In a recent flurry of economic soul-searching, the Cuban government has acknowledged widespread deficinecies in planning, organization and supply in some areas and has announced major changes in the way Cubans produce and consume.
The good news, according to figures published at the end of the year, is that the 1978 sugar harvest, providing four-fifths of Cuba's total exports, was the second largest in history.
Among the bad news, however, is that for the third year running, the international price of sugar remains little more than enough to cover production costs and cannot supply the hard currency needed to finance an ambitious development program and the import of scarce consumer goods.
Public transportation remains sadly inadequate, and supplies of all but basic foods are low. According to a speech in December by President Fidel Castro, new housing construction, one of the Revolution's principal platform promises, has fallen far below projected goals.
Some of the changes, such as the newly begun transformation of most state industries into semi-independent, profit-making enterprises as both a production incentive and administtrative aid, were anticipated several years ago.
At midyear, the government announced the opening of what is called the "parallel market" -- the retail sale, at highly inflated prices, of some still-rationed goods such as clothing. The idea is both to give workers an incentive for making more money, and to soak up excess cash in the goods-poor economy.
More recently, Castro announced in December the planned abolition of Cuba's famed "Microbrigade" construction crews -- gangs of unskilled workers recrutied from offices and factories to build apartments for their colleagues -- and their replacement with more "efficient" professional builders.
At the same time, Castro said the government no longer can afford its much-touted system of cheap rents, where Cubans pay only from 6 percent to 10 percent of their salaries for housing. In the future, rents on new housing will be calculated according to floor space, and will increase considerably, Castro said.
Perhaps the most significant change, however, is more atmospheric than substantive. In a recent series of speeches, announcements and published interviews, the government apparently has launched an attempt to respond to growing popular disenchantement after 20 years of sacrifice and shortages with continued pleas for hard work and revolutionary zeal.
"What do the Russians send over here?" groused one Havana resident on the subject of Cuba's principal trading partner. "Oil and arms. We can't eat that. We can't eat iron and steel.
"Everything we produce is exported, and nothing is left over for us," he said. "I can say lots of positive things about the government: They're built schools and hospitals. That's fine, but there isn't any food."
That question and others were addressed at length in an unprecedented interview with the country's chief economic planner published last month in Bohemia, Cuba's leading political magazine.
Entitled "What the People Ought to Know," the lengthy interview is an amazingly frank presentation of the kind of common gripes with the government that normally are not discussed above a whisper here.
Even more interesting than the answers of planning chief Humberto Perez are the questions.
"Most people are aware that the revolutionary leadership is now formulating a development plan for the year 2000," reads one query by interviewer Marta Harnecker. "Some have asked if it makes sense to make such long-term plans when up to now we haven't even fulfilled our annual goals."
Housing construction figures show that only 16,500 units were completed last year, Harnecker noted. At the same time, "Approximately 25,000 units were torn down for lack of repairs. This is alarming... last year we tore down more than we built."
In 1978, there wasn't enough cement to go around, she pointed out. "How can you explain the fact that Cuba exports cement if there isn't enough to satisfy our own internal demands?" she asked.
Perez' answers are a combination of governmental mea culpa, detailed explanation and, unavoidably, a call for continued revolutionary sacrifice.
On the question of short-term failures and long-term plans, Perez gave the customary lip-service blame to the U.S. trtade embargo of Cuba and the Cuban Revolution's initial need for survival rather than development.
"But in addition, among the things we've lacked has been a comprehensive, integral development strategy... where to get our investment capital, what to invest in, what growth rhythm we're after," he said. "I would say that it makes no sense to continue with the kind of annual plans we've had... they have had no compass, no guiding star."
On the subject of housing contruction and destruction, "It is true... that there has been an alarming lack of maintenance and repair... and that until now there has been no policy in this sense." Perez said the government has "recognized the need to develop a policy and allocate resources."
Perez' explanation of why Cuba exports some of its own goods such as cement and coffee when it doesn't have enough for Cuban needs, not only reflects the problems of being a single-export country, but provides some insight about the day-to-day products that many Cubans do without.
There are two fundamental reasons for such exports, Perez said. As the government tries to diversify and expand production of its nonsugar exports, "We have to start to create (overseas) markets where we can later sell anticipated surpluses."
More important is the need "to get hard currency," Perez said. Cuba "depends in part on imports from the Capitalist world to develop important production and services. Many of the finishing goods for housing construction, for example, are Capitalist."
"There are priority import items such as medicines and medical equipment and lubricants without which neither the factories nor transportation equipment funcation," Perez said.
"We have to give priority to the purchase of fish and soy meal needed for animal feed. We need batteries and tires, and certain raw materials to make things like toothpaste, soap and shoes."
Because sugar is still the basic be-all and end-all of the Cuban economy, harder work has meant more sugar production. With the market glutted and prices low, more sugar has not necessarily meant more money for Cuba. Without more sales to the Western world, Cuba still lacks hard currency. And without hard currency, Cuba cannot buy the Wstern goods it needs to develop nonsugar exports, and ultimately climb out of the hole of underdevelopment.
The bottom line of the equation, is that "we have to create an export mentality," Castro explained last December. "If we have a new cement factory, we have to export more cement. If we have a new textile factory, we don't consume more textiles, we export them."