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HAVANA, Apr 8 2009 (IPS) - We Cubans may be the people least frightened by the ominous talk of the “economic crisis” that is stalking the world and has already devastated so many. A prolonged submersion in the sea of shortages and severe limitations that led down into the hell of widespread poverty during the post-Soviet decade of the 1990s -euphemistically dubbed the “Special Period in Times of Peace”- taught us to weather extended periods of every kind of scarcity -food, electricity, transport, housing, medicine, clothing, and much more- and to come through it alive, albeit all too often battered.

It was in the 90s, when blackouts were the rule and the most common mode of transport was the bicycle, that a joke began to circulate that best summed up daily life for the over ten million inhabitants of the island: Cubans really have only three problems: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every day.

In a country where the sale of homes is illegal, where you must run a gauntlet of infinitely complex official permits to buy a new car, where unemployment is voluntary because state salaries are too low to live on and many prefer to earn their keep in other ways (through what they call “the invention”), where the economic and practical near impossibility of travelling off the island (and even on it) long ago burned out this desire in the minds of Cubans, it is clear that the most painful and resonant impacts of the current crisis have barely left a mark here. It is as if the island had the advantage -if one can call it that- of having fallen into a different galaxy reached only by the dust from explosions of remote stars.

It is clear that in these times of global crisis the Cuban government has had to compensate for the exponential rise in imported food prices (which account for about 70 percent of the island’s food) and last year’s jump in fuel prices, while maintaining the safety net for the most vulnerable sectors of society. But it is also obvious that in terms of Cuba’s food situation, the long crisis that we lived through, exacerbated by three hurricanes that blasted the island in 2008, had little to do with what was going on in the rest of the world and its crisis. In reality, Cuba’s food shortage was largely caused by its own now traditional low level of productivity. One of the most predictable reflections of this is the extremely high prices at the markets and state shops that accept only foreign currency – shops that almost all families are driven to use by the impossibility of surviving on the goods that are state subsidised or obtained with ration cards.

For these reasons, Cubans are placing their hopes not in the G7 or G20 meetings, or the possible modifications of the global capitalist financial or economic system that may arise from this crisis, but rather in the social and economic changes announced by the government two years ago and which, at least in their effect on daily life, have come to a halt after two or three non-structural measures were introduced along with certain improvements in crucial sectors like transportation.

Recent changes, especially in the economic team inherited by the government of Raul Castro, as well as the first moves by the Obama administration to ease restrictions on travel and remittances to the island by Cubans living in the US -plus the hope that in coming weeks or months Washington, while not ending the embargo, might introduce additional measures- have aroused hopes that the Cuban crisis might lift at any moment.

And yet, at the same time, the lack of signs of movement on the long-awaited economic opening or the diversification of the forms of property and of production, tend to suggest that the socialist economic structure will remain the preference of the country’s leadership and that nothing will change.

Meanwhile a generation of Cubans born after 1980 have lived almost their entire lives besieged by shortages. It is on this generation that the interminable crisis has had the greatest effect and in them we can now clearly see what might be referred to as collateral damage: the devastating choice of going into exile, increasing marginalisation and violent attitudes, the alienation and generation of urban tribes of freaks, emos, rockers, and rastas… Because even if the crisis doesn’t make us afraid, it does leave traces and certain of them may be indelible. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist. His novels have been translated into a dozen languages and his most recent work, La neblina del ayer, won the Hammett Prize for the best crime novel written in Spanish for 2005.

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