Cubans fear return to 90s austerity amid cuts

Police officers verify the entry to an urban bus, in Havana, Cuba, 12 September 2019. The island faces a fuel crisis, which began with the interruption of the arrival of diesel on 10 September and will not resume until 14 September. [Ernesto Mastrascusa/EPA/EFE]

Havana awoke Thursday (12 September) to long lines at gas stations and public transportation stops after President Miguel Díaz-Canel warned fellow Cubans to expect fuel shortages and blackouts that he blamed on US sanctions.

The fuel crisis immediately raised fears of a return to the extreme austerity of the 1990s “Special Period” following the collapse of its main benefactor, the Soviet Union.

“I’m worried. Terrified!” said Katia Morfa, 36, as she took her seven-year-old daughter to school.

“When they announce these kinds of measures, it gives us Cubans chills from head to toe. It’s inevitable that we think of the dark and very sad days of the Special Period,” Morfa told AFP.

In a televised address late Wednesday, Díaz-Canel said the “low availability of diesel” will affect transportation, power generation and distribution of merchandise.

He said no fuel had arrived in the country since Tuesday and the situation will persist until Saturday when an oil tanker is expected to arrive in port.

The US Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on various companies for transporting Venezuelan oil to Cuba.

Díaz-Canel accused the United States of acting “with greater aggression towards Cuba.”

But in a bid to calm fears, he insisted the shortages did not mean the country had entered “a Special Period.”

The 1990s austerity caused widespread shortages and led to malnutrition and associated diseases, as well as the exodus of 45,000 refugees, mostly to the United States.

Déjà vu

The president’s reassurances fell on deaf ears for within minutes of the end of his televised speech, thousands rushed to gas stations, alarmed at news that they would not be refueled before Saturday at the earliest.

Díaz-Canel pledged a return to “a situation of relative normality” in October. He stressed that the country was stronger than at the time of the Special Period because it had succeeded in diversifying its economy and now had the European Union as its main trading partner.

“Hopefully he’s right that it’s not going to last, because he’s doing the best he can,” says Vicenta Crespo, 63, who runs a stand selling coffee and cigars in Havana’s old town.

“But there are many things that don’t depend on him,” she said.

Morfa took a more pessimistic view. “What we are seeing is that we’re taking the same path that led us to the other crisis,” in the 1990s.

Her voice broke when she spoke about the ordeal she went through at her daughter’s Lucia’s age.

“Power cuts that lasted for hours… poor nutrition, lacking everything… diseases. I don’t want Lucia to live like that.”

‘Really vulnerable’

Language student Enrique, 22, who did not want to give his full name, said such an announcement was only to be expected in the current climate. “We know the difficulties in Venezuela,” on which Cuba depends heavily for cut-price oil.

“But it shows that we are really vulnerable. It only takes one tanker not arriving and the whole country feels the impact,” he said.

Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, is suffering hyperinflation and shortages of basic goods from food to medicine since a collapse in the price of oil.

The country is also roiled by a political crisis that has seen an opposition leader try to oust President Nicolas Maduro, and the United States has targeted Venezuelan officials and its oil industry with sanctions in a bid to force out the strongman.

The notion that Cuba has reverted to the bad old days worries Jose Marti, a 69-year-old street-sweeper named for Cuba’s revolutionary hero.

“Even though we’re in a bad spot now I think we’ll hold tough,” he said.

“Even if I have to go to work on foot, I would die for this revolution,” he said.

Crespo says she too has retained her old revolutionary fighting spirit, but the country as a whole had changed.

“In the 90s there was a lot of solidarity, but today Cuba is different, there’s a lot of laziness, a lack of solidarity. Today’s Cuba is terribly selfish.”

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