BAUTA, Cuba -- After two decades of relative stability fueled by cheap Venezuelan oil, shortages of food and medicine have once again become a serious daily problem for millions of Cubans.
Stores no longer routinely stock eggs, flour, chicken, cooking oil, rice, powdered milk and ground turkey, among other products. These basics disappear for days or weeks. Hourslong lines appear within minutes of trucks showing up with new supplies. Shelves are empty again within hours.
A plunge in aid from Venezuela and poor performances in sectors including nickel mining, sugar and tourism have left the communist state $1.5 billion in debt to the vendors that supply products ranging from frozen chicken to equipment for grinding grain into flour, according to former Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez.
No one is starving in Cuba, but the shortages are so severe that ordinary Cubans and the country's leaders are openly referring to the "special period," the years of economic devastation and deep suffering that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's Cold War patron.
"It's not about returning to the harshest phase of the special period of the '90s," Communist Party head Raul Castro said last week. "But we always have to be ready for the worst."
Two days later, President Miguel Diaz-Canel said cutbacks were necessary because: "This harsh moment demands we set clearly defined priorities in order to not return to the worst moments of the special period."
President Donald Trump's administration is applying economic pressure on Cuba. Washington has sanctioned Venezuela's oil industry and the shipping companies that move Venezuelan oil to Cuba.
On Wednesday, U.S. National security adviser John Bolton announced further measures against Cuba and its allies, including a new cap on the amount of money that families in the United States can send their relatives on the island and new restrictions on travel to Cuba. "The troika of tyranny -- Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua -- is beginning to crumble," he said.
The move followed the announcement that lawsuits would now be permitted against foreign companies doing business in properties seized from Americans after the island's 1959 revolution. The policy could deal a severe blow to Cuba's efforts to draw foreign investment.
A senior Trump administration official said the economic pressure on Cuba was aimed at forcing the socialist government to stop helping its allies in Venezuela and Nicaragua. The U.S. has accused Cuba of sending soldiers and spies to both countries to strengthen their leaders against protests and potential defection. Cuba denies that.
"We're going to make sure they cannot afford subsidized adventurism, subsidized subversion of democracy outside of their borders," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about U.S. policy toward Cuba. "At an extraordinarily vulnerable time in their history, they're going to have to refocus on the domestic needs, their domestic pressures."
Despite some market-oriented changes over the past decade, Cuba is one of the last countries on Earth to maintain a Soviet-style economy, with most business run by the state.
That economy is afflicted by deep inefficiency and corruption. Many state employees demand bribes to provide services to the public. Others spend only a few hours a day at their jobs, spending the rest of their time doing informal private work or selling supplies stolen from their office, warehouse or factory.
Despite a highly educated and generally well-qualified workforce, Cuba's industrial sector is dilapidated after decades of under-investment. The country produces little of value on the global market besides rum, tobacco and the professionals who earn billions for the government working as doctors, teachers or engineers in friendly third countries.
The agricultural sector is in shambles, requiring the country to import most of its food. Economy Minister Alejandro Gil said Saturday that Cuba would spend $5 billion on food and petroleum products this year.
Over the past 20 years, many of those billions came from Venezuela's socialist government, which has deep ties to Cuba's and sent nearly 100,000 barrels of oil daily for years. With Venezuela's economic collapse, that has roughly halved, along with deep cutbacks in the economic relationship across the board.
Independent experts say a return to the depths of the special period is unlikely. Cuba does business with dozens of nations, hosts nearly 5 million tourists a year and Cubans can travel freely to dozens of countries on direct flights to the U.S., Europe and Latin America. Expatriates send billions home in annual remittances.
"The new government is trying to halt the deterioration, but it's a tough assignment," Perez said. "It's going to take resources and time."
Information for this article was contributed by Deb Riechmann of The Associated Press.
A Section on 04/19/2019