Special Period

Special Period

The Special Period in Peacetime ( _es. Período especial en tiempo de paz) in Cuba was an extended period of economic crisis that began in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and, by extension, the Comecon. The economic depression of the Special Period was at its most severe in the early-to-mid 1990s before slightly declining in severity towards the end of the decade. It was defined primarily by the severe shortages of hydrocarbon energy resources in the form of gasoline, diesel, and other oil derivatives that occurred upon the implosion of economic agreements between the oil-rich Soviet Union and Cuba. The period radically transformed Cuban society and the economy, as it necessitated the successful introduction of sustainable agriculture, decreased use of automobiles, and overhauled industry, health, and diet countrywide.


When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, the impact on the Cuban economy was devastating. Cuba lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. Along with food and medicines that were imported, 99% of the oil Cuba imported came from the USSR;cite web
title=Cuba's struggle for self-sufficiency - aftermath of the collapse of Cuba's special economic relations with Eastern Europe
author=Carmen Diana Deere
date=July-August, 1991
publisher=Monthly Review
accessed=January 20, 2008
] Cuba's oil imports dropped to 10% of previous amounts in 1990. [ [http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/havana/lperez2.htm Cuba's Special Period ] ] Before this, Cuba had been re-exporting any Soviet oil it did not consume to other nations for profit (becoming Cuba's second largest export product before 1990). Once Soviet imports fell, Cuba faced a net deficit of oil, resulting in a need to reduce domestic consumption by 20% over the course of two years. [cite web
title=Cuba Energy Profile
accessed=January 20, 2008
] . The effect was felt immediately; dependent on fossil fuels to operate, 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, although outright starvation and famine were averted. 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 16 hours, food consumption was cut up to 1/5 and the average Cuban lost about 20 pounds. Although starvation was avoided, hunger was a daily experience and initially, malnutrition in children under five was evident after just a few weeks of food shortages.

Further negative impacts on Cuban imports and exports were felt when the U.S. intensified its enforcement of the United States embargo against Cuba in place since the early 1960s and passed three new bills in the coming years. The Mack Amendment(October 1990) “prohibits all trade with Cuba by subsidiaries of U.S. companies outside the U.S.”Fact|date=January 2008 Before this bill passed, 70% of Cuba's trade with U.S. subsidiary companies was for food and medicine.Fact|date=January 2008 The Toricelli Act(October 1992) also prohibits foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba but adds prohibition of travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, and monetary assistance to family members in Cuba. Fact|date=January 2008 The law did, however, allow 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 many of jobs. Alternative transportation, most notably the Cuban "camels" — immense 18-wheeler tractor trailers retrofitted as busses to carry many dozens of Cubans each — flourished. Meat and dairy products, having been extremely fossil fuel dependent in their former factory farming methods, soon diminished in the Cuban diet. By necessity Cubans adopted diets higher in fiber, fresh produce, and ultimately more vegan in character than before the period. No longer needing sugar as desperately for a cash crop — the oil-for-sugar program the Soviets had with Cuba had, of course, dissipated — Cuba hurriedly diversified its agricultural production, utilizing former cane fields to grow fruit and vegetables. The Cuban government also focused more intensely on cooperation with Venezuela once the Socialist Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998.

Government response

Immediate actions taken by the government included televising an announcement of the expected energy crisis a week before the USSR notified the Cuban government that they would not be delivering the expected quota of crude oil. Citizens were asked to reduce their consumption in all areas and to use public transportation and carpooling. As time went on, more structured strategies were developed to manage what would turnout to be a long-term energy/economic crisis which would take them into the 21st century.

Food rations

Food rations were intensified. Monthly allocations for families were based on basic minimum requirements as recommended by the United Nations. However, at the worst of times, the rations were only 1/5 of these consumption amounts.

Housing, land distribution, and urban planning

The scarcity of tools, and building materials, and the cost of producing cement increased the pressure on already overcrowded housing. Even before the energy crisis, extended families lived in small apartments (many of which were in very poor condition) to be closer to an urban area. To help alleviate this situation, the government engaged in land-distribution where they supplemented larger government owned farms with privately owned ones. Small homes were built in rural areas and land was provided to encourage families to move and assist in food production for themselves and to sell in local farmers' markets. As the film "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil" discusses, co-ops were developed which were owned and managed by groups, as well as creating opportunities for allowing them to form "service co-ops" where credit was exchanged and group purchasing power was used to buy seeds and other necessary items.


Cubans were accustomed to cars as a convenient mode of transportation. It was a difficult shift during the Special Period to adjust to a new way of managing the transportation of thousands of people to school, to work and to other daily activities. With the realization that food was the key to survival, transportation became a secondary worry and walking, hitch-hiking, and carpooling became the norm. Privately owned vehicles are not common; ownership is not seen as a right but as a privilege awarded for performance. Public transportation is creative and takes on the following forms:

* Cars - Old American cars common in Cuba are used as taxis to transport from 6 to 8 passengers, stopping at locations as needed.

* Trucks - Canopies and steps were added to accommodate more passengers and protect them from the natural elements or open "dump-truck buses" are used.
* Bikes - 1.2 million bicycles were purchased from China and distributed as well as another half a million were produced in Cuba.

* "Camels" - Conversion of semi-truck flatbeds into bus-like vehicles that hold up to 300 passengers.

* Government vehicles pick up passengers as needed.

* Horses and mules are used as well as bike and horse drawn carriages with taxi licenses are numerous both in rural and urban areas.

* Convenience for the individual is secondary to efficient use of energy.

ustainable agriculture

Cuba's history of colonization included deforestation and over use of its agricultural land. Before the crisis, Cuba used more pesticides than the U.S.. Much of their land was so damaged (de-mineralized and almost sand-like) that it took three to five years of intensely "healing" the soil with amendments, compost, "green manure", and practices such as crop rotation and inter-planting (mixed crops grown in same plot) to return it to a healthy state. Bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides have replaced most chemicals. Today, 80% of Cuba's produce is organically grown, successes that those interviewed in the documentary "" were very proud of.

Another reason Cuba survived this crisis is the shift in their thinking from machine to manual labour and other earth-friendly practices. Abandoning their previous industrialized agricultural methods, tractors and other machinery were replaced with human and animal labor. Older farmers familiar with raising and training oxen trained others to increase those involved in food production. Chemical fertilizers were replaced with organic farming techniques which require more labor but less fossil fuels. Initially, this was a very difficult situation for Cubans to accept; many came home from studying abroad to find that there were no jobs in their fields. It was pure survival that motivated them to continue and contribute to survive through this crisis. The documentary states that today, farmers make more money than most other occupations; without food, there is no life.

Urban gardening

Due to a poor economy, there were many crumbling buildings that could not be repaired. These were torn down and the empty lots lay idle for years until the food shortages forced Cuban citizens to make use of every piece of land. Initially, this was an ad-hoc process where ordinary Cubans took the initiative to grow their own food in whatever piece of land was available. The government encouraged this practice and later assisted in promoting it. Organic urban gardens sprung up throughout the capital of Havana and other urban centers on roof-tops, patios, and unused parking lots in raised beds as well as "squatting" on empty lots. These efforts were furthered by Australian agriculturalists that came to the island in 1993 to teach permaculture, a sustainable agricultural system, and to "train the trainers". The Cuban government then sent these teams throughout the country to train others.

Farmers' markets

"Kiosks" (farmers' markets) were set up in all communities to provide easy access to locally grown produce; less travel time required less energy use. These local markets provide 80-100% of the produce needed for that local community.

Education and health

In most countries, social programs are the first things to get cut during times of economic hardship. Before the Special Period, Cuba had three Universities and tuition costs were covered by the government. During this crisis, education continued to be tuition-free and to assist in reducing the cost of transportation, additional universities were opened bringing the number to fifty, spread throughout various municipalities.

Cuba's focus on prevention and health has earned the small nation a world-wide reputation and teams of doctors have been sent throughout the globe to train and assist particularly during natural disasters. Cuba has only 2% of the total population of Latin America but has 12% of all its doctors. Of special note is the fact that 60% of the doctors in Cuba are women. The practice still continues where each community has a doctor that is assigned to it and lives in that area. Even during the Special Period, medical care continued to be subsidized by the state.

Energy alternatives

olar and wind energy

95% of the population was connected to the National Electric Grid. With limited petroleum, blackouts lasting up to 16 hours became common. To assist rural areas, 200 rural schools, as well as some residential properties, were provided with solar panels. Use of wind-energy was also increased although the cost was also prohibitive at the time.


One example of alternative thinking is the use of bio-energy. Sugar mills served a dual purpose and became power plants that produced bio-energy from the waste products of the sugar cane. 30% of energy used in Cuba comes from bio-energy sources.Fact|date=January 2008

As Cuba's economy improves, the government has plans to allocate more financial resources to invest in a more extensive use of alternative energy sources and fuels.Fact|date=January 2008

Other effects

The ideological changes of the Special Period had effects on Cuban society and culture, beyond those on the country. Geoffrey Baker argues that Cuban rap emerged as a result of the Special Period and its socioeconomic changes. [Baker, Geoffrey. "¡Hip hop, Revolución! Nationalizing Rap in Cuba." "Ethnomusicology" 49, no. 3: 369.] The increased responsibilities that Cuban women had within their families as a result of the economic effects also gave them more authority within Cuban society. In recent years, many Cuban women have chosen to enact this power and authority on the dance floor to the music of the pleasure and body-focused reggaeton genre, through highly controversial, explicitly sexual dance moves. [Fairley, Jan. "'Como hacer el amor con ropa' (How to make love with your clothes on): Dancing regeton and hip-hop in Cuba." In "Reading Reggaeton" (forthcoming, Duke University Press), 2.] [ [http://www.reggaeton-in-cuba.com/en/dance.htm Reggaeton in Cuba] ]

Whereas reggaeton in Cuba emphasized dancing and the female body without any regard for lyrical content, Cuban hip hop evolved as a socially conscious movement influenced heavily by the effects of Cuba's conversion to a 'mixed economy' on the younger generation. The arrival of rap in Cuba was very much shaped by this Special period. The Revolution and the blockage of all imports from the USA, made the dissemination of American music difficult as it was often "tainted as music of the enemy and began to disappear from the public view." Because of this, hip hop circulated through informal networks, thus creating a huge underground scene of rap enthusiasts and eventually Cuban rappers. Eventually rap became nationalized by the government when it was understood as keeping with the goals of the Revolution. This socialist ideology and economic situation in Cuba had a two-fold effect on r
Pacini-Hernandez, Deborah and Reebee Garofalo. "The emergence of rap Cubano: An historical perspective." In Music, Space, and Place, ed. Whitely, Bennett, and Hawkins, 89-107. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2004.]

After the Special Period

As the country began to recover more visibly from the shock of the implosion of their economic underpinning, Castro gradually told the Cuban people that this "Special Period" was over; that it had succeeded in generally maintaining the long life expectancies and health statistics of the nation — figures roughly equivalent to those enjoyed in the United States — and that the country was therefore (relatively) prosperous once again.

Cubans suffered a great deal during the decade referred to as the Special Period and are still living under a lower standard than they were before 1991. This period forced Cuba to change from a nation of consumers--dependent on external oil sources--to a more sustainable economy based on meeting basic needs and conservation. Despite the fact that Cuba is a poor country (the average annual gross domestic product is $3,500), and may not be viewed as “successful” by Western standards, the average life span is higher than in the U.S. and the infant mortality rate is only just lower than the US. Their literacy rate is higher and their citizens have free medical and educational opportunities.

According to Roberto Perez from the Foundation for Nature and Humanity, it is the focus on the three “C’s”= Community, Conservation and Cooperation” that has been the key to Cuba’s survival during this crisis. He states that change and sacrifice has been based on what is good for the community and not based solely on needs of individuals.

ee also

* Economy of Cuba
* Rationing in Cuba
* Hubbert peak theory
* ""


Other sources

*Chavez, L. (2005). Capitalism, God, and a Good Cigar; Cuba Enters the Twenty-First Century. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

*Chiddister, Diane. (2006, April 27). [http://www.ysnews.com/stories/2006/04/042706_cubaoil.html Film shows many ways Cuba reacted to peak oil crisis] Yellow Springs News. Retrieved October 18, 2006

*Heinberg, R. (2003). The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. Canada: New Societies Publishers

*Lopez, M. Vigil. (1999). Cuba; Neither Heaven Nor Hell. Washington, D.C.: The Ecumenical Program of Central America and the Caribbean (EPICA).

*Pineiro-Hall, E. (2003) Seattle Delegation US Women and Cuba@ 5th International Women’s Conference, University of Havana.

*Sierra, J.A. [http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/time/timetbl5.htm Time Table of Cuba 1980–2005] , Retrieved December 12, 2006

*Zuckerman, S. (2003). [http://traveloutward.com/articles/caribbean/6-03_cuba.shtml Lessons From Cuba: What Can We Learn From Cuba's Two-Tier Tourism Economy?] , Retrieved November 26, 2006

External links

* [http://www.communitysolution.org/pdfs/NS2.pdf Cuba: Life After Oil]

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