Things are moving backwards: the dollar has returned. As of April 10, the greenback can be deposited in Cuban banking institutions, after a couple of years in which it was banned in an attempt to strengthen the national currency, the Cuban peso. This is just the latest sign of a severe crisis from which there is no exit in sight, at least in the short term.
The other signs, even more obvious and painful, can be seen in front of gas stations, where the line of cars waiting to fill up stretches for entire blocks. On some days, the “reservations” of places in line reach triple digits. Not to mention those who see a tanker truck and queue up behind it with their cars, hoping to strike gold in the form of a freshly refilled gas station. Or the so-called “phantom queues,” with motorists queuing for hours because someone on Facebook had “heard” that fuel would arrive at that gas station, which remains dispiritingly empty.
Without diesel, the apagones, the blackouts, are also increasing. Every day, on TV, the head of the national electric service is interviewed once again, announcing with resignation how many megawatts will be short at the peak of electric service utilization.
“What’s going on with gasoline?” asked Miguel Díaz-Canel himself in a meeting. In his televised address, the president said that out of a need for about 600 tons of fuel per day, only a little more than half was available. And much of that was used to produce electricity. This is why transportation is in severe crisis, buses are rare and overcrowded, roads are empty. And it’s not because of a lack of government planning, the president was quick to clarify. Instead, it is the suppliers who have “not kept their commitments.”
Cuba’s suppliers are well known: Venezuela and Russia. And it’s often the case that crude coming from the “brotherly country” Russia arrives on a guarantee provided by Caracas, since Cuba’s coffers are empty, or nearly so. But Maduro, the brotherly Venezuelan president, also has his own serious problems. That is why Díaz-Canel ended on the bitter note that “it’s not clear how we can get out of this situation.”
Among the people, rebusque, or the art of making do to find a solution in a complex situation or procure something, is more in demand than ever. Especially regarding basic necessities, including medicines. These also require hours of queuing, or the shrewdness of someone who knows their way around. And prices have risen to such heights that they are increasingly unaffordable to the ordinary Cuban.
Complaints and discontent are growing together with the prices. It’s enough to approach a queue and ask the pragmatic question: Who’s the last in line? People point to who it is and the comments start flowing. Among the more informed, there are those who grumble bitterly that according to ONEI (the Cuban ISTAT), investment in the tourism sector remains at 32 percent, even with few tourists, while for agriculture it’s at less than 6 percent – which is still better than for schools (1.2 percent) and healthcare (around 2 percent).
In this climate, overheated by the sun, prices and queues, the new National Assembly (ANPP), the single-chamber Parliament, met on Wednesday. The new parliamentarians (470) came together to elect the president and vice-president, both of the ANPP and of the Republic, as well as the members of the Council of State. Some commentators prefer to use the term “appoint,” since there is little doubt that Díaz-Canel will be president for the next five years.
There is, however, some uncertainty among the well-informed commentators about the name of the next ANPP president and Prime Minister. These names will make it clear whether the president will strengthen his rule with figures from his own team, or, as until now, he will be sustained mainly by the support of Raúl Castro, who is, however, getting older.
The fact that 96% of the 470 deputies are activists of the Cuban Communist Party guarantees that the elections will be in the groove of “continuity” with the process of the Cuban Revolution.
It is a continuity of ideals – “prosperous and sustainable socialism,” a goal set forth all too many years ago by Raúl Castro – but one that must be imbued with urgent structural economic reforms, according to sympathetic but critical economists like Omar Everleny. The latest partial reforms, such as the monetary reform, Tarea ordenamiento, have proven to be a dangerous failure.
The allies from Moscow have also put their foot down on the necessity of reforms. After a meeting in March with President Díaz-Canel, Putin’s millionaire adviser Boris Titov announced the establishment of a Russian-Cuban Business Council charged with preparing “economic transformations based on the development of private enterprise” on the island. That is, the focus is on micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, the so-called Mpymes. Those approved so far number just over 7,200, many connected to the state bureaucratic-military sector.
Greater Russian presence on the island was also on the agenda on Wednesday, with Foreign Minister Serghei Lavrov’s visit to Havana.