Cubans fear return to economic woes of early 1990s

A young man walks in front of a building in ruins last Friday, April 26, 2019, in Havana, as the specter of the economic woes of the 1990s comes back to haunt Cuba at a time when the island is caught between a battered economy and new pressure from Washington. EFE-EPA/Ernesto Mastrascusa

HAVANA.- Almost 30 years after suffering one of the worst crises in its history, the specter of the economic woes of the 1990s has come back to haunt Cuba at a time when the island is caught between a battered economy and new pressure from Washington.

«They were very hard times during which we turned violent and selfish,» recalled the actor and playwright Luis Mesa in the book «No Hay que Llorar» (There’s No Need to Cry), a grim memorial of the difficult years in the 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union left the island without subsidies or any immediate solution.

Christened by the late former President Fidel Castro as a «special period in times of peace,» it was a moment when the Cuban economy was hit by recession and many predicted the collapse of the Cuban Revolution as it faced one of its toughest trials.

The island was suddenly without its main source of income and Cubans began to suffer the shortages that became chronic, and for the great majority led to a constant need to hoard food and cleaning products «in case they’re never again to be found» in stores.

«It was a tough lesson, the worst. We had to learn to live with ‘zero choices.’ There was no food, no clothing, there was no fuel for electricity or for cooking. Making three meals a day was a luxury,» EFE was told by Alberto, a retired teacher who still gets «the shivers» when he remembers how he felt when his kids cried with hunger and he «cried for them.»

Cubans had to learn to do without anything that wasn’t essential: they exchanged everything «sellable» for money or basic necessities – coal, kerosene, food, detergent – while any available wood was used as fuel and car batteries were used as homemade electric plants.

It was a time when surviving required innovation and creativity. It was also a period when humor was the best reflection of the resilience of the islanders, who invented jokes about «floodlights» for some tiny lighting, they called the cats they had to eat «rabbits of the rooftops,» while «Angolan soap» was a reference to pouring water on yourself and scrubbing with your hand.

The inhabitants of urban areas learned to cultivate every bit of available land and travel «to the countryside» to exchange food for clothes. The trek was difficult because public transport had shrunk by more than 90 percent.

Meanwhile, the quality of life in the countryside went into a free fall from which it still hasn’t recovered, and which led to an exodus to the cities and a scarcity of farm labor that continues to affect the Cuban agricultural sector.

«I’m what they call ‘a girl of the special period’ because I spent my childhood between blackouts, speeches by Fidel on television, lines of people in grocery stores, long rides on a bike…and goodbyes. When I realized what was happening, more than half of my friends had left the country,» Alicia, a 33-year-old engineer, said.

Thousands of Cubans emigrated to the United States during the so-called «raft crisis» of 1994, when a series of boats were hijacked by the refugees. In August of that year, the largest anti-government protest to date convinced its leaders to let the rafters leave the country if they wanted to.

«It scares me to think we could be going back to those times. I don’t think I could stand it again,» said Paquita, 63, about hearing the words of former President Raul Castro, who said last April 10 to «be prepared for the worst variation of the economy.»

His successor, the current president of Cuba, Miguel Diaz-Canel, warned just three days later that «the severity of the moment demands that we establish very clear and well-defined priorities so we don’t go back to the difficult moments of the ‘special period,'» a possibility that can currently be glimpsed in the cyclical scarcity of foods like milk, eggs, poultry and flour.

«It’s a kind of generalized panic,» said that housewife, adding that she has seen more than one fight in a line to buy chicken or cooking oil,» products that are «scarce» in state stores and are rationed – two items per consumer.
«It could be that it never ended, because I don’t remember anyone decreeing the end of the ‘special period,'» she added.

One of Washington’s new measures will allow US citizens to file lawsuits against foreign companies occupying properties that previously belonged to them and that were confiscated after the Cuban Revolution. They will also limit the remittances sent back to the island, make travel here by US citizens even harder, and in general keep up the pressure on the Caribbean country, which is trying to repair its battered economy with foreign investment and tourism.

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