Front Door to Cuba

Cuba's Special Period
an excerpt from:
"Cuba: Between Reform & Revolution"
by Louis A. Pérez, Jr.

Chapter 12 - Socialist Cuba
Section XII - Pages 381-387

Cuban efforts to create security from the United States and autonomy from the Soviet Union faltered. Havana was unwilling to sacrifice its relationship with the Soviet Union for a larger international role, but neither was it willing to forgo internationalism to improve relations with the United States. Nor perhaps did this anomaly matter for long. By the late 1980s the Cuban relation ship with the Soviet Union was in disarray. The emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev and the reforms associated with perestroika and glasnost plunged Cuban-Soviet relations into crisis. The introduction of market mechanisms, the restoration of private property, and the adoption of explicit earning differentials based on market values, among other measures, were greeted in Havana with mounting disbelief and dismay, and eventually with open repudiation and rejection.

A divisive and, it turned out, an irreparable ideological rift had opened between Cuba and the Soviet Union. Cubans responded with "rectification," fundamentally a reaffirmation of the principles and modalities that had driven the policies of the 1960s. Appeals were made explicitly to conciencia, to voluntarism and moral incentives. The primacy of the Communist party was reaffirmed and once again the summons to struggle and sacrifice emerged as the principal themes of the official discourse.

The divergence between Cuba and the Soviet Union widened through the late 1980s and early 1990s, years during which the Soviet leadership progressively disavowed Marxist-Leninist tenets, dismantled socialist structures, and arrived at increasingly cordial accommodation with the United States. These were decisive years, for Cubans found themselves caught up in momentous changes, not all of their making and far from their capacity to control but nonetheless of direct and vital national interest. Most immediately, changes in the Soviet Union released powerful social forces across eastern Europe. One by one, countries of the socialist bloc broke with the Soviet Union and eventually socialism itself foundered and fell among the Warsaw Pact nations. In the late summer of 1991, momentous changes overtook the Soviet Union. An abortive coup against the Gorbachev government served as a catalyst for accelerated reforms and eventually resulted in the break-up of the USSR and completed the collapse of communism in eastern Europe.

The repercussions of developments in Europe were experienced almost immediately in Cuba. The deepening dispute between Moscow and Havana developed fully into an open break. In late 1991, Gorbachev announced the unilateral decision to withdraw from Cuba a training brigade of nearly 3,000 troops, a gesture that carried more symbolic meaning than a substantive one. The Russian decision in 1992 to reduce military supplies and curtail training programs, however, as well as the announcement that future transfer of arms and military equipment would be conducted by means of commercial transactions, did represent substantial cutbacks and threatened to weaken Cuban military defense.

The portents were unambiguous. The collapse of the Soviet Union led immediately to retrenchment of existing international commitments and a moratorium on new agreements. Moscow found itself in a very much reduced capacity to fulfill previous military arrangements and meet existing commercial obligations. Even if the will had been present-and there is no evidence to suggest that it was-the wherewithal was not. The Russians turned inward, wholly absorbed with severe economic dislocation and deepening political instability.

Old allies became new adversaries. The Cold War was over and the international balance of power that had so powerfully shaped many of the policies and programs of the Cuban revolution tilted decisively against the government of Fidel Castro. Cuba found itself alone and isolated, without political friends, without military allies.

It was the loss of trading partners and the suspension of economic relations with the former socialist bloc, however, that produced disarray and distress and plunged Cuba into a crisis that threatened to undo thirty-five years of social gains and economic achievements. Cuba found itself increasingly unable to import the goods it consumed and without markets to export the goods it produced. After decades of favorable trade relations with socialist bloc countries, Cuba faced a far-reaching realignment in commercial relations. Soviet trade and aid so vital to Cuban development strategies during the 1960s and 1970s began to dwindle in the late 1980s and virtually ceased altogether by the early 1990s. Soviet oil and oil byproducts, at prices below world market, had accounted for an estimated 90 percent of Cuban energy needs. Socialist bloc merchant vessels had carried 85 percent of Cuba foreign trade with costs usually assigned to the island's debt.

The rise of market economies in eastern Europe had calamitous consequences in Cuba. The old socialist bloc Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) had accounted for almost 85 percent of Cuban trade, transactions conducted almost entirely in nonconvertible currency. Commercial relations with the former Soviet Union declined by more than 90 percent, from $8.7 billion in 1989 to $4.5 billion in 1991 and $750 million in 1993. Trade with eastern European countries ended almost completely. Soviet oil imports decreased by almost 90 percent, from 13 million tons in 1989 to 1.8 million tons in 1992. Shipments of capital grade consumer goods, grains, and foodstuff declined and imports of raw materials and spare parts essential for Cuban industry ceased altogether. Fertilizer imports declined by 80 percent, from 1.3 million tons to 25,000 tons; animal feed supplies fell by 70 percent, from 1.6 million tons to 450,000 tons.

The economic crisis deepened through the early 1990s. For the second time in thirty years, Cuba experienced calamitous dislocations associated with disengagement from its principal trading partners. The effects were immediate and far-reaching and in fact of far greater consequence the second time, for on this occasion Cuba was unable to obtain easily alternative sources of aid and assistance. Scarcities increased and shortages of almost every kind became commonplace. Goods and services previously plentiful became scarce; what had earlier been in short supply disappeared altogether.

The response in Cuba was immediate and familiar. A new regiment of rationing was introduced and the nation at large was summoned once more to mobilization and prepared for new austerity measures. In August 1990 the government announced the implementation of the "Special Period" (período especial), a series of contingency plans conceived originally for use during a time of war. The período especial established a framework within which to implement a new series of austerity measures and new rationing schedules to meet the worsening economic crisis. Available supplies of gasoline and fuel oil were severely cut. Industrial plants and factories reduced weekly work hours; some closed altogether. An additional 200 consumer goods were added to the ration list and foods of all kinds became increasingly scarce.

The economic crisis assumed a logic of its own and all though the early 1990s conditions across the island rapidly deteriorated. The cancellation of existing trade arrangements with the former socialist bloc states and the subsequent suspension of commercial agreements, trade subsidies, and economic assistance from the Soviet Union subjected Cuba fully to the vagaries of market forces. Even the market seemed to conspire against Cuba, as the price of oil increased and the price of sugar decreased, making a difficult situation worse.

The loss of aid and trade from old allies made Cuba more vulnerable to pressure from old adversaries. For more than thirty years, commercial arrangements and economic assistance from the socialist bloc had insulated Cuba from the effects of the 1962 U.S. trade embargo. But no more. The United States seized the occasion of the deepening Cuban crisis to enact new measures and expand economic sanctions against the island. In April 1992 President George Bush issued an executive order banning ships trading with Cuba from visiting U.S. ports as a way to reduce the number of vessels choosing to conduct trade with the island. In September 1992, the Bush administration denied a Greek freighter en route to Cuba with Chinese rice permission to sue Long Beach facilities for repairs. The same executive order limited humanitarian aid packages U.S. citizens could send to Cuba. In October 1992 the U.S. Congress enacted the Torricelli bill ("Cuba Democracy Act"), whereby subsidiaries of U.S. companies operating in third countries were prohibited from investing in or trading with Cuba. The bill effectively included trade in food, medicines, and medical supplies which in 1992 represented 90 percent of Cuban trade with U.S. subsidiaries. The Torricelli law also banned ships engaged in trade with Cuba from using U.S. port facilities for six months after the last visit to the island. This latter measure was still another blow to Cuban capacity to conduct international trade, for the old socialist bloc countries refused to carry Cuban trade unless paid in hard currency. The Cuban merchant marine was able to carry only 20 percent of the total trade volume. The balance was carried by foreign vessels which charged Cuba both for services rendered and for the added expenses incurred by the ban from U.S. ports, total costs that reached many millions of dollars. The Torricelli law also authorized the U.S. president to withhold economic assistance, debt relief, and free trade agreements with all countries that provided aid to Cuba.

Other measures were adopted to reduce or close existing sources of aid and foreign exchange. In November 1992, U.S. travel to Cuba was restricted further. Cuban-American family spending on travel-related fees charged by the Cuban government was limited to a maximum annual $500. Luggage weight to Cuba was restricted to a maximum of 44 pounds per traveler, with no paid excess baggage permitted. This last measure was especially harsh for it served to limit much-needed clothing and miscellaneous consumer goods often carried back to the island by visiting family members.

Life in Cuba settled into a grim and unremitting cycle of scarcity, in which shortage begat shortage and were some of the most basic daily needs and wants could be satisfied only by Herculean efforts. Inventories of available clothing, soap and detergent, and spare parts dwindled and often disappeared altogether. Rationing quotas frequently failed to supply enough food for more than two weeks of each month, driving vast numbers of people into the black market to supplement official monthly allotments. The disappearance of more than 300 medicines from local pharmacies, together with food shortages, threatened the health and nutrition of all sectors of the population, but especially the very young and the very old, the ill and the infirmed. An estimated 800,000 Cuban asthmatics were without necessary medication. In 1993 more than 50,000 Cubans suffered an epidemic of optic neuropathy due to a deficiency of vitamin B complex. While precise data was not available anecdotal evidence suggested that increasing numbers of Cubans were delaying marriage and that fertility rates had declined to what perhaps may have been the lowest levels in the twentieth century. The number of abortions increased. Between 1988 and 1990, there were nine abortions for every ten births. Housing starts fell hopelessly in arrears and the conditions of existing units continued to deteriorate in the absence of construction materials, replacement parts, and the resources for even routine maintenance. The growing numbers of university and technical school graduates across the island-the countless thousands whose very education was included among the most notable achievements of the revolution-faced an uncertain future.

Fuel shortages resulted in the closing of industrial plants and factories, which in turn created another round of production shortfalls and consumer shortages. An estimated 50 percent of industrial plants, and perhaps more, suspended operations due to shortages of fuel, inputs, and replacement parts. Many continued to operate but at a much reduced capacity. A shortage of paper supplies necessitated a reduction in the number of pages and frequency of publication of newspaper and magazines and delayed the publication of new books. In March 1991, the Cuban Book Institute announced a 50 percent reduction of new titles. Thereafter, a long backlog of new fiction and non-fiction titles brought domestic publication of new literary works to a virtual halt. Factory closings, production declines, and transportation difficulties led to the displacement of nearly 20 percent of the population. Work animals replaced tractors, harvesters, and trucks. Domestic production of meat, milk, and eggs was hampered by the lack of imported animal feed. In the mid-1993 a shortage of import feed for chickens resulted in the disappearance of eggs. The shortage of fertilizers, herbicides, and fuel reduced agricultural production. The sugar crop declined from 8.1 million tons in 1991 to 7 million tons in 1992, the smallest harvest in a decade. In 1993, it was worse. The lack of fuel, lubricants, pneumatics, and spare parts forced the closing of dozens of sugar mills, with disastrous consequences. The 1993 crop came in at 4.2 million tons.

Shortages of oil also contributed to the reduction of public transportation services. All through early 1992 Havana radio stations announced almost daily the consolidation of scores of bus routes and the cancellation of many others. Public transportation in the cities and between provinces declined dramatically. By the end of 1992, nearly 40 percent of national bus service and train schedules had been suspended. Lack of spare parts exacerbated Cuban transportation woes. In early 1993, nearly half of Havana's 1200 buses were idle for lack of parts. Local taxi service all but disappeared. Bicycles replaced automobiles as the principal means of personal transportation. By 1994,, nearly 700,000 bicycles had been distributed across the island. Efforts to ration scarce fuel supplies led to a schedule of power outages in almost every city. Blackouts were imposed daily, often lasting as long as eight and ten hours a day. Blackouts further complicated daily life. Electric water pumps, ovens, refrigerators, and freezers were rendered inoperative for hours at a time. Not only was it difficult to secure food, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to cook and preserve it. In March 1993 a late winter storm devastated the island, causing more than $1 billion worth of damage and leaving more than 150,000 people homeless.

By the early 1990s, Cuban internationalism had come to a virtual end. Military operations abroad decreased and eventually ceased altogether. Gradually, too, the legions of teachers, physicians, and construction workers who had volunteered for service abroad returned home.

All through the early 1990s Cuba faced unprecedented difficulties. Commercial relations with the former socialist bloc had all but ceased. Cubans found themselves increasingly isolated and beleaguered, faced with dwindling aid, decreasing foreign exchange reserves and diminishing resources, confronting the necessity to ration scarce goods and reduce declining services. Most of all it became increasingly difficult to go about normally in one's daily life, where so much of one's time and energy were expended in what otherwise and elsewhere were routine household errands and ordinary family chores, where days were frequently filled with unrelieved hardship and adversity in the pursuit of even the most minimum needs of everyday life, day after day: hours on line at the local grocery store, hours waiting for public transportation, hours without electrical power. Vast amounts of ingenuity were applied simply to meet ordinary and commonplace needs-to resolver and inventar became the operative verbs of a people seeking ways to make do and get by.

This copyrighted excerpt from "Cuba: Between Reform & Revolution" is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Louis A. Pérez, Jr.

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