Cubans mobilise to overcome crisis

Wednesday, October 30, 1991

By Norm Dixon

The people of Cuba are mobilising to overcome the severe economic crisis imposed upon them by the sudden disruption to Cuba's trade with the Soviet Union. Cuba has been forced to rely heavily on Soviet trade by the 30-year US economic blockade.

Beginning in 1989, trade with eastern Europe virtually ceased, and deliveries from the Soviet Union became erratic.

Last December, Cuba and the Soviet Union signed a new trade agreement. The Soviet Union agreed to maintain the real level of trade at the 1990 level — i.e. what was delivered, rather than what had been contracted to arrive. There was a 25% shortfall in oil deliveries last year, and this has been formalised as a cut in deliveries for 1991. The price is comparable to the world market price.

The Soviet Union agreed to buy Cuban sugar at US$0.24 per pound, a lower price than previous agreements, only a few cents more than the US and EEC pay their suppliers. Cuba has also been promised 1.5 million tonnes of Soviet cereals.

All trade deals closed after March 31 are being conducted in US dollars, and from next year Cuba's 15.5 billion rouble debt will have to be repaid in hard currency.

In April, Cuban President Fidel Castro reported that almost no deliveries of vital raw materials such as caustic soda, timber and metal had arrived in the first part of the year. Deliveries of grain and other foodstuffs were well below promised levels and the needs of the Cuban population. This has created bread shortages and, because of a lack of grain to feed poultry, eggs are scarce.

Cuba must import powdered milk, butter, flour and wheat, beans and rice as well fodder for livestock.

A range of emergency measures centre on reducing energy consumption, increasing self-sufficiency in foodstuffs and developing new industries to generate foreign exchange.

Rationing includes shoes, clothes, furniture and toys. The sale of electrical goods has been restricted to save electricity and conserve hard currency. Most food items, with the exception of some fruit and vegetables, are rationed; the monthly allocation of staples, including rice and beans, has been reduced.

But Cubans are not going hungry because the libreta or ration book guarantees everybody adequate nutrition (something 50% of Latin Americans cannot obtain), and Cubans eat one meal a day supplied by their workplace or school.

Contrary to Western press reports, usually penned from a hotel room in Miami, there is little opposition to the rationing system. "Although no-one is happy about the growing scarcities", US Militant journalists Seth Galinsky and Mary-Alice Waters recently reported from Cuba, "rationing is not unpopular in Cuba. It st and equitable. The allocation on the ration book is the same for government and party functionaries and for workers."

All industries and services have been ordered to cut their energy consumption 50% by using alternative energy sources or by reducing the number of shifts. Some energy-intensive industries, or those dependent on scarce imported raw materials, have closed. New construction work has virtually stopped because the oil shortage has severely affected cement production.

Bus services have been reduced during non-peak hours, and people are being encouraged to ride bicycles for short journeys. Two hundred thousand bicycles have been imported from China and distributed to young people. Another 700,000 are being assembled using Chinese and Cuban components.

Cuba is putting a lot of effort toward developing the tourist industry as a source of hard currency. The aim is to have 50,000 hotel rooms by 1995 and attract 1 million visitors. Should this be achieved, tourism would contribute as much hard currency as all other sources did last year.

People are mobilising to achieve self-sufficiency in food production. City-dwellers are volunteering in the tens of thousands for work brigades and contingents to increase food production. This is combined with increased investment in irrigation systems, refrigerated stores and the expansion of dairy, beef, pork, poultry and fish production. Special emphasis is being placed on making Havana province, home to 20% of Cuba's population, self-sufficient.

Contingents involve people volunteering for two-year stints of intensive work. In return they receive above average pay and excellent accommodation at their place of work. Forty new agricultural communities are being built on state farms in Havana province. The communities include a school, a health centre, child-care centre and even a swimming pool.

Mobilisations urban workers and university student volunteers work in the countryside for two to three weeks. They are housed in well-appointed campamentos. Sixty-one such settlements, each with a capacity for 3000 volunteers, have been constructed in Havana province. They help cooperatives, state farms and individual peasants produce food.

While the Cuban people are certainly unhappy with the sacrifices they are being forced to make, they know it is the US government that is responsible for putting them through this ordeal.

Cubans need only look at their neighbours in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to see what life would be like if they abandoned the gains of their revolution. A Time magazine reporter who recently visited Havana was forced to conclude that any discontent Cuban young people ("the healthiest and best educated younger class in Latin America") are feeling will not necessarily "translate into the demise of Castro and Cuba's brand of tropical socialism".

She spoke to many young Cubans, who all expressed sentiments like those of one 17-year-old: "We see socialism is difficult to achieve, e answer either".

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