“It was terrible, so terrible, very difficult and a hard time as the people tried to live with almost no economy. Slowly, everything we had turned to nothing and it was terrible.” Hector, our national guide in Cuba on the Tauck People to People tour, was explaining about the Special Period, the name given by the Cuban communist government to describe the time when the Soviet Union broke apart and Cuba was no longer supported by the new Russia. Eighty to eighty-five percent of the trade and support was lost. And no other country in the world would support them either.
“One day we had a normal life and the next day the bottom fell out of the Cuban economy”, Hector explained. “Slowly, everything we had was gone and it was terrible. 1991-92 was the worst of the 1989-1995 Special Period.” Then inflation set in for any products remaining in Cuba “and the prices doubled, tripled and went through the roof after that.
Some people killed themselves and others escaped by boat to the USA,” he said. The USA sent food and medical supplies but the prices on them were high. Canada also helped.
With the lack of things needed to live their normal lives, the Cuban people started creating. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” Hector pointed out. “We started comforting everyone more than ever, and sharing and uniting with each other. People in Cuba are highly educated and we found the best solutions to each challenge without affecting someone else.”
Hector said they designed different ways to cook after they collected wood for the fire. Cooking oil was needed and Cuba had coconuts so foods were cooked with coconut oil. Ketchup did not exist so pumpkin was used and red food coloring was added to make them think they were eating Ketchup.Tapioca served as flour.
Sheep and cattle lard was used to fry pumpkin skins in the lard and Hector demonstrated how the fried skins would stick to the roof of his mouth and he couldn’t get them off. Meat and dairy was nowhere to be found anywhere in Cuba so some people ate the meat of any animal or bird.
Making clothes also became creative. “The seamstress was a genius.” Hector explained. “Old clothes, out of style clothes, wrong size clothes, all became Haute Couture designer clothes by a seamstress. We were proud of our new fashion clothes.” Salt was used for toothpaste and ash and lemon was used for deodorant.
Those designer clothes and the body had to be washed and getting soap was a challenge. Soon they figured out that coconut milk and certain chemicals they had would work ok for regular soap.
And for laundry soap, substances of plants with soapy leaves, called maguey, worked. Ash and lemon was also used. “We had water but we also were going through a terrible drought at the time”, Hector said. Often times, the people had to wash their clothes in the river. The sugar for oil deal ended and gasoline was super expensive and almost non-existent so the people parked their vehicles and went back to the basics of horse and carriage, bicycles and walking.
The Cuban government made farmers with many hectares of land give some of it to others so they could grow vegetables, grains and fruits for themselves and to get the people to return to the countryside from to the city where they went when the going became difficult. The people had to learn how to grow crops and be farmers. Gardens popped up on rooftops, in back and front yards and parking lots. Growers set up booths to sell their legally grown products right by their “gardens”. The people were forced to eat what they could grow, catch or pick for themselves. And to make matters worse, Hurricane Elena hit Cuba in 1991 and destroyed many of the crops and caused extensive damage. A black market became a creative way of life for getting objects wanted for living. Horses and oxen plowed fields, and manual labor returned, As a result, Cubans became healthier because of the high fiber vegan diet. Obesity, heart disease, and strokes all decreased during this terrible time. Large cargo trucks and 18-wheel tractor trailers were no longer needed for industry to haul products from factories, farms and fields so they were converted to people movers, called “camels” and they still exist in Cuba today, as are horse and carriage for transport of people, food and crops, bicycles, walking and manual labor. “We always had pride and love through these severe times and we always looked at the glass as half full, not half empty. This attitude stimulated their creativity, and we were constantly focused on solutions to everything without losing our dignity, pride or love. Even through it all, we never showed sadness,” Hector said.
After several years of these devastating conditions, some countries in Latin America started helping Cuba and the terrible times started to ease a little. Out of every bad comes some good the saying goes. “We have been through war, hurricanes, drought, economic collapse, different governmental rulings, near starvation, and lack of medical supplies and we are still here, ” Hector pointed out. The Cuban people make lemonade out of lemons.