Bits and pieces

The Special Period in Cuban history can be better understood by looking at the situation that directly preceeded it. Peter Gey has pointed out that the Cuban economic system is fairly unique among socialist countries, he also, again and again points to the problems that come up in the system. Shortages, inefficiencies and Castro’s own unwillingness “to take a more pragmatic approach to solving the island’s urgent economic problem” (Gey 104). The Soviet Union’s involvement was crucial in Cuba’s development.The Cuban revolution and the resulting situations of Cuba within the structure of international relations, especially in economic matters, can best be understood if Cuba is perceived as being fundamentally dependent on Soviet support. The Soviet Union was the main actor in keeping Cuba’s economy afloat and its citizens fed. Trade with the Soviet Union and with the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) was essential for balancing the economy. Even when the price for Cuba’s main export, sugar, became more volatile, Castro’s ties helped the country because Soviet Russia and other COMECON countries consistently paid above world market prices for Cuban sugar (cf. Staten 110). What is more, “the Soviet Union also provided Cuba with low-interest, long-term loans and a postponement on the payment of its immediate debts”. The combination of these measures buoyed Cuba’s economy, but at the same time, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Castro was ill prepared to take on the challenge of a rapidly changing world. The transitional time after 1989 that is generally referred to as “the special period”, in order to be fully understood, it is important to note that Cuba’s dependence on Russia was absolute. The Soviet Union supplied 63% of Cuba’s food imports, and 80% of the machinery Cuba imported (cf. Gott 287). All this went away in an instant. The impact on Cuba’s sugar exports was even more remarkable and the results were devastating. As Basosi points out, “Cuban GDP dropped by nearly 30% in three years, energy consumption was cut by half and by 1996 the Cuban calorie intake had fallen 27% below the level in 1990.” (Basosi 286). As a result, “most goods and services came once again to be severely rationed.” (Dominguez 148). To get a full picture of the situation in Cuba, it is vital to understand that the “special period” is not just a sign of economic deterioration so common in socialist countries at the end of the 1980s. In fact, as Dominguez’ essay makes perfectly clear, Cuba was on the mend. Living standards were increasing for two straight decades. Now, however, “fuel shortages, planned and unplanned electrical blackouts, factory shutdowns and transportation problems were common” (Staten 126). In fact, the devastation was so great, that “[t]he Cuban artist Tania Bruguera compared [its effects] to the aftershocks of a war.” (Fernandes 135). This led to increased emigration from Cuba (see especially Gott 298ff.) and a more general disillusionment with the Cuban revolution. Filmmakers were just as harshly affected as everyone else. This was especially problematic since movies occupied a special role in Cuban cultural discourse. Cuban cinema “retained its own voice” even under harsh ideological pressure (Chanan 358), but now, “home-based production without foreign participation would be drastically reduced” (Chanan 448). This also meant a change of markets and audience. While Michael Chanan points out that during earlier times, the movies were often tailored to give the audience a voice in the political process (cf. Chanan 358), now “[t]he Cuban film industry […] sought to secure funding through co-productions with foreign producers and Cuban films were marketed to international consumers.” (Fernandes 45).