Difficult Times in Cuba

In January next year it will be fifty years since the Revolution began back in 1959. Moreover, it will also be the 20th anniversary of the “Special Period”, the deepest crisis in the history of our island which started after the fall of the Eastern Block that brought about the end of the huge subsidies which had been sustaining Cuban economy.

These twenty years of backward evolution have sunk our people into misery and have brought harmful results as regards to society, politics, culture, demographics and the environment, because the frustration caused by a vision that promised a lot but ended in a huge failure that has strongly undermined our spiritual values, national identity and civic self-esteem.

This desperate situation has been further aggravated by the impact of natural disasters and the world economic crisis. Cuba was smashed by three strong hurricanes that practically destroyed the whole of the country. First there was Gustav on August 31 which caused large-scale damage at the Island of Youth and in the province of Pinar del Río. On September 8, Gustav was followed by Ike, which hit the island on the northern coast of the eastern province of Holguín, blew through Las Tunas and Camagüey and upon leaving, the hurricane swished along the southern coast and once again hit through Pinar del Río where it devastated what had been forgotten by its predecessor Gustav. And then the hurricane Paloma came, hitting the island on the southern coast of Camagüey on November 8 and causing serious damage, although luckily this hurricane lost some of its power when entering the country.

According to preliminary figures, the damages have been estimated at 10 billion dollars, which more or less account for 20% of overvalued official gross domestic product (GDP). There was a large-scale damage to infrastructure – to railways, transmission and communications lines, shops, schools, hospitals, and sport facilities, not mentioning serious damage suffered by farmers. The hurricanes had also significant impact having destroyed either totally or partially more than 500 000 homes, that is to say approximately 15% of the overall number of dwellings. The housing conditions in the affected areas are extremely poor due to insufficient reconstruction works and lack of new homes that would substitute the destroyed ones. The situation becomes even more serious if we consider that there had not been any recovery as regards the loss suffered during hurricanes in the previous years. Furthermore, official sources claim that the current housing deficit exceeds 500 000; yet according to estimates by independent experts, the overall figure accounts for one million units. To have an idea about the gravity of the problem it is sufficient to mention that this year, the number of newly constructed houses and flats will not reach 50 000.

These problems and the overall situation is exacerbated by the impact of the world crisis on Cuban economy. Nickel, one of the main Cuban export articles with 60% of the 2007 production being sold abroad, has lost two thirds of its value on the world market. Moreover, we have seen decrease in mixed-capital companies because many of them left the country. According to the Ministry of Foreign Investments, their number was reduced from 362 to 314. Major difficulties are also expected in relation to lower income from tourism and from the remittances that are being sent mainly from the United States.

Apart from the fact that from the financial point of view Cuba has been traditionally classified as a less trustworthy country, new credits which are essential for sustaining the economy will now be a lot more difficult to obtain due to decreased liquidity on an international scale. Nevertheless, there is even a more serious threat which is related to the substantial funding that Cuba receives from Venezuela – if the prices of oil, which accounts for 90% of Venezuelan export, continue decreasing, this funding may be affected. And then there is president Chavez facing political difficulties which might make him change direction and influence his immense spending abroad.

Another highly important fact to be considered is that structural reforms promised by Raul Castro have been held up. Moreover, in June, we saw a severe repression against informal economy which was reinforced to extremes after the hurricanes, intimidating and paralyzing Cuban society. While it was decided that prices of the main agricultural products would be frozen at the level which applied before the hurricanes came, the price of diesel was raised by 86% and the average price of petrol increased by more than 60% on average. These absurd measures have led to an absolute lack of supply of agricultural products which has affected even the shops that sell goods for foreign currency.

Considering the above, we are dealing with some sort of anti-reforms which are perhaps imposed by the most conservative branch of Cuban political party and government. Their authors may be worried that economic reforms might launch demands for political changes in the future which would subsequently lead to loss of the absolute power that they have been holding for decades.

Logically, the serious situation which the country is now facing, which will become even more severe in the upcoming months, requires that radical reforms are carried out. We need changes that would allow the use of available human and material resources which would help combat further exacerbation of the crisis. Yet since no reforms are undertaken, the living standard of Cuban people gets worse and this may lead to social disturbances.

As regards politics, people are more and more upset, and the unfulfilled promises of their president make them feel disappointed and cheated. It is interesting that there have been no more talks about next convention of the communist party which was announced in April by the president Raul Castro and which should take place at the end of 2009. Many experts perceive this silence as a fear of certain circles within the organization that some active party members might sharply criticise current administration and might openly speak up in favour of change. While in autumn 2007 the committees of the communist party were analyzing the speech that the General had had on July 26 of the same year and that bore signs of open and progressive approach, its contents were supported, yet at the same time there were great many voices expressing themselves critically about the existing problems and suggesting a wide variety of proposals for transformation. Therefore, the consensus on the need of introducing radical changes is clearly visible also among great many active members of the Cuban Communist Party.

However, it is not only the convention that is steeped in silence. Nor there is any discussion about the promises such as restructuring the state apparatus by the end of the year or establishing new forms of payment as regards salaries for workers that should be remunerated in a more just way and in accord with the work they have performed. Even the controversial Decree-Law No. 259 regarding the handover in usufruct of idle land seems to be at a standstill.

After fifty years of a so called revolution, Cuba is in a disastrous situation and at risk of even more serious problems. The Cuban people do not deserve such a destiny.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe an independent Cuban economist and journalist, who was one of the ‘75’ prisoners of conscience arrested in 2003 during the Black Spring. He has been a prominent and outspoken dissident in Cuba for more than a decade after becoming deeply disillusioned with Castro during the Special Period.