Cubans on the island stuck in the present

by Frances Robles and Wilfredo Cancio Isla

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

24 May 2007

Cuban school children wave small Cuban flags and parade with the photo of Fidel Castro during a celebration of Jose Marti's birthday in Havana. (Miami Herald/MCT) 

AVANA, Cuba - As mother, teacher and illegal saleswoman, Teresa has long days typical of Cuba.

After working a full day teaching for $11 a month, the mother of two heads off to peddle Adidas knockoffs and skimpy halter tops to women in rural areas. Public transportation is scarce, so she hitchhikes and gets back home about 9 p.m., exhausted, but with a bit more cash in her purse.

“To survive in Cuba, you have to be a magician,” Teresa said. “Cubans want to be able to live off their wages, live freely and go wherever they want with their salary. Why do you think there are so many people on the beaches heading to Florida?”

While the ailing Fidel Castro’s surrender of power last summer raised much speculation about the future among South Florida Cubans, those on the island are obsessed with the bitter reality of their present: absurdly low wages and high prices, lousy public transportation and a vast underground economy fed by corruption.

Castro’s brother and designated successor, Raul Castro, has presided over a virtually trouble-free succession. He has cracked down on corruption and other economic crimes, fired four Cabinet ministers and encouraged news reporting on the system’s shortcomings. Apparently trying to buttress national pride, he warned of a U.S. invasion and mobilized hundreds of thousands of security forces.

In fact, while experts in South Florida warned of mass migration, in the first five months of Raul Castro’s rule the number of migrants fleeing Cuba dropped by more than half compared to the year before.

But a 10-day trip to a half-dozen Cuban cities for a joint Miami Herald-El Nuevo Herald reporting effort revealed a society largely unconcerned with democracy and desperate for the ability to work unfettered for higher salaries. They are mostly wary of Raul Castro, reputed to have a short temper and a heavy hand.

Cuba’s many problems are not new. But it will be up to Raul Castro to face them in a nation where prices are so high that the common phrase is: “If I buy shoes, I don’t eat.”

Because he lacks his brother’s charisma, Raul Castro’s biggest challenge - one that could define the future of the revolution - will be to put food on the table.

“The food situation is very bad, and it’s exactly the same as last year,” said Victor, a retired construction worker who sells peanuts on the street. “The thing I don’t like about Cuba is that you work like a dog for very little return. I work and work, and have worked for 50 years, and I have nothing.

“At least in the United States you work like a horse, but at the end of the day, you have $40 or $50. ... Am I eventually going to be out there on the street with a cane, selling peanuts?”

Probably. Victor receives an $8.50-a-month retirement pension and pays only 50 U.S. cents or so for the monthly food rations provided by the government, which are highly subsidized, very limited, and run out after 10 days or so.

When the rations run out, Cubans must shop at agromercados, where prices are set by supply and demand and have risen about 20 percent since late last year. Or they must go to the even more expensive “dollar stores,” which deal in a currency called convertible pesos, charging the equivalent of $2.40 for a liter of cooking oil.

For Cubans, it is a nearly unanimous complaint: They earn in pesos, but much of what they need to buy is priced in convertible pesos or U.S. dollars. A tomato could cost an afternoon’s work.

“Ten years ago you could not find chicken or beef - forget it,” said Victor’s wife, who asked that her name not be published. “The situation has improved a lot: There are many different kinds of fruits and vegetables. What you don’t have is the money to buy any of it.”

The country’s food crisis is directly linked to serious problems in the farming industry. Deputy Economics Minister Magalys Calvo recently acknowledged that 84 percent of all the food consumed in Cuba is imported. Cuba even imports sugar, once the island’s iconic export. The government also admits that one sixth of the country’s fertile land is unproductive.

“The crops and cattle farming are in deplorable condition,” said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who estimates that food production levels are now half what they were in 1989. “Go to the agromercados - the food is there. But the prices are in the clouds. Agriculture has collapsed.”

“From the moment a Cuban wakes up, they are thinking about what they can serve their kids for breakfast and pack for lunch,” said Espinosa’s wife, dissident journalist Miriam Leiva.

Many Cubans have found the solution to the food and other shortages on the black market.

Employees with access to government supplies of any kind - food, clothes, cement, gasoline - swipe them and sell them so they can add to their meager salaries.

“I’m not going to lie: The clothes I wear and the food I buy I get at the black market,” said Maite, a retired Havana writer. “They sell things at much more realistic prices. Where that merchandise came from is not my problem.”

The Ministry of Domestic Trade recently revealed that during 2006, its budget deficit attributable to theft and fraud - largely committed by insiders - rose to nearly $17 million.

Cubans say Raul Castro’s crackdown on corruption is the single most visible change since he replaced his brother on July 31. Addressing a labor union congress in December, he lit into corruption, labor indiscipline and other illegalities and urged workers to stop “these dangerous vices.”

He also has increased police patrols to clamp down on illegal businesses and narrow the gap between the poor and the “new rich” - those who can use black-market profits or remittances from South Florida to pay $5 to enter a nightclub or $32 for an electric can opener in the dollar stores.

Teresa, the teacher, has been slipping past the patrols as she hitchhikes on her sales rounds. In case she gets searched, she does not carry identical blouses, instead mixing them up so she can claim they are hers.

“He has checkpoints everywhere - police on every bridge so people can’t do business,” Teresa said. “Raul is worse than Fidel.”

But the crackdown has met with some resistance. The government earlier this year postponed until April 1 a new law that increased penalties for corruption and demanded more efficiency on the job. According to some Cubans, the delay was decided upon when some workers chose to quit rather than follow the new rules.

Those who can’t afford to walk off the job face another challenge: getting there.

Mairelys, 21, wakes up at 5 a.m. and is on the street by 5:30, giving herself 2-½ hours to hitchhike to her job at a chicken farm in central Cuba, a 30-minute drive from her home.

On good days, she quickly gets a lift, and she gets to work two hours early. On bad days, she is an hour late.

“I spend four or five hours a day commuting,” she said, matter of factly.

Among the most daunting issues facing Raul Castro is a dilapidated transportation system where cars are a luxury, city bus rides cost about one U.S. penny but are usually jam-packed, and premium gas costs nearly $4 a gallon - about a week’s pay.

Many people in the provinces get around by horse and buggy.

Many others hitchhike. In a country of 11.2 million people, the government reported 22 million such rides last year. One Havana student said it sometimes takes him 2-½ days to hitch the 350 miles home to Camaguey province.

Saying it could no longer afford to subsidize mass transit, the government recently announced a four-fold increase in bus fares. As a result, some of the 7,000 new but often empty Chinese buses whiz down highways, while hundreds stand on the shoulders looking for a lift.

A rehabilitation of urban transportation in Havana alone will require 1,000 new buses, according to government estimates. Yet only 100 new buses have been put into service so far.

“The bus to Havana from Camaguey costs 150 pesos ($6) - You would have to save money for a whole year,” Pascual, a Camaguey retiree, said while hitching a ride to run errands. “How do I get to Havana? I don’t. I haven’t been there in about 10 years.”

One of Raul Castro’s first moves as the island’s new leader? He replaced the minister of transportation.

Cuba’s new ruler has a mixed record on the news media.

In the first few months under Raul Castro, the two main government-controlled newspapers published several investigative pieces about corruption and social indiscipline - rare and stunningly critical yet still within the government’s censorship limits.

Among their recent stories: Cuban stores regularly cheat customers; there’s worry that the country’s population is growing old; more and more Cubans are alcoholics.

The Communist Youth Union’s Juventud Rebelde newspaper even wrote a series earlier this year criticizing the breakdown in revolutionary values among youths, exposing illegal “fiesta houses” - essentially open-bar, all-night rave parties that charge up to $10 to enter.

On Jan. 13, during the Eighth National Festival of the Printed Press, government officials and journalists in the state media urged that journalism be presented in “a combative language.”

As the Cuban media have been airing more of the nation’s dirty laundry, in February, the government yanked the journalists’ visas for the correspondents for the Chicago Tribune, BBC and Mexico’s El Universal newspaper, saying their coverage was “not convenient.”

Raul Castro’s new hard-line communications minister also cracked down on the illegal satellite dishes many Cubans use to watch Miami stations such as Univision.

And while six Catholic bishops were allowed to broadcast Easter messages over provincial radio stations in April - the church’s largest participation in state-run media since Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit - the highly regarded Catholic magazine Vitral last month announced that after 13 years it would “no longer guarantee” publication. The bishop in charge later said Vitral would remain open but would be “less aggressive and argumentative.”

One of the first steps Raul Castro took after his brother declared he was temporarily surrendering power following intestinal surgery was to begin mobilizing some 200,000 security forces and launch a campaign warning that the Bush administration might attack.

From conversations with dozens of Cubans, the campaign appears to have worked, especially among the elderly.

Eglis, a middle-age housewife, lives in two rooms of an abandoned, crumbling factory with her husband and daughters just blocks from a beach on Cuba’s northern shore, where she thinks U.S. soldiers - or exiles - could land in an invasion disguised as a democracy-building mission.

“But if Fidel dies and Bush attacks, we are ready and decided. There is only one God in Cuba, and his name is Fidel,” Eglis said. The day that invasion comes, she said, she’d be “on the shore with a weapon.”

Eglis would be joined by Yoidel, 24, a cowboy from central Cuba who says he is eager to leave the island in search of a better life but, almost in the same breath, vows to fight for it “until the end.”

One significant sign of change under Raul Castro came in January, when a group of state-approved writers and artists took to the Internet in an unprecedented public complaint against TV appearances by three former government officials who were in charge of harsh purges in the cultural arena during the 1970s.

“Cuban intellectuals have plunged into a debate feeling the pain from the manipulation of a physical and spiritual wound, badly stitched and therefore never fully closed,” novelist Leonardo Padura said by telephone from Havana. “Silence and indolence are no longer possible.”

Poet Cesar Lopez followed up in February with a speech - this time with Raul sitting in the audience - in which he said Cuba should recognize writers whose books are banned here like Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Reinaldo Arenas and Gaston Baquero - all of whom died in exile.

Lopez and the Internet writers suffered no known retaliation, and some cinemas have been showing films on usually sensitive topics, such as drug addiction and prostitution, normally shown only in film festivals.

And just this month, television for the first time broadcast the 1993 movie “Strawberry and Chocolate,” never shown before, because it treats the touchy topics of repression against homosexuals and Cubans who want to leave the island.

But in February, Eliades Acosta, 47, considered to be a hard-liner, was appointed chief of the Culture Department of the Communist Party’s ruling Central Committee - a move viewed as an indication that the island’s leadership is intent on strengthening its control of the culture sector.

Cuban historian Rafael Rojas, now a visiting professor at Columbia and Princeton, said the government had essentially managed to co-opt or control the artists’ frustrations by allowing them just enough leeway.

No such leeway has been evident for Cuba’s dissidents.

The main dissident organizations agree that repressive actions increased nationwide after the transfer of power to Raul Castro, largely perceived abroad as a likely reformer but seen by most Cubans as someone to be feared. Harassment of dissidents on the streets and short-term detentions have increased, even while some dissidents were freed from jail.

Two dissidents were sent before rare summary trials in April, with one of them arrested, tried and sentenced to four years in prison all in one day.

From December 2006 until last month, 130 dissidents were picked up in short-term detentions, while just five were sent to prison and another 28 were released either because they finished their sentences or were freed early. In January, Cuba had 283 political prisoners. Today: 250.

“They have substituted political repression based on long prison sentences with other forms of harassment and threats,” said Elizardo Sanchez, president of the illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation. “This is a government that now realizes after 50 years that it does not need so many people in prison to maintain control.”

After lying low following the announcement of Fidel Castro’s surgery, a growing number of government opponents recently have been showing a rare level of unity by signing a document dubbed “Unity for Liberty.” Distributed last month, it brings together the usually fractious opposition leaders in support of common causes: democracy, justice, sovereignty and freedom for political prisoners.

The vast majority of Cubans remain too afraid to join any organized opposition group.

“Go put a `Down with Fidel’ sign on that electrical pole and see what happens. They’ll arrest you and the next 15 or 20 people who walk by just to find out who did it,” said Yosvany, 27, a Havana student. “The police are all over. They’ll stop you for no reason. It really heated up after Fidel got sick.”

Fidel Castro acknowledged in 2005 that another crisis facing the revolution is its young - the 1.5 million adults too young to remember the better times before Cuba’s economy virtually imploded with the end of Soviet subsidies in 1991.

Most feel disenfranchised and hopeless, according to interviews and experts. They study for highbrow degrees, knowing they will get only meager salaries. They long for material comforts and the latest fashions.

Mario, 21, a farmer in central Cuba, dreams of leaving Cuba so he can buy a car. And Yosvany says he can’t get a date, because he’s broke and Cuban women prefer foreigners with cars and cash. He dreams of leaving, so he can be like the guys in his Camaguey neighborhood, who left Cuba and came back to visit as big spenders.

“I live four miles from the beach,” Yosvany said. “I can tell you: Young people leave here every day.”


(The Miami Herald has withheld the surnames of the people interviewed in Cuba and the name of the correspondent who reported from there, because the reporter lacked the Cuban visa required for journalists to work from the island.)


(El Nuevo Herald correspondent Wilfredo Cancio Isla and Miami Herald correspondent Frances Robles reported from Miami. Translator Renato Perez contributed to this report.)

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