It created what it aimed to destroy—a hostile, pro-Soviet, long-lived regime built around Fidel Castroby Isabel Hilton / December 28, 2016 / Leave a comment
It was the early 1990s. I was in Havana, on one of several frustrating reporting trips. Cuba then was an unrewarding place for a journalist to visit: the Party elite was all but impossible to meet, and if you succeeded, they spoke in the dead language of the Communist bureaucrat. The result was a notebook full of unusable political sloganising.
To call Cuba’s press operation unhelpful would be to pay it a compliment: accepting a minder was a condition of a journalist’s visa, but minders would vanish for days on end, wasting precious reporting time. Calls to them went unanswered or unreturned, the Cuban press was brain-crushingly uninformative, and blanket state surveillance served as a strong disincentive for ordinary Cubans to speak to foreign journalists.
It was before everybody had mobile phones, so waiting for the minder’s call back entailed long hours in stale hotel rooms. I filled some of those hours watching Fidel Castro on a fuzzy black-and-white TV set. He was reading what seemed to be the world’s longest shopping list.
Cuba was hungry. The Soviet Union had collapsed and had taken with it a cozy trading system that allowed Castro to supply sugar at inflated prices in exchange for pretty much everything that Cuba needed at preferential rates. When it collapsed, Cuba lost around 80 per cent of both imports and exports, and GDP dropped by more than 30 per cent. Fidel was explaining to his people why the shelves were empty and were likely to remain so for some time, a task that took several hours.
The shopping list included, importantly, oil and petrochemicals: bicycles were soon to make their appearance on the streets of Havana, posing a lethal hazard in a city in which the street lighting had gone dark. But Castro’s interminable speech was testament to Cuba’s comprehensive dependency on the Soviet bloc: it included everything from matches to motor parts, powdered milk to wheat; kerosene to medicine, soap to agricultural machinery. Cuba’s neighbourhood supermarket had closed and its credit was no good at any other.