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Special Period and Recovery

The collapse of the Soviet Union, ending 1991, decimated the Cuban economy. The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34 percent. Food and medicine imports stopped or severely slowed. Perhaps most immediately impactful, however, was the loss of nearly all of the oil imports by the USSR; Cuba's oil imports dropped to 10% of pre-1990 amounts.

Before this, Cuba had been re-exporting any Soviet oil 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 reemerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union, its administration immediately made clear that it had no intention of delivering the tanker after tanker of petroleum that had been guaranteed the island by the USSR; in response to this notification, Fidel Castro angrily cut off all oil delivery from Russia, merely one week later. He fell witness to an immediate need to reduce domestic consumption of what remained by 20% over a span of just twenty-four months.

The effect was felt immediately. Entirely dependent on fossil fuels to operate, the major underpinnings of Cuban society—its transportation, 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 oil 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 oil 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 their previous levels and the average Cuban lost about 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.

The United States law allowed humanitarian aid in the form of food and medicine by private groups. Then in March 1996, The Helms-Burton Act imposes 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. Due to the external factors contributing to the energy crisis in Cuba, the collapse of the USSR who was their main source of petroleum and food imports, along with the various stages of the US embargo, this is referred to as an "artificial" peak oil.

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 oil via the international capitalist 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 transportation, most notably the Cuban "camels" — immense 18-wheeler tractor trailers retrofitted as passenger buses meant to carry many dozens 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 things like 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.

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