Cuba 2010: The Year of (Even) More Belt Tightening

On the 51st anniversary of the Cuban revolution, Leonardo Padura, Cuba’s best-known novelist, looks at the beginning of the next 50 years.


At this provecta age, we’ve finally realized that a country can’t spend more than it makes, that it’s outrageous that Cuba imports 80 percent of the food it consumes, that there’s a half million unit housing shortage and that the State doesn’t have the capacity to turn any of that around. We’ve also discovered that in spite of our optimistic and cheery desire to grow the economy 6 percent, at the end of 2009, we’ve barely reached 1.4 percent – a minimal figure which can’t be felt at all on the street – and that it’s impossible to keep up the meager system of subsidized foods on the ration card but that it’s also impossible to get rid of it without risking the starvation of millions of citizens who depend on those few products for half a month’s survival.


It’s just plain weird that, in a fertile and tropical country, an avocado or two mangos can cost half of a worker’s average daily salary. Weirder still that many of the things needed for day to day living are only available in hard currency, and at inflated prices. And it’s even stranger and more complex that the government (the main employer) acknowledges that the salary it pays is not enough to live on: How can we live then? By stealing, hustling, or via the euphemistic and all-encompassing ability “to resolve”?


Cubans have been asked for the umpteenth time (by our government) to tighten our belts. No one knows how many people no longer have any holes left on their belts to make that adjustment — or how many even have belts. But we have to save and resist. Yet a stroll through the real streets in my Havana neighborhood, or in any neighborhood on the island, and it’s easy to see that many people have no way to save and, in fact, are barely surviving.


Perhaps 2010 will be a year of great changes in an economic system that has been openly inefficient for decades and which has been one of the causes of our being in the mire now. But no one on the streets can imagine what those changes could be or how they could be implemented. What we do know is that the economy won’t grow at those dreamy levels of a few years ago (6, 7 percent), which were beautiful figures but never very tangible in the people’s daily life anyway.


At this provecta age that we’ve reached (and which include 20 years since the beginning of the crisis we call “The Special Period”), reality, rather stubbornly, has managed to impose a kind of realism: no more unnecessary expenditures; the urgent need to increase our miserable productivity; support for whatever activities generate the hard currency the country doesn’t have and needs; and the closing of unproductive industries. So why don’t economic changes come faster? Because there’s a global crisis, because of the North American embargo, because there were three hurricanes two years ago … and, perhaps, because changes – the essential changes – would shake up the country’s entire political and social architecture. And to avoid that shake up, there’s nothing better than a tighter belt, tightened to the last possible hole.