Cuba's economic report card: 'F'

As the flow of Cuban refugees to Florida mounts to a floodtide, the stories of economic privation, hardship, and bad times on the Caribbean island conjure up a picture of a nation in utter distress.

Something is obviously very wrong with the Cuban economy -- and now comes word from Fidel Castro himself that the island's economic conditions have become "intolerable."

In a secret speech delivered to the National People's Assembly in Havana last Dec. 27, a copy of which became available this week, Dr. Castro spent two hours outlining his country's worsening economic plight.

He said little in his speech made more than four months ago that the refugees themselves have not spelled out on their arrival in Florida. But the Castro frankness confirms just how bad things really are in Cuba and gives clear evidence of why 25,000 Cubans have gone to Florida in the past 10 days and why more thousands are waiting so desperately to join the tide.

Life in cuba simply is hard, and getting harder by the day.

Dr. Castro, in the speech, could give no cheer to Cubans that life would become better tomorrow.

Taken as a whole, the speech is a broad admission that 21 years after toppling the hated dictatorship of Gen. Fulgencio Batista, the Castro government is unable to feed, clothe, house, and provide jobs for the island's 10 million people.

The Castro speech provided a litany of woes about the economy and the whole society: chronic shortages of basic foodstuffs such as bread, repeated shortfalls in sugar and tobacco production, staggering unemployment, mounting crime waves, government inefficiency -- and even government corruption.

It is an extremely frank report card on where Cuba has gone during his 21 years in power and, indirectly, an indictment of many of his own programs. The talk did not mince words. It again proved what Cubanologists have been saying for years, that to understand Cuba, there is no better place to begin than a Castro speech.

"This year, 1979, was one of the worst years," Dr. Castro admitted. But the crisis would be worse, he added, if there was not a rich patron in the ever-present role of the Soviet Union in the Cuban economy.

After mentioning the low price at which the Soviets sell oil to Cuba -- an oil deal that amounts to a $2.5 to $3 billion annual subsidy -- the Cuban leader said this makes it possible for his island economy to survive.

"How else could we be paying for that fuel we consume? How? And apart from all the fuel, how would we obtain equipment, fertilizers, lubricants, all sorts of raw materials, everything we get from the Soviet Union, among other things all the wheat the country consumes? A country that consumes more than 600,000 tons of wheat. All that, we get from the Soviet Union. That is what permits our country to survive."

Yet Dr. Castro admitted that with all this aid, the Cuban economy still is not very productive. In fact, production has been falling -- in some areas, quite drastically. This includes both sugar and tobacco, the two agricultural mainstay of the economy that provide export income. Part of the problem on these two crops has to do with vicissitudes of weather and plant diseases.

"The infamous blue rust pest [which attacks tobacco] spelled out a $100 million loss for the country. That was a severe blow. On top of the blue rust, we were hit by plant rot which combined with a prolonged sugar harvest, those factors combined affected 1 million tons of sugar."

Looking at the sagging economy as a whole, Dr. Castro blamed much of the problem on the United States, for its economic blockade put Cuba in an extreme credit crunch.

"We are in a terrible world crisis!" Dr. Castro said, repeating the same words for emphasis in typical Castro fashion: "We are in a terrible world crisis! We cannot conceive ambitious plans, of course not. The plans have to be very realistic and must be relatively modest, modest but sure."

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