Was the “Special Period” a Cuban Invention?

Dmitri Prieto

Portal peligroso. Foto: Juan Suárez
Dangerous walkway. Photo: Juan Suárez

HAVANA TIMES — The “Special Period” is still used to describe the era that began in Cuba in the mid-1990s. Fidel Castro had warned the Cuban people that there were chances that the USSR – the Caribbean island´s main supplier and trade partner at that time – might collapse and disintegrate.

He announced that if this was to happen, then the Cuban Government would put a strategic plan into effect “in times of peace” which had already previously been designed for instances of war and a complete naval blockade of the archipelago: the “Special Period”. This was the original concept behind this term.

People don’t agree on whether the “Special Period” has already ended or continues on (26 years later, almost half of the post-Revolutionary era in Cuba). The 1990s were years of grave structural economic crisis and society also changed. Today, many of these changes can be seen, especially with respect to the generations that were born and/or grew up after 1990: there’s no doubt about it, many of the ways that Cuba understands and lives its reality today, aren’t the same as before. Also, immediately after 1991, “salaries weren’t enough” to guarantee the basic subsistence of those who make up the majority: the precarious.

However, the “hard core” Special Period, the one in the ‘90s, was for Cuba (at that time and not so much today) the time for “inventions”. “Inventing” became a synonym for “working in the informal economic sector”, but there were real inventions too, precarious technologies conceived to maintain daily life, in the city and in the countryside, at work, at home or on the go.

Society managed to sustain itself off of its own inventions, and much of the typical authoritarian government distanced itself or withdrew from certain private environments; we don’t know if this will be forever, or whether we will see its tentacles there someday again. However, we do know that a large part of this survival was due to the forced and, at the same time, spontaneous de-centralized emergency “self-management” by the people themselves.

I’m interested in the subject of inventions, of the “socialist” and “post-socialist” worlds. That’s why I’m still a fan of looking up Soviet intellectual-technological research which made the USSR so famous once this country opened up the Space age to humanity, in 1957.

I’m fascinated by the work of its spacecraft engineers-designers still doesn’t have an exact translation…), many of whom were World War 2 veterans (1941-1945) and almost all of whom served in the Gulag, during Stalin’s rule, a situation which didn’t break their poetic inclination to dream and their determination to make their dreams come true.

Pobisk Kuznetsov. Foto: skirbr.ru
Pobisk Kuznetsov. Photo: skirbr.ru

Among the many engineers-designers (the most famous of which were those who worked in aviation, the first syllables of their surnames continue to identify Russian and Ukrainian aeroplane models), I recently came across a little-known one, who was also presented as “the last”, Pobisk Kuznetsov.

The bearer of an extremely difficult name to pronounce (in Russian too!) and whose series of letters attempted to abbreviate the phrase “The October Generation, Fighters and Builders of Communism” – wow! – in a single word. Kuznetsov (1924 – 2000) belonged to the generation of Soviets born in the immediate years following the 1917 Revolution and who came to believe a lot of what Marxism proposed:

A new man and all of that, conquering galaxies and biological immortality included; looking to break away from the old and to create new universal laws, physical expression and practical application. A meeting point between social and natural sciences and the arts. I also had the privilege of experiencing a part of this.

Well it turns out that Pobisk Kuznetsov, after having fought in the War, and after his prison sentence that followed in the Gulag (1944-1954), where he met people who were just as fascinating as himself, he dedicated himself to developing chemical technologies whose principles led him to conceive new organizational models for economic processes throughout society on the whole.

He worked in designing the closed ecological systems for spacecraft which compared to “Spaceship Earth”. He incorporated cybernetic concepts and thermal dynamics into his analysis and even went on to lead a “Think tank” with a self-organized consultancy right in the middle of the Soviet 1970s (for which he just about escaped being arrested again). He even came to personally meet the extremely controversial US politician Lyndon LaRouche (but that´s another story). Kuznetsov’s main idea seemed to be exploring the viability of an economic system based directly on the movement of physical objects (“physical economy”).

And then, reading Pobisk Kuznetsov’s biography on the web, I almost fell off of my chair.

The biography states, on page 16, that since November 18, 1977, by directive No.  480/278 from the USSR’s State Committee for Science and Technology, he was named the main designer-engineer of the “COUNTRY’S MANAGEMENT SYSTEM IN TIMES OF SPECIAL PERIOD”.

The end.

Everything fits into its place: the USSR elite designed a “special period”, using their first-class scientists, where the country would function under a management system which would be extremely different from “normal” times (a Special Period would be: atomic bombs, I guess, people living in bunkers, cities in smoking toxic ruins and the countryside turned into a radioactive desert)… And by some appropriate channel, probably the Ministries of Defense, this concept reached Cuba.

We weren’t original here.

By hook or by crook, it was the Cuban people themselves who “managed the country” – and in that we had to be original – so that we could survive here in Cuba during the 1990s. At that time, we needed very little of these bizarre “universal laws!”, although maybe we did need the law of mutual support among people quite a bit. Mutual support which is now in deficit, like so many other outcomes of the harshest Special Period in Cuba: a deficit which, in the end, is endemic and characteristic of practically every state-run economy.

But that’s another story…

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

2 thoughts on “Was the “Special Period” a Cuban Invention?

  • Excellent research! Now we know the origins of the term. It was coined by the soviets. Probably their definition was different from what we experience. Fascinating character Pobisk.

  • “Mutual support which is now in deficit, like so many other outcomes of the harshest Special Period in Cuba: a deficit which, in the end, is endemic and characteristic of practically every state-run economy.”

    Are you sure Mr Prieto-Samsonov, that the “deficit of mutual support” is exclusive to only state-run economies? Russia, the land of your maternal origin, is no longer a state-run economy – at least to a great extent. (Today’s Russia is a capitalist country, ruled by capitalist oligarchs and therefore a capitalist oligarchopoly). It is no secret that Russia and all the other former Soviet countries of Eastern and Central Europe that converted to capitalism are characterized by a great deficit of mutual support. Neo-fascism, racism against ethnic minorities as well as non-Caucasian foreigners, narcotics, gangsterism and crime mafias, prostitution and pornography, massive youth emigration to the West etc. What happened to salvation by conversion to capitalism?

    The truth of the matter is no system is perfect! There was a Special Period in the United States too (and other Capitalist countries) following the collapse of finance-capital in 2007/2008. Many have not recovered. Employment is difficult. In contemporary times, the working class always turns right-wing as manifested especially in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, South Africa’s white industrial workers, election 2016 USA etc. Freedom in all its manifestations, including private enterprise, yes! But perhaps it’s best to take the best of all systems – what works – and apply it creatively to one’s objective conditions. Leave capitalist dogmatism and propaganda that promotes the illusion of capitalism being the end-all salvation in life. The state has a role in preventing a deficit of mutual support. The state should provide social support to the vulnerable!

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