What was it like to live in Cuba just before the collapse of the Soviet Union?

I am cuban, I was born in 1974 and I was ~16 when the SU collapsed. Your question is what was it like to live in Cuba just before the collapse of the SU”. We will have to define “before” … how much is before? a month? A year, 4 years? I will assume “before” as being the last 8–9 years. From 1983 to 1991 (SU actually fell on Dec 24th 1991). Im plainly saying what I felt, what I lived there…

I will write about what was to live in Cuba for me and my family. Im pretty sure everybody has a different story to tell. Im not judging the ability of the government to maintain that way of living or whether there were other people that did different better (or worse) things.

Around 1983–1984 Cuba was a paradise to me. Firstly because it was the only country I knew of I had no other ways to compare what was to live in other countries. I lived my childhood in Camagüey City, 570kms east of Havana. To me visiting Havana was the non-plus ultra!!! In Havana they had a zoo with well fed animals (remember : before SU fall), a botanical garden, lots of shops we hadn’t in Camagüey so we could buy chocolates and stuff like that. Havana smelled to me like car’s exhaust mixed with domestic gas odors.. I recall it was the only place in Cuba where gas was delivered to houses via underground pipes (in some parts of Havana) and the only place where you can see soooooo many cars in Cuba (remember I was a child that have never seen such a big city so I have no other way to know there were places with 100 times more cars).

Our family went from time to time to Varadero beach, or Santa Lucía Beach in Camagüey, or to Cayo Sabinal (an inhabited key north of Camagüey) or some other places like Sancti Spíritus, Remedios, Trinidad, Santiago, Holguín.

My mother had a car with a monthly allowance of gasoline (coupons) and they saved some of them and we were able to visit some places from time to time. Not that we spent the whole time travelling but we managed to do some tourism from time to time a few times a year. We also had the possibility to rent buses/tours and do some tours to other places of the island (I remember being to Varadero once and to Santiago another time). It was not impossible, just a matter of planning in advance and gathering a group of persons to share the bus and the tour.

I remember staying at hotels that, to me, were fantastic!! Dishes a-la-carte and the beach near the hotels. BTW I visited one of those hotels 2 years ago and I was severely disappointed… I didn’t like it from today’s perspective.

We usually rented a beach property with another family or two to share costs on the rent, we stayed 3 or 4 weeks each time (every worker has 30 days of payed holidays a year).

The cost of life was pretty low but salaries were not high. For example taking a local bus costed 5cents, or for me buying a sweet was like 10cents, or a ham sandwich costed 1cuban peso, a personal pizza was 1.2 the cheese one or 1.8 pesos the ham and cheese one. But my parents’ salary was around 300–340 cuban pesos a month (each) and those 600–700 pesos/month for the family have to be used to pay for electricity, food, dress, gasoline, help my grandparents with some money, buy clothes, and so on and so on.

There were rationed food, I mean food that you bought using your ration card, very cheap and it lasted almost, if not the whole month. We used to visit the food-store assigned to us (bodega) with a small cart to buy the whole month of food for the 4 of us.

We could buy our monthly rations in parts ( I mean small portions every week or so) but somehow my parents preferred to go just once a month and buy everything I guess it was not to waste time going 3 or 4 times in a month there.

What was sold using the ration cards?: rice, beans, sugar, salt, eggs, juca root, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, pumpking, peas, coffee, cooking oil, animal fat, packs of cigarettes, canned food (corned beef, russian beef) and .. sorry I can’t remember other things.. Im pretty sure there were several other Im missing. Oh: soap, detergent, deodorant, and with a different ration card: clothes, shoes, fabric to create your own clothes, buttons, zippers and stuff like that.

milk, meat, fruits, fish and bread (in fact everything that lasted a few hours or days) were bought every day or few days as we needed them or as they showed up as they were (maybe) not available all days, we got like a litter of milk or two every day (I think that before 7 years old you got a litter of milk, we were two kids, after 7 and up to 12 or 14 you got 1 litter every two days) and a loaf of bread for the family of four (a bar like bread in Camagüey, in other cities were a baseball size bread for each one). I remember walking with grandma to the meat shop to buy her (and my grandfather) ration of meat or fish and so on. Every family living in the same house has one ration card: we were 4, we got a ration card, my grandparents were two living in another home, they got 1 ration card for the two. The received product for the two and we received products for the 4 of us. They got special products for eldery people (yogurt, milk, cofee) and we got special products for kids (milk, no cofee, no cigarrettes for kids). We gave my grandparents the cigarretes.

Rationed does not mean that it was everything… nope, not in the 80’s… there were some parallels markets (mercados paralelos) and/or (sorry I can’t remember I was a kid) farmers markets where you could buy at a much higher prices the same food you got rationed and even food you don’t get by your ration cards like ham, cheese, yogurt, maybe chicken, pork and so on.

Prices were higher than the one you get by the ration cards but you were able to acquire whatever was available at that time. For example: a pack of cigarretes by the ration card costed several cents, but you could freely buy the same pack of cigarretes 4 or 5 times the prices if you needed to smoke more that what they gave you via the ration card.

Schools? You were given uniforms a set of uniform for the whole year… we also inherited the uniforms from our cousins or friends so usually you have more than one set. My granma was a seamstress and she used to make a set of “similar” uniforms for me because as a kid … clothes didn’t last a whole year without an accident (a hole, a ripping, ink on it, and so on). We were given books, notebooks, pencils, erasers and I don’t know.. things like that…to do our school works and to study. In my case we had lunch at school (for free, of course!) it was not marvelous but was not bad actually.

Electricity and water went off from time to time, it dependeded on the season or the time of the year. The government made campaigns to save energy. I recall a song they ran on TV and/or radio: “apaga la luz… lulú lulú” (turn off the light, lulú, lulú… a familiar way to call some women based on their firstname). Water in our home arrived some hours a day and we stored it in cans and water tanks, etc and used it to clean the house, to cook, bathing etc … we tried not to waste it because you never know if tomorrow it will arrive. We had a Tinajón, an ancient way to store water in my home city, we actually used it to store water.

I used to walk from home to my primary school like 12 blocks from home and later to my junior high school some 6 to 8 blocks from home.

My dad, near 1990 bought a soviet bicycle for me, same color and shape as this one.. I enjoyed it very much and it was very very VERY useful after a few years when everything went upside down.

Oh yes, we had a “black and white” tv set like this one. I did not know about remote controls until a few years later. Also a radio to listen AM, FM (we had no fm stations in Camaguey) and SW… I used to listen remote SW stations at nights… It was sooo nice (I later became a ham radio operator). Before having a TV set and a radio my father built a radio and later a TV set (he and my mother are telecom engineers) … it is a shame we didn’t preserve it… after we got the TV/radio from the shop we put the home made radio in the kitchen so my mother will listen to radio… it later dissapeared.. I guess. My grandparents inherited the homebuilt tvset and I never followed the track of it after they got a “real” tv from the shop.

As you can see we were not starving nor living a miserable life… (we even got 3 toys a year for every kid, free medicine, free vaccination, free access to physicians, free access to sports events, free access to museums and zoos, etc, etc).

Now… lets talk about the “decline”:

After 1986 things started getting somehow “different”… initially we did not notice it but some things indeed started getting more and more difficult to obtain…. but I guess we assumed things were like this… by 1989 things got actually difficult to obtain but we could still manage to get some of them, mostly food. But it was difficult, for example, to buy clothes or toys. By the end of 1989 no products came from the former COMECON countries and you could notice it because everything started to become scarce.

By late 1990 gasoline was scarce (by late 1991 it was simply impossible to get it).. as well as some things we didn’t notice like for example fertilizers or food for animals. With no fertilizers, no animal food and no gasoline and no imports from former comecon countries, farms products quickly went to almost 0 until farmers re-learnt how to use oxen for plowing, and even there it was still very low supply for the demand as they were not motivated to sell at state prices and in such a crisis it was better to help the family or to keep animals just in case they will need it for eating themselves.

Between the end of 1990 and mid 1992 I guess we survived by using the country’s reserves (reserves of gasoline, rice, and so on) but as you might guess those reserves were enough to supply the country for several months and that was it. By the end of 1992 we were in a total crisis.

By 1990 the government somehow knew things were going upside down and started to prepare/train the population on what they called “Periodo especial en tiempos de paz” (special period during peace time) in which the possibility of getting no external aid at all was considered; named “plan 0” but maybe Im mistaken with the name. That plan 0 was a plan on how to survive in case NOT a single product or drop of fuel will enter the country. Fortunately they were somehow able to buy/bargain some products and we never had the plan 0 levels.. but we were almost near plan 0.

Well… then… things went REALLY very bad for us the population: no food, no gasoline, no new clothes, no new shoes, no electricity, difficulty to get medicines, etc. Just remembering how bad it was makes me………… well the question was about how was like to live in Cuba before that period.

Hope it was interesting.

© 2019, eperez. All rights reserved.

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