Will There Be a New ‘Special Period’ in Cuba? / Ivan Garcia

Lines like this, to buy bread in Santa Clara, have been seen throughout the island. Because they have more inhabitants, the longest lines are those in Havana. And not only to buy bread, also eggs and pork, among other products with shortages and with higher and higher prices. Image by Laura Rodríguez taken from Cubanet.

Ivan Garcia, 20 December 2018 — Even in the best stage of Fidel Castro’s Revolution there was always something missing. In the 1980s, thanks to the blank check circulating from Moscow, the ration book distributed half a pound of beef per person, drinking a glass of milk was not a luxury and jams, juices and wines and other products from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Albania and other socialist countries of Eastern Europe were sold on shelves in the parallel market.

The daily life of the people was tied to the olive-green State up to levels that bordered on delirium. A house on the beach, a black-and-white television or a simple alarm clock was bought as a bonus for an outstanding worker awarded by the union.

Celebrating Christmas, listening to American music or wearing cowboy-style Levi’s were symptoms of ideological diversionism. The regime was never able to manage an efficient transport service on the iland, or sell quality footwear or build with good taste.

There have been stages worse than others. But it always returned to the starting point: inefficiency, low harvests, shortage of food and long lines to acquire them. Castroist socialism was noted for being more political than economic. Now, not having generous sponsors, such as the former USSR and the Venezuelan wallet of Hugo Chávez, Cubans live in a perpetual economic crisis.

Alina, a retired teacher, says that in the environment she perceives a new ‘Special Period‘. “There is nothing in the hard currency stores. I can make a list of things that are in short supply. The government has dismantled the sales posts that were in all neighborhoods and due to the transportation crisis, it is more difficult to go to Centro Habana, Vedado or Miramar to buy food, clothing and toiletries. And in the markets in national currency forget it. By medical prescription I must take yogurt and yogurt bags only arrive by the few on Tuesdays.”

Diego, an economist, considers that although there are similarities, the situation is different. “The economic crisis that took place after the [failed] Ten Million Ton Sugar Harvest in 1970 was a typical case of inflation. The population had money, but the stores were empty and prices skyrocketed. In the decade of 1980s the economy stabilized, but in 1990s, when we could no longer count on the subsidies from the European socialist camp, the country was led to the ’Special Period’. It has been the most difficult stage in these 60 years. Today the Cuban economy is bad. When you check the different production indices, you notice that the majority decreases or hardly grows. Growth in the food sector does not meet demand. The fall is so dramatic that these small growths are like a drop of water in the ocean,” he says and predicts:

“It is probable that in 2019, if the government does not carry out urgent and large-scale economic transformations, we will reach a scenario of deeper economic crisis. A large segment of workers, who receive only symbolic salaries would be even more affected, as would be retirees. Those who have access to  hard currency or own prosperous private businesses may not be so affected. That crisis is around the corner and can be tackled with proactive measures of an economic nature, although always some sector will be affected.”

Yoandry, a musician, thinks that “you do not have to be an economist to see that next year it will be a bad one. Brother, they are missing essential products for the poorest. From bread and rice for free to medicines. Add to that the prices of root vegetables, pork and vegetables have grown between 10 and 20 percent compared to five years ago. And salaries do not grow along with that silent inflation that Cubans are experiencing.”

Diana, an engineer, confesses that “I do not want to relive the nightmare of the Special Period, but that possibility is latent. The shortages in hard currency stores and in national currency stores are alarming. The prices of articles increase every year. Even on the black market, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get quality fish, shrimp or beef. And there is no longer anywhere to escape. Obama threw out the wet foot/dry foot policy and people who decide to emigrate can only try their luck in Uruguay, Chile or another South American country.”

Leydis, a graduate in art history, parked her diploma in a drawer and decided to try her luck as a mule. “I was a girl during the Special Period, but I remember the blackouts and they started selling Chinese bicycles. If the government does not change its economic policy, it will be very hard years, so it should stop tightening the screws on the self-employed, who are the only ones who grow up in Cuba and, in addition, are our main clients, who buy from us the bulk of the little things that the mules bring.”

José Antonio, unemployed, says that in the country there is a large number of people who, like him, have to live off ‘invention’. “To find me some pesos, I go to the stonemason, I carry debris, and I go to the dump on Calle 100 to find among the trash things that I sell later. However bad the thing gets, the poor adapt to the situation. If a new economic crisis erupts, at least I will not be the worst off. Those who suffer are the rich, those who live in good houses and eat breakfast and lunch every day.”

In a portico near the Plaza Roja of la Víbora, south of Havana, José Antonio expects to earn twenty or thirty Cuban pesos from the sale of objects found in the trash. Breathe a little fresh air, from a dirty backpack he takes out a plastic bottle and a stew of distilled alcohol, the drink of the forgotten.

For many in Cuba, including José Antonio, the Special Period has never ended. And again ordinary Cubans will not be able to celebrate Christmas Eve, Christmas and the arrival of a New Year (which in 2019 coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Castro Revolution) as they wish, with enough money and food to enjoy it with family and friends.