Periodo Especial: The Sequel?!

I don’t know how the Special Period felt coming on, but I do know how it manifested once in full swing. Transport was so scarce and overcrowded, passengers lunged from bus windows at their stop or simply rode on the roof, hung from the door frame or clung to the back bumper.

Each and every day, the entire island was plunged into darkness; blackouts were so long and common, Cubans, plumbing their deep well of ironic optimism, began referring to ‘light ups,’ those times when there actually was electricity. So few and far between were those electrified hours, neighborhood block parties were held in the street, around a bonfire with a jug of rum (or more often moonshine known as ‘chispa‘e tren/baja tus bloomers’).

Toilet paper was non-existent – we used water or more often, pages ripped from the Granma newspaper. In many homes, squares the size of real TP were cut from the paper and stacked neatly atop the toilet tank. I wasn’t too put off by this. As a life-long camper, I’ve wiped my butt with all manner of material. Nevertheless, I do remember my shock at seeing Che’s face, shit-stained and crumpled, staring up at me from the bathroom wastebasket. It seemed blasphemous then but practical and normal thereafter – in dire/adverse circumstances, you do what you gotta do to survive.

And Cubans did.

They pedaled the 1 million Chinese bikes imported as transport of last resort. They fried “steaks” from grapefruit rinds, they fanned infants for hours with a piece of cardboard during stagnant summer nights. They lost weight, some suffering a neuropathy epidemic for lack of nutritious food. They rigged up kerosene burners for cooking and fashioned homemade matches. They struggled and suffered, finding solace in family, days swimming at El Espigon and nights stretching out on the Malecon. They danced, sang and fucked. They persevered and survived…

Flash forward to 2019. We’re in a different historical moment, a different context than the one I experienced in 1993, but the effects of the Special Period linger, if you know where to look. Not wanting their kids to ever go hungry like they did, parents indulge appetites to the point where child obesity and overweight are current health problems. Bicycles and cycling are stigmatized, reminding people too viscerally of those hard times. Today, hoarding happens and some still prefer newspaper to toilet paper.

The cleverness of Cubans and their deep stores of creativity and inventiveness honed during the Special Period are constantly on display. You see it in the 70-year old Harley-Davidsons zooming down the road, parts hand-hewn in cluttered, greasy garages across the island. You see it in the Russian washing machines cannibalized to make lawn mowers, blenders and coconut shredders. You see it in the burgeoning upcycle movement where the experience of struggle is translated into décor and dollars.

But no one, I mean no one wants to go through that again. And I highly doubt as many Cubans who tolerated it then would now – at least not in Havana. Make no mistake: Cuba learned its lesson from the implosion of the Soviet bloc, which sent the dependent island economy into a tailspin. It diversified, it liberalized, and it looked for and forged alternatives. But we’re seeing signs, folks. We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. And it’s worrying.

Indeed, the most violent factor was – and is – beyond Cuban control: the nearly 60-year old US embargo cripples all economic and social development in one way or another. And last week the Trump Administration announced it’s considering enacting Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. I’ll leave a full explanation to the economists and wonks, but the important point is: as in 1996, during the deepest days of the Special Period, Jesse Helms and Dan Burton pounced on Cuba’s vulnerability and pushed this Act through Congress “to seek international sanctions against the Castro government in Cuba, to plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba, and for other purposes.” Sensing that same vulnerability like a lioness stalking the weakest of the pack, Marco Rubio is exacting his quid pro quo with Donald Trump via Cuba and Title III.

It’s abominable how this administration is destroying lives at home and abroad. It’s no less shameful how supposed political detractors enable this cabal. Please, anyone in a policy/decision-making position reading this: do the world (and yourselves) a favor and grow some balls/ovaries; history will judge you and you will NOT be absolved.

Unfortunately, I doubt anyone reading this is making US policy. I also doubt that many people reading this realize just how vulnerable right now feels. Major trading partners and allies including Venezuela and Brazil are on the ropes. Trump rhetoric is scaring away investors and tourists. The embargo is still in place and we’ve suffered Hurricane Irma, Sub Tropical Storm Alberto, a devastating plane crash and a tornado, all in the past 18 months.

And we’re feeling it.

There was a massive flour shortage and though we are once again enjoying flour and pizza, there is neither milk (terrible for Cuba Libro) nor eggs. These latter were dubbed salvavidas in the Special Period days because eggs are a cheap, easy-to-prepare source of protein. They were, and are, ‘lifesavers.’ In the past three months, I’ve eaten a total of half a dozen eggs; it used to be a daily (or even twice a day) affair. Monthly egg rations have been cut in half to five per person, per month and when they do appear in stores, customers are limited to two cartons of 36 eggs each. But this is Cuba…

This week, my friend Camilo got word that eggs were being sold at the Plaza de Marianao. He made the trek across town and took his place in the long line. He watched people carting away 6, 7, 10 or more cartons of eggs. The stack for sale behind the crumbling counter shrank. He surmised the egg sellers were paid off to ignore the two-carton rule. The sun beat down, the stack shrank, Camilo was sweating from the heat and attendant low-level panic. Would the eggs hold out until his turn came around? He had waited in line already for two hours. The stack shrank. He asked one of the customers pulling a dolly away with over 400 eggs if he would sell a carton?

‘!Hombre no! This is for my private cafeteria. I need every last one.’

The eggs ran out and Camilo left empty handed. Mad and desperate, he went to a cafeteria near his house to order two egg sandwiches, hold the bread, hold the oil, hold the making of it. When he discovered that same sandwich which used to cost 35 cents, now costs 75, he slumped home egg-less. Today we’re scrambling to procure eggs for Jenny’s grandmother who, ailing and frail, has been prescribed a special diet by her doctor, including two eggs a day. So far we’ve been unsuccessful.

Then there’s the cooking oil situation. Shortages nationwide mean customers are only allowed two bottles per person. To procure those two precious bottles, you have to travel to the store that has it (lucky you if it’s actually in your neighborhood) and spend hours on line under a blistering sun just like my egg-less friend Camilo. As a result, many people I know spent this past weekend rendering chicken and pork fat so they won’t get caught (too) short.

Shortages of flour, eggs, oil – this post was simmering in my overworked brain for a bit but didn’t come to fruition until last night when the smell of gasoline permeated my living room. I emerged from the egg-less, flour-less kitchen (we don’t fry much and our current bottle of oil is a month old and still half-full) to see what was up. Twenty liters of premium gas now sits in a tank in said living room because people see the writing on the wall: gas hoarding has officially begun.

Blackouts are happening too – not as long or as often as I experienced in 1993, but worrisome still. And the economy overall is showing signs of serious distress. Last year the national economy grew a meager 1% and projections for this year are similar.

We may not be headed for a Second Special Period, but things feel tense as we plod through this year, Havana’s 500th anniversary.

Happy Birthday, ciudad querida. I hope smoother sailing awaits.

Advertisements

12 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

12 responses to “Periodo Especial: The Sequel?!

  1. Lori

    I’m worried too! The situation was the same in Granma Province when I was there last…it sucks!!!

  2. Earl L. Kerr

    To say I’m sorry would imply something can be done. I don’t know how to assist. I would gladly send you some Solar panels if permitted. Let me know !!! Rubio is a self centered ostentatious anal orifice expelling. Flatus and Bovine feces with a brown nose.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Kelly Repovs-Bico

    Just yesterday on Facebook, I shared a recent message I received from a friend in Cuba – he told me they are “in another Special Period without it actually being called that”. This article draws such a vivid picture of what my amigo’s message really means. I have friends who are currently staying at a big all-in resort on Cayo Guillermo this week, and all I can see in my head after reading this is them standing in the buffet line waiting for their fresh omelettes to be flipped onto their plates. No disrespect to them but…ugh.

    • In my work/shmoozing at Cuba Libro, many tourists have expressed shock at the egg troubles – no lack of eggs on their plates! I hope this post helps folks better understand the complexities we’re facing on a daily basis. And no, Im not advocating that tourists stay away so that we have more eggs – doesn’t work that way, it ain’t zero sum – but I do think that a more informed traveler makes a more resposnible traveler. thanks for reading and writing in

  4. Sheri C Kennedy

    so as a traveller last month, i felt extremely guilty when i could not finish my breakfast (i did forgo my eggs). it was so plentiful i could not eat all the ham, cheese and cubes of pork i was given. i hope (as i did not even touch it with my fork) that someone would maybe be able to eat it. in retrospect, i felt bad i did not take it with me to at least feed some of the doggies on the street. bad enough that when i return (and it is a when not an if) i am very conflicted on going out to a restaurant. but what can the average american do to help the situation…

    • Hola Sheri. I know what you mean/how you feel. Those breakfasts are too huge and many Cuban portions in general are just too big. I think one thing is to give feedback to hosts about quantity – if they get that comment often enough they may pare down or at least ask individuals about their desires in terms of what/how much food. The former does gets asked but normally not the latter. Leftovers do NOT go to waste in Cuba, don’t worry about that.

      As for what “average Americans” can do about the situation, it’s the same old, same old: 1) STAY ON YOUR REPRESENTATIVES IN CONGRESS TO LIFT THE EMBARGO, 2) come to Cuba yourselves to draw your own conclusions – do not rely on compromised/co-opted/cuckolded press/media to tell you about Cuba, 3) learn something about the complexities before and during travel to Cuba so as to be a more responsible traveler. At restaurants, it’s best to patronize those with their own farms/huertas. Renting an apt or house with a kitchen will not only be a total education in Cuban cuisine and what’s possible/impossible, but will get you out and about meeting neighbors at the agro, give you firsthand experience about food insecurity here, and give you more independence and save money.

      Thanks for reading and writing in with your concerns

  5. Jenny C.

    I’ve been fearing the same thing. Thanks for writing about the situation so clearly and unflinchingly.
    I know some well-meaning tourists have started taking cooking oil but that’s a drop in the bucket, as it were. I wish something more potent could be done! Any suggestions?

    • Hola Jenny. See my response to Sheri above. Im happy to report that eggs have started to appear in Havana and cooking oil more slowly. Bringing oil in your luggage can be hazardous (back in the early aughts, when things were very tight here and stores not so well stocked, I brought a bottle of olive oil in my luggage….it exploded and so did I when I unzipped the bag and found everything covered in a thick slick of grease); better to give $$ directly to those you meet in need so they can buy what they need. For instance, the 3 or 4 liter jugs of oil have been available but are out of financial reach of many families. Cheers

  6. LuisC

    I’m very worried too and I live far away from Cuba. I’ve been reading how some Marco Rubio type Cubans in Miami are rubbing their hands with joy at the prospect of a new Special Period, which they predict and wish would be worse than the previous one. They have help from Trump, Bolton, Rubio etc. Today, the biggest thread Cuba and its economy face is coming from the North. And no one is doing anything about it. Sanctions and more sanctions, regime change at any cost, announced by Bolton. Poor Cuba, no respite.

    • No respite – great way to put it. But those Miami Cubans are in for a rude surprise if they think that the island is going to take any of this lying down. Not folks to just roll over! Thanks for reading and commenting. keeps me energized!

  7. Irene R

    Conner, if you don’t mind me asking, where is it best to donate goodies to ensure that those who need it most receive it? I’m assuming Cuba Libro is a good first step!

    • Hi Irene. Thanks for inquiring! At Cuba Libro, we are dedicated to making the most needed things available to the most vulnerable. We’ve been donating in Havana and provinces for going on 5 years, to nursery schools, primary schools and specialized schools for kids with autism, pediatric cancer wards, old folks’ homes, FMC, providing prenatal vitamins for dozens of pregnant women and more. Info and pictures on our website and Facebook page. We’ve also made a dozen donations (big ones!) to tornado victims. anyone interested in donating can get in touch with us via our website or Facebook.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s