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The Special Period in Time of Peace (Spanish: Período especial) in Cuba was a euphemism for an extended period of economic crisis that began in 1989 primarily due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and, by extension, the Comecon. The economic depression of the Special Period was at its most severe in the early to mid-1990s before slightly declining in severity towards the end of the decade. It was defined primarily by the severe shortages of hydrocarbon energy resources in the form of gasoline, diesel, and other petroleum derivatives that occurred upon the implosion of economic agreements between the petroleum-rich Soviet Union and Cuba. The period radically transformed Cuban society and the economy, as it necessitated the successful introduction of sustainable agriculture, decreased use of automobiles, and overhauled industry, health, and diet countrywide. People were forced to live without many goods they had become used to.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union hit the Cuban economy severely. The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. Food and medicine imports stopped or severely slowed. The largest immediate impact was the loss of nearly all of the petroleum imports from the USSR; Cuba's oil imports dropped to 10% of pre-1990 amounts. Before this, Cuba had been re-exporting any Soviet petroleum it did not consume to other nations for profit, meaning that petroleum had been Cuba's second largest export product before 1990. Once the restored Russian Federation emerged from the former Soviet Union, its administration immediately made clear that it had no intention of delivering petroleum that had been guaranteed the island by the USSR; this resulted in a decrease in Cuban consumption by 20% of its previous level within two years. The effect was felt immediately. Entirely dependent on fossil fuels to operate, the major underpinnings of Cuban society—its transport, industrial and agricultural systems—were paralyzed. There were extensive losses of productivity in both Cuban agriculture—which was dominated by modern industrial tractors, combines, and harvesters, all of which required petroleum to run—and in Cuban industrial capacity.
The early stages of the Special Period were defined by a general breakdown in transportation and agricultural sectors, fertilizer and pesticide stocks (both of those being manufactured primarily from petroleum derivatives), and widespread food shortages. Australian and other permaculturists arriving in Cuba at the time began to distribute aid and taught their techniques to locals, who soon implemented them in Cuban fields, raised beds, and urban rooftops across the nation. Organic agriculture was soon after mandated by the Cuban government, supplanting the old industrialized form of agriculture Cubans had grown accustomed to. Relocalization, permaculture, and innovative modes of mass transit had to be rapidly developed. For a time, waiting for a bus could take three hours, power outages could last up to sixteen hours, food consumption was cut back to one-fifth of its previous level and the average Cuban lost about nine kilograms (twenty pounds). Although starvation was avoided, persistent hunger, something not seen since before the Cuban Revolution, suddenly became a daily experience, and initially, malnutrition in children under five was evident after just a few weeks of these food shortages.
At the time, United States law allowed humanitarian aid in the form of food and medicine by private groups. Then in March 1996, the Helms-Burton Act imposed further penalties on foreign companies doing business in Cuba, and allowed U.S. citizens to sue foreign investors who use American-owned property seized by the Cuban government.
The Cuban government was also forced to contract out more lucrative economic and tourism deals with various Western European and South American nations in an attempt to earn the foreign currency necessary to replace the lost Soviet petroleum via the international markets. Additionally faced with a near-elimination of imported steel and other ore-based supplies, Cuba closed refineries and factories across the country, eliminating the country's industrial arm and millions of jobs. The government then proceeded to replace these lost jobs with employment in industrial agriculture and other homegrown initiatives, but these jobs often did not pay as well, and Cubans on the whole became economically poorer. Alternative transport, most notably the Cuban "camels"—immense 18-wheeler tractor trailers retrofitted as passenger buses meant to carry hundreds of Cubans each—flourished. Food-wise, meat and dairy products, having been extremely fossil fuel dependent in their former factory farming methods, soon diminished in the Cuban diet. In a shift notable for being generally anathema to Latin American food habits, the people of the island by necessity adopted diets higher in fiber, fresh produce, and ultimately more vegan in character. No longer needing sugar as desperately for a cash crop—the oil-for-sugar program the Soviets had contracted with Cuba had, of course, dissipated—Cuba hurriedly diversified its agricultural production, utilizing former cane fields to grow consumables such as oranges and other fruit and vegetables. The Cuban government also focused more intensely on cooperation with Venezuela once the socialist Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998.
Cubans had to resort to eating anything they could find. In the Havana zoo, "The peacocks, the buffalo and even the rhea" were reported to have disappeared. Cuban domestic cats disappeared from streets to dinner tables.
Cows in the island were eaten. Before 1959, Cuba boasted as many cattle as people. Today meat is so scarce that it is a crime to kill and eat a cow. To combat illegal cow eating, the government established harsh penalties. A person can get more jail time for killing a cow (10 years in prison) than killing a human. Those who sell beef without government permission can get three to eight years in prison. Eaters of illegal beef can get three months to one year in prison.
The Special Period's malnutrition created epidemics, but it had positive effects too. Manuel Franco describes the Special Period as "the first, and probably the only, natural experiment, born of unfortunate circumstances, where large effects on diabetes, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality have been related to sustained population-wide weight loss as a result of increased physical activity and reduced caloric intake".
A paper in the American Journal of Epidemiology, says that "during 1997-2002, there were declines in deaths attributed to diabetes (51%), coronary heart disease (35%), stroke (20%), and all causes (18%). An outbreak of neuropathy and a modest increase in the all-cause death rate among the elderly were also observed." This was caused by how the population tried to reduce the energy store without reducing the nutritional value of the food.
A letter published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) criticizes the American Journal of Epidemiology for not taking all factors into account and says that "The famine in Cuba during the Special Period was caused by political and economic factors similar to the ones that caused a famine in North Korea in the mid-1990s. Both countries were run by authoritarian regimes that denied ordinary people the food to which they were entitled when the public food distribution collapsed; priority was given to the elite classes and the military. In North Korea, 3%–5% of the population died; in Cuba the death rate among the elderly increased by 20% from 1982 to 1993." The regime did not accept American donations of food, medicines and cash until 1993. Thirty thousand Cubans fled the country; thousands drowned or were killed by sharks."
Nutrition fell from 3,052 calories per day in 1989 to 2,099 calories per day in 1993. Other reports indicate even lower figures, 1,863 calories per day. Some estimated that the very old and children received only 1,450 calories per day. The recommended minimum is 2,100–2,300 calories
August 5, 1994 protest
Hundreds of Cubans protested in Havana on August 5, 1994, some chanting "Libertad!" ("Freedom"). The protest, in which some threw rocks at police, was dispersed by the police after a few hours. A paper published in the Journal of Democracy argues that this was the closest that the Cuban opposition could come to asserting itself decisively.
Immediate actions taken by the government included televising an announcement of the expected energy crisis a week before the USSR notified the Cuban government that they would not be delivering the expected quota of crude oil. Citizens were asked to reduce their consumption in all areas and to use public transport and carpooling. As time went on, the administration developed more structured strategies to manage the long-term energy/economic crisis as it stretched into the 21st century.
Food rationing intensified. Monthly allocations for families were based on basic minimum requirements as recommended by the United Nations. However, at the worst of times, the rations comprised only one fifth of these consumption amounts.
Housing, land distribution, and urban planning
The cost of producing cement and the scarcity of tools and of building materials increased the pressure on already overcrowded housing. Even before the energy crisis, extended families lived in small apartments (many of which were in very poor condition) to be closer to an urban area. To help alleviate this situation, the government engaged in land-distribution where they supplemented larger government-owned farms with privately owned ones. Small homes were built in rural areas and land was provided to encourage families to move, to assist in food production for themselves, and to sell in local farmers' markets. As the film The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil discusses, co-ops developed which were owned and managed by groups, as well as creating opportunities for allowing them to form "service co-ops" where credit was exchanged and group purchasing-power was used to buy seeds and other scarce items.
Cubans were accustomed to cars as a convenient mode of transport. It was a difficult shift during the Special Period to adjust to a new way of managing the transport of thousands of people to school, to work and to other daily activities. With the realization that food was the key to survival, transport became a secondary worry and walking, hitch-hiking, and carpooling became the norm. Privately owned vehicles are not common; ownership is not seen as a right but as a privilege awarded for performance. Public transport is creative and takes on the following forms:
- Cars – old US cars common in Cuba are used as taxis to transport from six to eight passengers, stopping at locations as needed.
- Trucks – canopies and steps were added to accommodate more passengers and protect them from the natural elements; or open "dump-truck buses" are used.
- Bikes – 1.2 million bicycles were purchased from China and distributed as well as another half a million produced in Cuba.
- "Camels" – Conversion of semi-truck flatbeds into bus-like vehicles that hold up to 300 passengers.
- Government vehicles pick up passengers as needed.
- Horses and mules are used as well as bike- and horse-drawn carriages with taxi licenses are numerous both in rural and urban areas.
- Convenience for the individual is secondary to efficient use of energy.
Cuba's history of colonization included deforestation and overuse of its agricultural land. Before the crisis, Cuba used more pesticides than the U.S.. Lack of fertiliser and agricultural machinery caused a shift towards organic farming and urban farming. Cuba still has food rationing for basic staples. Approximately 69% of these rationed basic staples (wheat, vegetable oils, rice, etc.) are imported. Overall, however, approximately 16% of food is imported from abroad.
The grip of the state on Cuban farming has been disastrous. State farms of various kinds hold 75% of Cuba's 6.7 m hectares of agricultural land. In 2007 some 45% of this was lying idle, much of it overrun by marabú, a tenacious weed. Cuba is the only country in Latin America where killing a cow is a crime (and eating beef a rare luxury). That has not stopped the cattle herd declining from 7 m in 1967 to 4 m in 2011.
Initially, this was a very difficult situation for Cubans to accept; many came home from studying abroad to find that there were no jobs in their fields. It was pure survival that motivated them to continue and contribute to survive through this crisis. The documentary, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, states that today, farmers make more money than most other occupations.
Due to a poor economy, there were many crumbling buildings that could not be repaired. These were torn down and the empty lots lay idle for years until the food shortages forced Cuban citizens to make use of every piece of land. Initially, this was an ad-hoc process where ordinary Cubans took the initiative to grow their own food in any available piece of land. The government encouraged this practice and later assisted in promoting it. Urban gardens sprung up throughout the capital of Havana and other urban centers on roof-tops, patios, and unused parking lots in raised beds as well as "squatting" on empty lots. These efforts were furthered by Australian agriculturalists who came to the island in 1993 to teach permaculture, a sustainable agricultural system, and to "train the trainers". The Cuban government then sent teams throughout the country to train others.
The ideological changes of the Special Period had effects on Cuban society and culture, beyond those on the country. A comprehensive review of these effects concerning ideology, art and popular culture can be found in Ariana Hernandez-Reguant's Cuba in the Special Period. As a result of increased travel and tourism, popular culture developed in new ways. Lisa Knauer, in that volume, describes the circulation of rumba between New York and Havana, and their mutual influences. Antonio Eligio Tonel has described the contemporary art networks that shaped the Cuban art market, and Esther Whitfield the channels through which Cuban literature accessed the wider Spanish speaking world during that period. Elsewhere, Deborah Pacini, Marc Perry, Geoffrey Baker and Sujatha Fernandes extensively wrote about Cuban rap music as a result of these transnational exchanges. In recent years, that is, not in the 1990s which is the period identified with the Special Period, reggaeton has replaced timba as the genre of choice among youth, taking on the explicitly sexual dance moves that originated with timba.
Whereas timba music was a Cuban genre that evolved out of traditional son and jazz, emphasizing blackness and sexuality through sensual dancing, with lyrics that reflected the socio-cultural situation of the period with humor [Hernandez-Reguant 2006], Cuban hip hop evolved as a socially conscious movement influenced heavily by its kin genre in the United States. Thus it was not so much a product of the Special Period—as timba was—as one of globalization.[Fernandes 2004] The Revolution and the blockage of all imports from the US had made the dissemination of American music difficult during the sixties and seventies, as it was often "tainted as music of the enemy and began to disappear from the public view." But all of that changed in the 1990s, when American rappers flocked regularly to Cuba, tourists brought CDs, and North American stations, perfectly audible in Cuba, brought its sounds. Nonetheless, hip hop circulated through informal networks, thus creating a small underground scene of rap enthusiasts located mostly in Havana's Eastern neighborhoods that called the attention of foreign scholars and journalists. Eventually, rappers were offered a space within state cultural networks. The lack of resources to purchase the electronic equipment to produce beats and tracks gives Cuban rap a raw feel that paralleled that of "old school" music in the US.
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