Cuba’s Special Period: the Bogeyman

By Ernesto Perez Castillo (Progreso Semanal)

The bicycle was a symbol of the hardest years of the Special Period in Cuba.

HAVANA TIMES – A ghost is hovering above Havana and the entire island again: the ghost of the return to the Special Period. First, eggs disappeared, then flour and bread, and then cooking oil. Then, chicken and, after that, other meats from stores that have never been systematically stocked anyway, so nobody was particularly surprised.

But before, a long time before them and on the downlow, without anyone saying a word, rice slowly disappeared from bodega stores. I’m talking about Brazilian, Guyanese, Uruguayan rice: all the imported rice which you could choose the best of, of which not a single grain remains up until this morning, and you can only buy Vietnamese rice.

In the midst of all of this, it’s strange to note that while those people can afford to buy and find chicken, they buy it by the crate, by the pile, the more the better, yet it hasn’t crossed anybody’s mind to start hoarding rice, as they take it for granted that this grain will never run out.

This is just the food situation, and you only have to stop looking at markets for a second and take a look at the pharmacy door on the corner for you to get more goosebumps: there are just as many lines to buy the chicken that never shows up as there are medicines which no longer come in stock. Last year alone, there were between 45-150 medicines which were impossible to get a hold of.

With higher temperatures than normal, it’s time we worry. Our youngest haven’t experienced this, and they don’t need to, but in the ‘90s, everything slowly disappeared as well and by the time we realized what was going on, we were spending more hours without electricity than we were with it, we used to eat ground soy and we got sick with poly neuritis.

In the end, shortages from recent months have been explained by the government’s failure to make debt repayments to foreign suppliers and the resulting shortage of raw materials, but never as an initial sign of a disaster on the horizon. During Raul Castro’s speech to proclaim the new Constitution, he added: “The situation could get worse over the next few months. It isn’t a matter of going back to the worst point in the ‘90s Special Period; the landscape is different today when it comes to economic diversification, but we have to always be ready for the worst-case scenario.

Even though you can trace the story back in the national media to when the so-called “Special Period in Time of Peace was declared, nobody through today has ventured to decree that the Special Period had ended. That’s to say that if the Special Period hasn’t returned, it’s because we continue to live it and have been experiencing it for 30 years now.

If the threatening idea was already going around everyone’s mind, now with Raul himself talking about it, we can guess just how serious things will be.  But, it’s not only Cubans who have to be prepared and resist, together, to face the adversities: decision-makers in our country also have to take on responsibilities, changing what needs to be changed and making smart moves without bureaucratic delays: basically break a long and tedious inertia.

Among many other singularities, there is one thing that differs now from 1990 when that free-fall was announced: Fidel was there. And, there was a whole group 40-50 something year-olds surrounding him, who brought about the Revolution with their leader who they bowed to. And, I’m not talking about leaders, but the people, who listened to seven-hour speeches in the Plaza, and then did whatever needed to be done. Today, most of this generation is resting in peace or has naturally given way to the next generation, who have opinions and live, grow, in a different social fabric to the one in the ‘90s.

Another marked, objective, difference can be seen in the very moment the crisis began, and it is nothing more than a tightening of a screw: the trigger, origin, starting point.

Incredibly-enough, back then, the Soviet Union disappeared overnight. And, just look at how big it was! The collapse of the Red Giant dragged down half of the world with it. Cuba lost something like 85% of its imports, it lost the oil that came in gushes, it lost the ally it pointed out everywhere and the island was left on its own.

When you remember this and you look up: you stumble across a great truth, more mistakes or less, the USSR’s collapse was the main cause for that crisis.

Today, no Berlin wall has fallen nor anywhere else, Russia is behaving like a decent ally, China is more present in the Cuban economy than ever before and Venezuela is holding on as best it can. There is no single event, ally or cause that makes one of them exclusively responsible. All of the disadvantages of the international political scene, that is leaning to the extreme right for years now, makes things worse and the country has to quickly adopt much-needed change, some delayed and others postponed. This is where the other difference lies.

20 thoughts on “Cuba’s Special Period: the Bogeyman

  • August 28, 2020 at 3:20 pm

    Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine might make you look at democracy in a different way. If you don’t read, there is also a 1hr documentary. Milton Freidman free market economics is the reason for most of the troubles in the USA right now and has destroyed many countriesaround the world. I applaud Cuba for staying independent, even with it being such a hard road.

  • May 20, 2019 at 4:21 pm

    It’s mostly imported powdered milk and domestic potatoes. As with anything in Cuba they never import or produce in sufficient quantity’s. There for it is feast or famine if you have the money or connections. Otherwise it is mostly famine.

  • May 19, 2019 at 7:20 pm

    Accuracy about the reality of Cuba obviously is offensive to supporters of totalitarian dictatorship. My take is not that of an American, (I last visited the US some 25 years ago) but that of one whose home is in Cuba.
    But do tell us “Revolution” of any errors in what I wrote?
    Is it incorrect that hundreds of thousands starved to death in North Korea?
    Is it incorrect that for dictators like Raul Castro the first priority is the retention of power and control?
    Is it incorrect that Cubana (owned by GAESA) hired the 38 year 11 month old Boeing 737-200 knowing that it had been banned from Guyanese air space?
    Is it incorrect that Diaz- Canel issued instruction that the media in Cuba (all of which is controlled by the regime) that the disaster that cost 114 lives was not to be mentioned?
    Or is it that you deny that Raul Castro Ruz has lots of street smarts?
    Do please correct any errors – with fact!

  • May 18, 2019 at 8:05 pm

    What a moronic take… that’s how I know you are an American

  • May 16, 2019 at 12:05 pm

    The Castro regime has two sources of further contributions to their begging bowl Kenny. The first is China, which has signed a succession of credit agreements with Cuba and as a consequence receives much praise from the Castro controlled Cuban media, with TV programs about Chinese history and culture being shown daily. China however practices financial colonialism and already holds well over $25 billion (US) of Cuban debt.
    The second potential provider is Putin’s Russia. Several years ago, Putin forgave the then Cuban debt to the USSR of some $5 billion – by so doing he actually was admitting that the USSR was a Russian controlled entity, not actually a “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”. But Putin has plenty of potential problems with his own electorate, as the Russian economy sinks ever lower.
    Irrespective of both, I am sad to say that the people of Cuba do indeed face an extremely rough road ahead, Holding the Cuban Convertible on par with the US dollar, will increasingly affect tourism. It now takes more that four Canadian dollars to purchase three CUCs and the Euro and UK pound are similarly affected and Trump is constricting the short burst of US tourists to Cuba.
    We are yet again observing the correctness of that observation by Winston Churchill:
    “The inherent vice of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.”
    “El vicio inherente del socialismo es lo mismo que compartir la miseria.”
    Cuba is locked in to a failed economic system based upon a 19th century philosophy.
    When Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez placed his wreath upon the the tomb of Karl Marx in London, I wonder what he was imagining as the future for Cuba and how far away it was from the reality?

  • May 15, 2019 at 1:04 pm

    As you well Know Nick, I have repeatedly condemned dictatorship whether by communism or fascism. Your endeavor to attach capitalism per se to fascism ignores reality. There are few capitalist businesses linked to fascism and/or dependent upon it – can you name any?
    I as a non-believer in a deity, have never likened communism to “the devil’s own work”. I quite simply detest it, just as I detest fascism.
    Your endeavors to paint me as some form of far-right extremist are rather foolish and inaccurate. Concern for humanity being down-trodden and repressed by 19th century Marxist based ideology, is not a demonstration of “far-right” thinking, but rather concern for the freedom of individuals to be both able to think and openly express their views.

  • May 15, 2019 at 10:59 am

    If more people have access to food the defiantly yes.

  • May 15, 2019 at 10:30 am

    Cuba has always been colonized first it was the Spanish then the Americans and along came the Soviet Union then in the 90’s came their first true taste of independence. We all know how that went! Then in the early 2000’s they got their chance to pull the strings in Venezuela and in less then 18 years have almost reduced it to rubble with only pure robbery and mid management. Now it looks like independence is heading it’s way again. Maybe they will find another savior because if not there is an extremely rough road ahead.

  • May 15, 2019 at 8:45 am

    Where does a Cuban obtain milk and potatoes?

  • May 12, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    It seemed you were incorrectly trying to award capitalist ideology itself a monopoly on having carried out ‘good deeds’.
    Whilst fulsomely praising the commendable philanthropic deeds of successful individual entrepreneurs who made their riches in capitalist societies, I also pointed out the many good deeds carried out by Cubans from a non-capitalist society.
    In doing this I was actually referring to Cubans who have carried out international humanitarian relief in the face of disasters, epidemics etc.
    However, since you insist on referring to military matters, I know many Cubans who are rightly proud of their role in standing up to the U.S. (and to a lesser extent, British) backed apartheid South African regime by means of tenacious use of relatively limited military capacity. In my humble opinion, they have every right to be proud of this.
    I am a critic of communism. I think I always will be.
    You, by turn, imply that communism is the devil’s own work, but have always point blank refused to condemn the historic and current links between right wing capitalism and fascism. In fact you have incredulously refused to even acknowledge the existence of such proven cast iron links.
    Therefore I think it would be unfair to allow myself to be cornered into any outright condemnation of this, that or the other by your good self.
    Apart, that is, from a general condemnation of human society for never having developed, thus far, any perfect system of governance.

  • May 12, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    More human nutritional information could be employed to stem malnutrition in poor countries. A change in diet is always hard to carry out amongst populations that culturally are used to particular diets that are not beneficial to health. Here in the rich countries we have an obesity epidemic for example. I suggest you can look up The University of Berkeley, California-USA- diet for reduced budgets. From what I can remember at this time milk, potatoes are included in the daily dietary needs.

  • May 12, 2019 at 10:20 am

    To which of the Ebola crises do you refer?
    I have only ever praised Cuban medical staff.
    By Cuba’s “internationalism” are you speaking of their military interventions in other countries and/or their contracted medical and educational services? I have relatives who have – and indeed some currently still are contributors to the latter, but none involved in the former. However I have met Cubans who participated in Cuba’s military activities in other countries and none of them have spoken of it with pride. All those military interventions were under Raul Castro Ruz as Head of the Military.
    Do you condemn communist dictatorship?

  • May 12, 2019 at 3:48 am

    There are many examples of those who have done well in the Capitalist world and given plenty to worthy causes. I can add the Tata family, the Cadbury family and Warren Buffet as wonderful examples of this.
    Capitalism is about winners and losers and some of the winners donate some of their wedge to some of the losers. But that is not an intrinsic part of capitalism. It is, to repeat, the consiense of philanthropic individuals.
    By contrast, theoretically communism is not about winners and losers. The reality, as we know, differs from the theory to varying degrees depending on which example one chooses.
    How on earth you can say that I am loath to criticise communism is beyond me….
    I just described it as ‘plain old useless’.
    If that’s not criticism, then what is ?
    Having said that communism is ‘useless’, Cuba’s medical aid and disaster relief in poorer parts of the world is renowned. For example, I recall that Cuba, despite all its myriad faults, sent more medical personnel than any other country to combat the recent Ebola crisis.
    You cannot deny Cuba’s internationalism, but I feel sure you will think of something to try and discredit it.

  • May 11, 2019 at 9:13 pm

    Do you really want to have a list of the multitude of capitalist businesses that contribute by donation to countries, organizations and individuals? For doing so would take tomes! Think Nick for example of Unilever in the UK and Holland and the policies pursued by the retiring CEO – and Port Sunlight. Who provides the funding for organizations like OXFAM and CARE International? Do please provide illustration of donation by communist regimes to similar causes. I realize that you as usual are loath to criticize communism, preferring to use your freedom of speech to attack capitalism, but on this Nick. you are incorrect – ask those who receive the support from whence it came?

  • May 11, 2019 at 5:41 pm

    I think there are various differences between your comment and mine Mr MacD.
    However I would agree with you that Gates is an extremely successful capitalist with a conscience.
    But giving an example of an capitalist individual who has a conscience is surely a remark with concurs with my point rather than refutes it.
    If you are trying to say that capitalism itself as an inherently more conscientious ism than communism, then I think you would struggle to back that up.
    One of those isms is a cut-throat, murderous, winner takes all, anti democratic demon which left to it’s own devices would gleefully outlaw any form of regulatory restraint and rapidly destroy the very ecosystem that sustains human and all other life forms……….
    And the other is just plain old useless communism.

  • May 10, 2019 at 11:22 pm

    The difference between your comment and mine Nick is that I was specific and you generalized. ie:
    Communism has no conscience is an accurate statement.
    …isms do not have consciences. Neither communism nor capitalism., is a generalization which is not specific and in the case of capitalism, inaccurate The charitable work and donations of capitalist businesses is of great benefit to many countries, organizations and individuals. The Bill and Melinda Gates charitable giving alone, far exceeds that of all communist regimes combined.

  • May 10, 2019 at 8:27 pm

    I like your comment that “it’s people who should have consciences”. Unfortunately those in positions of power seem to have forgotten that.

  • May 10, 2019 at 6:59 pm

    As Mr Perez Castillo states, the international scene is leaning toward the far right.
    The KKK backed current incumbent of the White House buddies up with all manner of disturbingly far right wing cohorts who have scuttled their way into power into places as diverse as the likes of Brazil and Hungary. Their influence is bubbling up in a whole host of different countries. Perhaps most symbolically, a political party set up by a former member of the SS is now the junior partner in Austria’s governing coalition. You would think that the country of Hitler’s birth would have taken longer to creep back to old ways.
    Whilst no out and out fascist himself, trump’s lumpen and very right wing rhetoric coupled with his nation’s military force creates the kind of global imbalance which emboldens the extreme right. They are coming out of the woodwork every where one looks.
    And of course old man trump would happily put the squeeze on Cuba and shrink some bellies over there if it’s gonna win him those Florida Electoral College votes next year.
    I suspect that Jr’s vote is already in the bag ??
    And how are Boeing’s profits going these days?
    …isms do not have consciences. Neither communism nor capitalism.
    It’s people who should have consciences.

  • May 10, 2019 at 2:38 pm

    Jr, you omitted to mention communist North Korea, where hundreds of thousands starved to death, but the Kim family could find the money for their nuclear program.
    The current conditions referred to by Ernesto Perez Castillo in Havana, are worse in the hinterland of Cuba. The reduction of both variety and volume of food products into the GAESA owned shops has been noticeable since about August 2018. Was that the motivation for Raul Castro (and his “Committee”) to pursue the “new” constitution as a distraction and to hold all those meaningless meetings around the country for a full three months is a valid question. Raul has never lacked cunning and street smarts. You are correct in saying that the effects of their policies upon the people is of little consequence to totalitarian dictators, all that matters is retention of power and control.
    Speaking of horrific acts, it was the Castro regime that hired that 38 year 11 month old 737-200 from that spurious outfit in Mexico although they knew it had been banned from Guyanese air space for safety reasons. That cost 114 lives!
    So what was Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez’s reaction? It was to issue an edict that the State controlled media were not to mention the disaster and it has not been mentioned on Cuban TV radio and press. On May 18th, it will be a year since that needless loss of life, but NO reports have been issued about the cause. Communism has no conscience!

  • May 10, 2019 at 8:39 am

    The special period was the Fidel Castro government imposed famine against the cuban people. The same thing Stalin did, Holodomor, only this was at the end of last century. Thats when i realised the horrific nature of communist dictators that would rather starve its own people to death rather than lose their power over them. What its most sickening its while the people starved from steeped rationing the ruling class and the armed forces had their food guaranteed meanwhile rats ate the grains stocked piled in warehoused becaused they rather let the rats eat it than run out. Yes it was a special period because they were going to whatever necessary to stay on power. As the purposefully sinking of the (13 of march tugboat), the most horrific criminal act against the cuban people in the history of the country, perpetrated by the Castro regime.

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