that were considered temporary concessions remain in force and have even been strengthened.

We discuss the date of this proclamation. On 29 August 1990, the State newspaper Granma, referring to the decline in trade with socialist countries — an inevitable side effect of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the coming collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc — warned: “These events that are taking place are beginning to transform the life of our country from a normal situation to a special period in peacetime. We have to be prepared for it.”

One of the fundamental causes that led the Cuban Government to proclaim the Special Period was the Soviet decision that, as of January 1990, bilateral trade relations with Cuba would no longer have preferential treatment, but would be normalized, on the basis of World market prices and convertible currency.

That decision would affect 98% of fuels, 86% of raw materials, 63% of food and 80% of machinery and equipment that the country imported from the socialist countries, members of the Council of Mutual Economic Aid (CAME), to which Cuba had belonged since 1972 and which was dissolved at the end of June 1991.

Cuba’s Official Gazette of 1993 announces the decriminalization of convertible currencies. (14ymedio)

But it was not until July 26, 1993 when Fidel Castro announced the fundamental measures to confront the crisis, including the decriminalization of the possession and use of hard currency in the country and new laws to facilitate foreign investment. What was understood as “the dollarization of the economy” was formalized in Decree Law 140 that Fidel Castro signed on August 13, just as he celebrated his 67th birthday.

The decriminalization of hard currency was not presented as an opening reform but as something that was done “under the conditions of the Special Period and because of the economic difficulties that the country is going through.” It was also justified on the grounds that the measure would contribute to “reducing the number of acts characterized as punishable, which will alleviate and favor the work of the police and the courts of justice.”

That year, before the end of September, the corresponding decrees had been issued that reauthorized self-employment and converted part of the state’s land into the property of cooperatives.

The stores that sold industrial products under the rationing system became baptized as las shopping, where remittances from emigrated relatives began to be used to buy merchandise, in many cases for twice its usual commercialization price.

This was the Special Period. Prolonged blackouts, food shortages, lack of transportation and factory closures were the problems that forced the Government to decree these measures.

The Special Period did not end when those problems diminished and even disappeared, and will not end until the country returns to operating under the strict rules of Real Socialism or its leaders declare that they will no longer comply with those rules and honestly admit the unfeasibility of the system.

The difficulty for the former option is that the Soviet Union would have to be resurrected and Cuba’s status as a subsidized appendix of the once socialist camp would have to be restored. For the latter option, new political actors would have to be involved, something very unlikely.

If, in almost 30 years, no one has dared to formally terminate the Special Period it is because those who rule are at a crossroads between the impossible and the unacceptable. They have passed up the opportunity to formalize the termination of the Special Period in three Party Congresses and in the proclamation of a new Constitution of the Republic.

Now there is a new situation, caused by the difficulties of Venezuela and the resurgence of economic and trade restrictions imposed by the United States Government.

Now we fear the return of the same problems that led to the measures of the Special Period (prolonged blackouts, food shortages, lack of transport, factory closures) but the solutions from that time have exhausted their effects, and even created new problems, like those derived from the dual currency system. Now we should go further in the unequivocal direction of reforms that create openings, and never retreat from them.

While it is true that in comparison with the 80s and 90s the economy has diversified and the country has income from tourism, remittances and the export of skilled labor — most significantly healthcare workers — a subjective element must also be taken into account: the human factor.

A population that escapes more and more from the informational and cultural monopoly generated by the Communist Party, the absence of convincing leadership, and the weight of the accumulation of problems in basic issues such as housing, transport and shortages, result in widespread discontent and in the decline in “revolutionary enthusiasm,” which has provided the only support for the will to endure difficulties without protesting.

In Cuba, nobody knows for sure what normality is, but there is a perception that it is incompatible with the system that governs the country. Both the Special Period that began in the 1990s, and the recent so-called “current situation” arise precisely when subsidies are interrupted, whether Soviet or Venezuelan, subsidies that maintained an artificial standard of living in Cuba. And the lack of normality in relations with our powerful neighbor to the north further complicates matters.

As the Island cannot move to a different planet or return to the past, all that remains is to make changes. Nothing from another world, simply move to normality.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.