If we Cubans thought that our hardships and shortages of all kinds had hit bottom, forget it. It is the twentieth anniversary of the most severe and extensive economic crisis that the island suffered in all its history. Those were hard years. Very hard.
It is still fresh in my memory. Blackouts of up to 16 hours. Undernourished people with tattered clothes, lining up at cafes to drink a vile brew made from orange and grapefruit peels. My mother, how could I forget, thinned down greatly, lost some teeth, and had to sell her most precious treasure — a fabulous collection of Brazilian music — for only $40, so she could shop for some food.
In 1989 in Cuba a violent decline in people’s daily lives had begun. Not that we had lived well. No. We were deprived of all kinds of essential freedoms, and we were third-class citizens in our own country.
But we had a relatively efficient health system, and the ration card had a bit more variety. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the door was closed to Fidel Castro for oil and Soviet rubles. Then we entered the age of indigence.
The economy shrank by 35 percent, and Castro clung even tighter to power, in the style of Kim Il Sung. Faced with the prospect of people dropping like flies in public view, he made lukewarm reforms. He legalized the currency of his enemy, the United States, and allowed some work to be opened to self-employment.
That was the lifesaver, because Havana is not Pyongyang. Everything good that happened to us in those years came at the hand of dollars or foreign capital investment. Then the government of the Castro brothers, amid fears that economic reforms could cost them the presidential chair, put on all kinds of brakes.
Foreign companies have declined to a minimum. And just as we’ve marked two decades since the dire national situation, the world is brought down by a deep economic crisis. No one has been spared. In order not to cause panic, the official media have started a mild campaign about how much the global crisis has affected us.
Already several nickel companies have closed, because of the depressed price of that metal on the world market. Those affected talk of the fall in tobacco exports and how few tourists are coming to the island. Obviously, these are not times for vacationing.
The solution, as always, is to ask for more sacrifice — and still more — from the exhausted Cuban population. Another turn of the screw. There is no mention that the culprit is the monumental economic inefficiency of a system that runs counter to human nature. Nor is there talk of allowing Cubans to set up small and medium-sized businesses.
They are entrenched in their far-fetched theories of sovereignty and two-bit nationalism. And of course we ordinary Cubans are to blame for the disaster, we who are asked to cut back, not to think about the future and, instead, “to be loyal to the supreme leader.”
According to an economist, there is so little money in the state coffers that “about two hundred thousand barrels of the oil that Venezuela sells us at preferential prices are being resold on the world market, because of the lack of liquidity.”
It is the height of folly. It’s like being hungry and selling food. Under the state of affairs emerging on the Island, this summer the majority of citizens will have to punch a new hole in the already tight belt. Another one.
Photo: almamagazine, Flickr.
Translated by: Tomás A.