The Cuban Crisis and the Cycle of Survival

The coolers of the neighborhood stores remain empty and in the only “meat” available to buy is canned sardines. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 15 May 2019 — From a balcony, the woman sees the refrigerated truck that supplies the store on the corner. She doesn’t lose a second and shouts: “Maricusa, the chicken arrived!” In a few minutes the whole neighborhood is a hive of people running with bags in hand to the small state market where, for three weeks, they have not supplied any type of meat product. They will still have to wait three hours while the merchandise is unloaded and then there will be a limit of two packages per person.

This scene can occur in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, the city of Camagüey or any small town on this island. The food shortage that has worsened in recent months has made the harsh daily life of 11 million people more complicated. If before you could barely escape the cycle of survival of looking for money — often by illegal means — to be able to buy food, wait for hours at a bus stop and immerse yourself in the black market to buy certain products; now the time needed to put something on your plate has multiplied by three and the difficulties to find it, by ten.

At first, there was no flour, so at the end of 2018 the greatest difficulty was buying bread or cookies. As the Christmas holidays neared, the alarm bells began to go off that the shortages were increasing. Pork, a virtual Dow Jones of the domestic economy, soared in price and by April had reached 70 Cuban pesos a pound, the equivalent of two days’ salary for a Cuban professional. Chicken, ground meat, hamburgers and hot dogs followed. These latter were the food that for years had supported the daily life of hundreds of thousands of families, because it was the product with a greatest proportion in number of units (10 sausages per package) relative to its price.

Cuban officialdom has justified such absences with a mixture of triumphalist and evasive rhetoric. They attribute the deficit to problems with international suppliers, the poor state of the milling industry to the processing of imported wheat, and blame those who monopolize merchandise as the cause of food shortages for all. In parallel, the Plaza of the Revolution avoids using the word ‘crisis’ and has also censored in the national media any mention of the concept of the ‘Special Period’, the euphemism applied to the economic disaster suffered by the island in the ‘90s after the disintegration of the USSR and the socialist camp.

In parallel with the refrigerators in the stores continuing to be empty, the ideological discourse rises in tone. This more incendiary rhetoric seeks to blame the US embargo for the shortages, although economists and analysts agree that the real cause of this fall comes from Venezuela, which has significantly cut oil shipments to the island. Havana resold a part of the crude it received from Venezuela on the international market and thus obtained fresh currency, an injection of life for an economy with low productivity and an excessive state apparatus, inefficient and expensive to maintain.

While many expected that the harsh circumstances would lead the administration of Miguel Diaz-Canel to promote an opening in the private sector, relax controls, lower taxes to promote entrepreneurship and relax the draconian customs regulations, the authorities have, in fact, moved in the opposite direction and have proceeded to ration many foods that until recently could be bought in an uncontrolled way. These measures have awakened the worst ghosts of a population traumatized by what they experienced less than two decades ago.

Meanwhile, discontent has not been made to wait, and this time it is powered by the new technologies that are allowing Cubans to report on and present images of the worsening quality of life. Thus, a one hundred percent Cuban challenge has recently emerged in social networks. With the hashtag #LaColaChallenge [TheLineChallenge], Facebook and Twitter are flooded with photos of lines, crushes of people trying to buy food, and annoyed customers waiting for hours outside a store.

Unlike during those hard years after the fall of the USSR, Cubans now seem unwilling to endure the crisis in silence. Mobile phones and the recently opened mobile web connection service have significantly changed the way the island is narrated. While food is scarce and expensive, citizen dissatisfaction is everywhere in sufficient quantities to become a mechanism of pressure.


This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.

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