Chávez’s handpicked successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, reportedly favors continuing the tight relationship with Havana. Diosdado Cabello, head of the legislative National Assembly and also mentioned as a possible successor, is believed to be less friendly to Cuba yet for now seems to have little chance of overtaking Maduro.
But Cuba today is less prepared to deal with an aid cutoff because the island’s infrastructure is in much worse shape than when the Soviet Union’s subsidies collapsed in the early 1990s, argued dissident Havana economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe.
Cuba built its massive health, education and social welfare system on the backs of the $4 billion to $6 billion in subsidies that the Soviet Union provided to the communist-ruled ally each year from the mid 1960s until 1991.
But when Moscow cut off its rubles, the island’s economy shrank by 38 percent between 1990 and 1993 and its foreign trade, previously focused on the Soviet bloc because of its friendly payment terms, dropped by 85 percent.
Factories and transportation ground to a halt. Cubans grew noticeably thinner and suffered from diseases caused by malnutrition. Power blackouts lasted for days. Families cooked grapefruit rinds, and many cats disappeared from the streets.
But two decades later, several sectors of the economy still have not returned to their pre-1990 levels, Mesa Lago noted in a report presented at the 2011 Miami gathering of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy.
“Cuban industry is producing 50 percent less by volume than it produced in 1989. The transportation system has collapsed, and agriculture is importing 80 percent of the food” the country consumes, Espinosa Chepe was quoted as saying in a recent report by the Agence France Press news agency.
Then-ruler Fidel Castro imposed what he called “a special period in time of peace” in 1990 — in essence wartime emergency measures to conserve fuel, food, clothes and other supplies.
But the Soviet aid cutoff fueled much discontent, which finally exploded in 1994 with the Balsero Crisis, which saw 35,000 Cubans leave on homemade rafts, and a large riot on the Malecón, Havana’s iconic seaside boulevard.