Cuba’s “Special Period” Remembered

Irina Pino

Flower seller. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — It caught us by complete surprise in the 90s, and no one expected it to last the many years it did. Even today we continue to be haunted by those infernal years, as though we were unable to find a way out of the crisis. One need only mention it to conjure up those dark memories.

At the time, I worked in an art gallery. My job consisted in looking after the pieces and guiding visitors. I wasn’t expected to offer gallery goers a flowery description of the works, just to show them around the exhibition areas and kindly wait for them to leave.

I would leave my house at 8:30 in the morning with a pathetic excuse for a breakfast in my stomach: a bread roll and a glass of sugared water (milk was a luxury at the time, and all food was expensive). The dollar, which was illegal at the time, came to be valued at 120 Cuban pesos. Anyone caught carrying that currency risked a long time behind bars.

Because of transportation shortages, I would walk to work, even though the gallery was 15 blocks away. I would enjoy the morning freshness and gaze at the vegetation at parks. I would return down the same streets in the afternoon, uphill.

The gallery had a small book and souvenir shop. They asked me to work there several times (when there weren’t many visitors, of course), and I quickly learned to treat customers and sell things. I was a book addict and would recommend the works I found most interesting.

Those books were sold only in dollars. The other woman who worked there had told me she had many of those same books at home (old gifts she had kept). Her idea took shape: we would sell her books and share the earnings and everything would be fine.

I was happy to have such a “piggy box” to fall back on, a place to put away the money needed to overcome some of life’s hardships. I was also able to help my family a little. This happiness lasted only a little while, though – until the books ran out, to be precise.

In those days I had sudden fainting fits that frightened people. I assume they were caused by my empty stomach most mornings. I would feel better after lunch. At work, I would brush my teeth without toothpaste, because we only had one tube for the whole family and we had to save as much as possible.

I would walk around Old Havana with a gay friend of mine who had the complexion of a European. We would dress up as foreigners to be able to access certain stores Cubans weren’t allowed in (unless a relative living abroad came along and took you shopping).

Since we had almost the same measurements, he would lend me a pair of shorts and some shirts. His situation wasn’t anything like mine, because he had relatives in the United States who sent him remittances. Inside the stores, we would speak a little bit of English, using just the words we needed to keep them from finding out we were Cuban.

With the money I made from the books I was able to buy shoes, food, shampoo and soap (on occasion, I had to use laundry soap to bathe) – not soft bathing soap, but the kind they gave out once a month as part of one’s ration, the rough kind that left your skin feeling like sandpaper.

Our disguises also allowed us to make some foreign friends who invited us out to eat and other places. I recall that, on one New Year’s, Hans, a German friend of ours, treated us to a beef steak dinner, red wine and dessert. I look back on that with some nostalgia.

That friend of ours felt so much pity for us he left us 100 dollars before he left. We did have to walk around the entire city and take him wherever he wanted to go, tired as hell, because “they” love to walk and lead nomadic lifestyles.

My uncle got a job as a bathroom attendant at a cabaret and would come home with a little extra money, sometimes more than 2 dollars, and that also helped the family economy.

My boyfriend would collect seeds at Lenin Park to make craft hanging curtains which he would sell at 100 Cuban pesos each. That also allowed us to go out on occasion.

I recall the first power cuts, when the city became a kind of ghost town. We used to sit at the park along G Street to chat and make the heat and boredom a bit more bearable.

Despite the circumstances, we managed to have a good time and even plan adventures. It’s true we went hungry often and faced many hardships, but we invented ways of riding out the storm, good Cubans that we are. It’s no accident we have been christened as “the kings of invention.”

41 thoughts on “Cuba’s “Special Period” Remembered

  • Good idea, though my washroom is bigger than that. And has a jet tub too… And that is just where I am heading for a shower and shave and out for a beer… Though please keep Bieber…

  • The way things are going Bieber will indeed spend some time here, comfortably ensconced in a comfortable 6 x 8 cell….from what I can tell probably where you belong too.

  • Sorry IC for I am not allowed into your country anymore… Seems that I have been a trouble maker, and plus I probably have too many Cuban stamps in my passport… And I have no wish to go there anyways… Oh and please keep Bieber… He is one of yours now… He fits right in down there…

  • Bob you are an OK photographer. There is a Cuban photographer that I know who is amazing. And it says a lot if I will buy a photograph. And I have 1000’s of photos from Cuba myself. It is not hard to get nice photos in Cuba. Though most of mine are from Habana. I wish I could show you a few. Some are online under Cuba photos and my name as well. I did not post them though someone did. Though I have some honourable mentions in a HT photo contest one year that I bothered to enter. And yes you have a knowledge of Cuba I will admit. And I will admit that the revolution was and still is far from perfect. Though a read on Wikipedia paints a different picture of the United Fruit Gum Company… Though you are an expert I am sure. Many of these companies that you mention bribed the government officials of the day. Were ruthless to their employees and paid little taxes to Cuba… Though these employees were happy just to have a job. Habana was run by Batista and the US mafia… Gambling drugs and prostitution were the order of the day. As well as people who Batista did not like ending up disappearing. While it was not perfect and still is painfully so, but Fidel’s wish was to just take his country back. And yes it is true that a lot of the housing is very bad. I have paid for repairs myself. Though have you ever traveled through the slums of Mumbai? That is really bad…And you obviously love Cuba as well. Maybe we can meet up some day for a Cristal… I usually go July/August if I can. All the best. Michael Roy.

  • Michael, yes you are wrong. The nickel processing facility in Moa was owned by Freeport Sulphur, a US company. They financed and built it. The land it was on and the actual mines were purchased by them. They also paid a extraction royalty to the Cuban government.

    What you call the “US Fruit Gum Company” was actually the United Fruit Company. It is now known as Chiquita Banana. They did have large land holdings and sugar mills in Cuba. They bought the land and built the mills. They also employed many Cubans.

    I am quite familiar with the towns of Guatemala (Holguin province) and Australia (Matanzas province) in Cuba, both once sites of large United Fruit Company sugar mills. Guatemala, originally named Preston, was once the largest capacity sugar mill in Cuba. Both towns now appear from my time there to have 80-90% unemployment. Remnants of the once prosperity remain. The once elegant hotel in Guatemala is now decrepit housing for unemployed Cubans. Rain now pours in the second story roof, drains through the second story apartments down through the first story apartments and out the gaps in the floor. Yes, I have been inside there when it was raining.

    Hershey (Mayabeque province) is a town I know well having spent time there. I also ride the train quite a bit. The Hershey Chocolate Company built the entire town and the RR that serves it. Again the large sugar mill has been closed by the Cuban government and unemployment is high. The two story hotel has collapsed except for the stone walls. The two story office is now decrepit housing for unemployed Cubans. The movie theater remains but is seldom open. I have been in the workers housing units. The walls are stone but the roof has collapsed in 75% of the units. Unemployed Cubans live in the remainder including many where the roof appears ready to collapse.

    No one will contend that those companies were perfect. But older residents of those towns will tell you, once they know you, that life was better when those US companies provided jobs and money than today after the Cuban government seized all those businesses and drove them into the ground causing the economic demise of the community..

    I visit Cuba every 6 or 8 weeks and will return in early April. If you want to see what I do in Cuba, Google my name and “Cuba”. You will see where my knowledge comes from.

  • You know what? I can’t stand apples either, but I love lemonade! Betcha nothing happens, as in the end it’s all about business. And even if there’s a shift in treasures nothing much will come of it. After all were still a 14 trillion + economy and double that of China . Sorta puts a dent in your day knowing that huh. So I don’t think I’ll take you up on your offer.

    …would you like some mint in your lemonade. Actually you should try an Arnold Palmer. Those are great on hot Florida days!

  • Circles can you please close this forum (Till Irina writes another good controversial article to get everyone riled up again… LOL) Cheers… Michael.

  • Hang on Bob. Now correct me if I am wrong… Moa (sorry for the wrong spelling) As far as I am concerned, I believe is in Cuba. How could it be stolen from the USA… The USA was stealing Cuban property all along… Research the US Fruit Gum Company, Hershey’s as well… and especially who owned it. 85% of the fertile Cuban land had been taken over by the US,,, And yes Moa was left a mess… Sherritt is trying to clean this up. Anyways no sense in arguing any more with you all… Hopefully you will never be allowed to go back to Cuba so that it will stay a nice place. And with the rest of the worlds help it will prosper without the USA…

  • Is true that Sherritt’s officers cannot enter the US. That property in Moa (not Moya) they are using still belongs to a US company, Freeport Sulphur, in the eyes of the US as it was expropriated without compensation. Apparently it does not bother Sherritt that are utilizing stolen property.

    So I will revise my statement to “Any non US company doing business with Cuba has no problems in the US so long as they are not using assets taken from a US company without compensation”

    BTW, have you ever been to Moa? UGLY! A true environmental disaster. Cuba is so ashamed of it that it is the only place in Cuba, besides military installations, where you are not allowed to photograph.

    While it is true that there were many despicable acts both on the sides of the US and Cuba, I cannot see where those have any bearing on today’s ability of any international company to do business with Cuba, uninterrupted by the US.

  • Great work Irina. I think that you have helped start a war between Canada and the USA… Though we all know which way some things flow… Thankfully Canada is uphill… Anyways to all a good day.

  • Hmmmm My hat size has not changed. Though yes you are pretty much right that rain water does not hold salt other than at times of severe storms. And if you are near the ocean this can happen a lot. Though at certain times of the year it can be very dry in Cuba. Making gardening only possible using groundwater. Thus the salt… Though the successful agriponicos in Habana rely on desalinated water or whatever rainwater comes down. And any place that I stay at buys desalinated water to drink and cook with for the tap water makes for terrible coffee… Anyways I am just going on what my Cuban friends have told me and they would probably have huge gardens if they were able to…

  • Actually I do not really like apples that much… They give me the… As in every good Ponzi scheme every one holds on tight hoping the other will not bail out. Trouble is I will bet that the USA itself will be the one to pull the proverbial rug out from under everyone… Anyways Uninformed Consent, please read this article and have a lemon… It is from 4 days ago and from the NY Post… And GFYS is not an insult… Just a suggestion… Have a good night and enjoy your lemon…

  • Sherritt International. A Canadian company who operates in Cuba. Mainly in oil and gas well as well as the nickel mine in Moya, Cuba. This nickel mine was formerly a US interest. And now because of this if any of Sherritts executive even set foot in the USA they would be arrested… Yes the US is a land of laws, unfortunately you forgot to mention it is a land of breaking them. Please mention the many terrorist attacks they perpetrated against Cuba after the revolution. The US movie “The Good Shepherd” Has a great scene of one of these acts. And as a Canadian I do prefer to use Canadian dollars while in Cuba.

  • Michael: Why do you say that any business that deals with Cuba cannot feel safe doing business in the USA? The US is a country of laws, not whims or desires. And there are no US laws that impact any foreign country’s dealing with Cuba so long as they do not involve the US. That is simply not possible under international law. Now any payments made in US dollars involves the US as the payment must clear through the US banking system. Smart companies get around that by paying in Euros, Canadian or any other currency.

  • no need to be insulting (a sure sign of a weak argument on your part) And what’s with the CIA thing? .. As for blocking information you must think your in Cuba or China, no the USA.

    As it relates to the US debt your theory’s are a bit wacky. Allow me to school you. Despite your previous statements US treasury bonds remain the Gold standard. Why? Because foreign buyers simply don’t have any alternatives to the Treasury market in terms of depth and liquidity. Case in point:

    So foreign buyers looking to park literally hundreds of billions of dollars in relatively safe, liquid assets have no other choice. It’s U.S. Treasuries or nothing else. Period.

    Such unparalleled liquidity and consistent demand ultimately translates into significant downside protection. Even more so, when you consider that foreign investors really can’t afford to sell their U.S. Treasury holdings (are you listening Russia?). Not unless they want to sabotage their country’s own economic prosperity.

    It’s important to understand that a sudden sell off in Treasuries would spark a collapse in the value of the U.S. dollar. And that’s the last thing foreign investors want, particularly those in Asia.

    They rely on “weaker” currencies in relation to the U.S. dollar to boost demand for their exports.

    In other words, a dramatically weaker U.S. dollar would put a dent in economic growth for these countries in short order.

    So instead of rushing for the exits, foreign investors are all but guaranteed to hang tight to their U.S. Treasuries.

    …..How ya like them apples?

  • I’ve been to Cuba a number of times but have never actually cooked there so you have the advantage of me. Rain however can’t be salty (as far as I know) as water vapor does not hold salt. ….your head appears to be a bit to big

  • Irina another win for you… You always manage to hit a raw nerve… Love it.

  • Sorry but that was your facts…

  • That is 14 trillion in debt.. Actually now as of today it is at 17 trillion in debt. And please research the US Federal Reserve… see just who created it. Though in the USA these searches are no doubt blocked or deleted so you cannot see the truth. And I researched all of this years ago when you could still see it. And I used to argue online with people just like you who turned out to be in the CIA. And Uninformed Consent my grammar is just fine… GFYS… Figure that one out…
    Please check you facts if you want to argue with me…

  • Hey Bob, any business that does dealings with Cuba cannot feel safe to do business in the USA… Yes you are right for it mainly deals with US business (Trading with the enemy act) Though it does discourage other countries form dealing with Cuba. Though yes they have very little money to buy much.

  • Please watch a excellent Canadian documentary called The Unexpected Revolution. And this will explain to you why after the collapse of the USSR there are 1/2 as many cattle in Cuba… And I asked my friends why there was no big gardens in Guanabo. And they said because there is too much salt in the ground water to grow much… other than citrus… And the rain is salt as well… Try tasting it if you ever manage to get to Cuba… And I do not know what you are talking about for raw tomatoes I have never had a problem getting… cucumbers, string beans, onions, peppers etc… And in Habana NO PROBLEM… Again Uninformed Consent give your thin head a shake… Or maybe actually visit Cuba.

  • I’ll tell you why. with some of the most arable land in the world Cuba should be a net exporter of food. Instead, as you so keenly observed, they have trouble growing tomatoes. and 50 years after the revolution there are half as many head of cattle as there was in 1959. that my dear sir is Castros fault

  • I’m sure that is something you would like to believe but the truth is somewhat different. The US economy is still the worlds largest and at 14 trillion+ a year is still twice the size of China’s. It’s why the US dollar is still the world reserve currency and country’s like Venezuela and Cuba are desperate to have them. So who buys our treasuries? Everyone. Why? Because it’s safe.

    How bout them apples? Now go back to MINT and brush up on your grammar.

  • You do not seem to understand international law. Any country, other than the US can sell anything they want to Cuba. The US has no authority to regulate that. US companies can only sell food and medicine to Cuba.

    Cuba’s imports are limited only by the fact that Cuba has so little money to pay for them.

  • How can this be Castro’s fault when you are not allowed to import what you need from what country that you need it from. For that country will not deal with you for it will be fined or kicked out from doing business in the USA just for dealing with you… Fortunately some countries now take that chance… Yes Fidel started the revolution. And this was to retake his country. And it was far from perfect. Though he was never allowed the same privilege’s from the USA as any other sovereign country after that point…

  • Non informed consent… Not sure what word puy is. But how can a country that is broke, has no monetary reserves, and no gold either to back these bonds up be worth anything??? Go figure, it is all a big Ponzi scam… China is the real owner of the Useless of A.. And unfortunately we here in Canada are also getting sucked into this vortex. Look at the latest news that the Russians are dumping these worthless USA bonds. Leading to the collapse of the Empire… Give your thin head a shake…

  • Who would buy US treasuries? The entire world does. …that pretty much puy the lie to your statement

  • To answer your question. …is it Castros fault? In short, yes!

  • Who in their right mind would even buy US treasury bonds from a bankrupt corrupt government like the Useless of A… A country not spiraling but nose diving… And as for real theft and corruption? The USA wrote the book on that one… And look where it has gotten them… Corrupt and broke… $6 Billion a year is nothing. The USA is spending @$683 Billion a year on defence… And certain families get rich. Yet many of its people do not have access to proper health care. Many of its children go to bed hungry. Its prisons are full. And many of its people cannot find a decent paying job other than at Wal-Mart or McDonalds… And as for Venezuela… Cuba exchanged doctors for this help. Now they are sending doctors to Brazil and elsewhere. This is no gift… And how can you produce when you cannot afford to buy the tools and machinery, and even if you could they are not for sale to your country… Sherritt International (a Canadian company, Oil Gas and minerals) Helps Cuba. And it is banned from doing business in the Useless of A… Go figure. The embargo is bigger than just in Cuba…

  • Parroting Castro propaganda over and over again does not make it more true. I hardly believe the embargo has cost the Castro dictatorship $1 trillion. Billions in Soviets rubles and then later millions of barrels in Venezuelan oil it was has sustained the ‘revolution’ and not “social strength” or whatever that is.

  • How come when I travel to Cuba and rent a house I go to the grocery store and there is barely anything there to buy? If it was there I would buy it… Is that Castro’s fault? And of what there is it is so expensive compared to in Canada. Like I was making spaghetti sauce… Do you think I could find a can of tomatoes? Any sauce… No… I used some cheap tomato juice… And the ground beef, well I am not exactly sure what that was… I wanted a can of mushrooms… $3.50CUC… Everything was either imported from Spain or Mexico… I do not believe that the shipping costs are cheap. I had the money to buy whatever I wanted. The average Cuban does not… And I now bring a lot of my own food from Canada for I know that I will not be able to get it in Cuba… I bring common things that my friends have never seen in their lifetime (so far) It is really time the USA lifted the embargo and then lets see what happens… Again Irina you always manage to get things going… Keep up the good work…

  • I hope you are right about the 3-5 years until the end of the embargo. This implies that in 3-5 years, the Castros will have left town, there will be no more political prisoners, there will be freedom of the press and freedom of assembly and finally, Cuba will have had or have scheduled a free and open democratic election. I look forward to that Cuba.

  • Moses, You make sure YOUR relatives in Cuba get what THEY need all the while you are calling for intensifying the embargo and the suffering of the Cuban population as a whole .
    You know damned well that the embargo is having the devastating effect it was DESIGNED to have , that it has cost the Cuban society over one trillion dollars over the years.
    Any capitalist country of comparable resources would have collapsed but , in fact, it was the social strength of the Cuban economy that has allowed the revolution to survive .
    Absent the U.S. embargo during the “special period” Cuba would have been much, much better off just as it will be be when the U.S ends its hostilities within the next decade.

  • Moses,
    Let me help you out here .
    The U.S. is waging an E-C-O-N-O-M-I-C war on Cuba.
    An economic war is one in which one country’s economy is attacked by another.
    The openly stated purpose of the U.S. economic war on Cuba is to make life so difficult for every man, woman, and child in Cuba that they will willingly overthrow their socialist-STYLE revolution.
    That purpose has been behind U.S. foreign policy since the U.S.-European invasion of the Soviet Union in 1918 .
    So far that economic war has cost the Cuban economy over one TRILLION dollars and no developing economy can do well under those conditions and the condition of the Cuban economy is entirely reflective and a result of that war and you’re being self-serving and more than disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
    The U.S. will call that war off within 8-10 years at the latest but 3-5 years is beginning to sound even more likely.
    When that happens , we’ll see who was correct.

  • Errata: there is no “maintenance and tightening” of the “embargo”.
    I fact: the sanctions have been steadily relaxed with free sales of food and medicines, more financial facilities, no more limits on remittances and more travel allowed.
    By 2008 the US became Cuba’s 5th trading partner and largest food supplier (on third of the 80% of food consumed in Cuba that needs to be imported). Any reductions in trade since then are the result of decisions of the Cuban regime and have nothing to do with the sanctions.

    Cubans still suffer the consequences of the end of the subsidies of the Soviet Union as the Venezuelan subsidies don’t fully compensate them while the real economy has hardly improved.

  • Explain the connection between low Cuban productivity and the US embargo. Explain how rampant theft and corruption in Cuba is a result of the US embargo. At the very least, explain why despite the annual support from their Venezuelan nursemaid of more than $5 billion and total remittances of more than $6 billion per year, combined totaling at 15% of Cuba’s annual GDP, Cuba’s moribund economy continues to spiral downward. How do you blame that on the fact that Cubans can’t buy US treasury bonds. Go ahead, take a shot!

  • Dan, you missed the point. There was nothing special about the ‘Special Period’. This period in Cuba reflects true Castro socialism. The period preceding was sustained by Soviet subsidies and currently Cuba’s moribund economy is barely afloat due to Venezuelan handouts as well as remittances from family and friends. (Count me in this group) The US embargo has very little to do with Cuba’s economic downward spiral. You can thank the Castros and their foolish economic policies for Cuba’s problems.

  • I have witnessed far worse poverty in India… Some extremely bad stuff… For at least in Cuba they had sugar… I am not saying that it was not really bad in Cuba. For it was and still is. Though poverty is a worldwide phenomena. And maybe the USA has a lot to do with this??? (poverty is rampant in the USA) And this embargo against Cuba that still exists 50 years later??? Please do not blame this on Castro. For at least he is one of the few that had the cajones to stand up and defend his country from the USA. I see people in Canada digging through the garbage looking for food as well. And eating the scraps outside of McDonalds… It is really bad what happened in Cuba. Though I blame much of this on the USA… Liberate Cuba from the Spanish and then??? Cuba is a country not another US state…Sorry but this is my opinion.

  • Errata: Cubans still suffer the consequences of the end of the subsidies of the Soviet Union in conjunction with the maintance and tightening of the US embargo.

  • The author downplays the reality of the “special period”. The end of the Soviet subsidies that had reached up to 35% of GDP meant that Cuba fell back on its real economy. In that sense the “special period” was in fact the “normal” period as it exposed the hidden weakness of the Cuban economy.
    Its effect on the life of ordinary Cubans was profound and most look back at it with no nostalgia at all. Mortality under the elderly increased dramatically. Various diseases that could be traced back to lack of vitamins spread though the population.
    For lots of people breakfast was a glass of sugary water at best. Food was scarce and hunger rife.Cubans still suffer the consequences of the end of the subsidies of the Soviet Union.

  • I have talked to many Cuban friends about this special period. And it was really bad (and it still is) This is why when I visit Cuba I try to help people. And yes I have been used many times. Though truth is I did not care. For growing up, even though my parents were far from rich. (And neither am I) I now realize that I have had it pretty good.

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