Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 18 April 2019 — Only a few days have passed since the proclamation of the new Castro Constitution, but nobody is talking about it on the streets of the Cuban capital. Of the entire boring speech by the Army General, the central character of the announcement and of his shiny new work, only one sentence –as lapidary and ominous as the last nail that seals a coffin — stuck in the minds of Cubans, and that was when the head of the geriatric power elite made public what was already an open secret: we must “prepare for the worst variant” of the economy. Officially, the feared ghosts of the “Special Period” of the 90’s, which have been circling for the last year, and which the most deluded considered over and done with, have become reality.
Leaving aside the very questionable exceptionality that makes Cuba the only country in the Western world where a new Constitution and a new economic crisis are announced at the same time and on the same stage, the most contradictory fact is that the aforementioned ‘Magna Carta’, Far from adapting to current times and promoting changes that help oxygenate the economy, is designed to consecrate precisely all the elements that guarantee a state of permanent and irremovable crisis, with the sole objective of perpetuating a class in Power.
By keeping the economy strongly centralized, with state ownership and the inefficient management of the State as its main economic pillars, by refusing to open up to a market economy, and by limiting the minimum expression of citizens’ private initiative and economic freedoms and civil rights — not to mention their political rights — it is more of an epitaph than a Constitution.
Before the total lack of will to make changes, and given that no miracle or saving source is seen on the horizon to subsidize the unquestionable failure of the system, Cubans have been plunged into the critical phase of the battle for survival in the midst of shortages, extreme rationing and hordes of people in the few markets where some foods in high demand are still marketed, especially oils and meat.
The shopping center Plaza de Carlos III, in the Havana municipality of Centro Habana, is one of a few favored markets enjoying what we could call “the assortment grace” and, consequently, a habitual scenario of that silent battle. Despite the small and limited variety of the supply of increasingly scarce products, in the meat department of this shopping center — as in the other regular city markets, including the one at 3rd and 70th, in the privileged neighborhood of Miramar — the supply of some of the most popular products has sustained relative regularity, so far.
As a result, there are daily swarming crowds at the Plaza de Carlos III, jam-packed for hours before the gates open that give access from the parking lot, which has been exclusively assigned for individuals who want to do their shopping at the butcher shop. The long line crosses a good part of the parking area, particularly on weekends, when many people also come from the provinces near the capital, or even from more distant places, where the shortages are atrocious.
It is generally unknown which products will go on sale each day, but the feeling of urgency and the need to bring food home does not allow most people viable options. Day after day, the same scene is repeated throughout the opening hours of the market: a constant human tide, forced to dedicate hours of their daily lives carting around food at prices that do not correspond to Cuban wages.
And while hardships are becoming the norm, the exclusions are growing at the same time. At the end of March, the directors of the Gastronomy and Services Company of Centro Habana, in a meeting with the directors of each establishment, reported that it is strictly forbidden for them and their subordinates to even mention the phrase “Special Period.”
At the same time, the employees of the shopping centers that operate in foreign currencies received the same orientation. “Special period,” “crisis,” “shortages,” are some of the terms that have swelled the extensive list of subversive words, as if the terminology — and not the bad performance of the country’s administration — was the cause of the economic setback that dooms Cubans to a state of poverty.
Meanwhile, the regime has been oiling the mechanisms of repression and controls. The National Bus Company has recently begun to apply strong restrictive rules to control the contents of passengers’ baggage. Each traveler can transport up to two liters of edible oil to the interior provinces. There have also been drastic limitations on the allowed weight, with significant added fees for excess baggage.
Other food and hygiene products — such as bath soap, toothpaste and detergent — are also being restricted in baggage. According to the officials in charge of these controls, these measures seek to avoid speculation and smuggling on the black market, but this regulation also affects families who are forced to get their supplies in the capital city, all those necessities that have practically disappeared from the villages in the interior of Cuba.
“And that’s nothing, the worst is yet to come!” predict the most famous who lived through the unspeakable hardships of the 90s as adults, and know that, this time, the situation in the interior, as well as at the regional and international level, is a lot more complex than it was then, and doesn’t leave any room for extemporaneous optimism.
At any case it is a sentence much more realistic than all the unfulfilled promises of the Castro regime through more than 60 years, and more realistic than the Constitution, whose birth, on April 10th, was announced with all the solemnity and fanfare along that of its twin sister: the new Castro economic crisis, maybe the worst of all.
Translated by Norma Whiting