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    Capitalism is seeping into Cuba's foundation

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 20, 2002

    HAVANA -- The Socialist Revolution is showing some very big cracks.

    Signs of physical decline are everywhere. The relatively few projects of renovation and new construction seem inadequate to the challenge. Walls are falling. Roofs are sagging. In many districts of the Cuban capital, any relatively well-painted building stands out like a color photograph on a black-and-white page. A small park in Old Havana was created when the building on the land collapsed.

    Through such cracks, some strong elements of capitalism are seeping into Cuba. A sports stadium outside Havana still bears the portrait of revolutionary Che Guevara, and the slogan painted on the wall proclaims, "Our principles are not negotiable."

    But the reality is different. The American dollar is the currency of choice -- even at the shrines of socialism. The Museum of the Revolution houses the yacht Fidel Castro sailed on to return from exile in Mexico and a turbine from an American U-2 plane shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I paid my admission with a $5 bill, and got a $1 bill back as change.

    This was my second visit to Cuba, four years since the previous one. Both trips were organized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The U.S. government prohibits most citizens from traveling to Cuba, but journalists and academics are exempt from the toughest restrictions.

    Five days in the capital and surrounding areas reinforced the impression of a resilient people barely making ends meet. Nobody looks malnourished, and standards of health care and education remain high, at least by Latin American standards. Life may not be desperate for many Cubans, but it is dreary. Maybe the Great Depression looked something like this.

    A department store where Cuban pesos are accepted had the inventory of a third-rate dime store in the final hour of a going-out-of-business sale. Across from the clothing racks was a display case that offered random plumbing fittings, hardware and tools. A taxi driver said he had been a translator, but started driving a cab four years ago because he can make more money. At the traffic light, a man, woman and two small children were riding a single motorcycle.

    The collapse of the Soviet Union halted the subsidies to Cuba, and the country has gone through a wrenching decade to survive on its own. The translator for our group, Ana, decided to learn English when it became clear the demand for Russian translators would plummet.

    In some measure, the Russian payments to the Cuban government have been replaced by dollars sent by Americans, most of them immigrants and their children, to relatives still in Cuba. The government's economic minister acknowledged Monday that those "remittances" now probably add up to more -- approaching $1-billion a year -- than the value of Cuba's sugar crop. Earlier this year, Cuba shut down 40 percent of its sugar mills because they could not compete with more efficient machines and lower prices elsewhere.

    In this gloomy economic picture, the Cuban government is betting on foreign investment and tourism as bright spots. The Canadians run an electrical generating plant fed by natural gas from Cuban wells. The Israelis are partners in a citrus cooperative. The Dutch opened the hotel -- the Golden Tulip -- where we stayed. Had I wanted, I could have watched the Florida Gators play LSU with commentary in English or Spanish.

    But after Sept. 11 last year, the tourist trade is down sharply here. Jorge Dominguez, a Harvard professor whose own family emigrated from Cuba when he was a teenager, estimates the Cuban economy has now slipped back to about 75 percent of what it was producing in 1985. The current patterns, he said, "just can't go on."

    The biggest boost to tourism would come if the United States started letting its citizens travel here legally. The Cuban government says about 1.7-million tourists came to the island last year, including Americans who made the trip through third countries, like Mexico, without getting caught when they returned home. In Cuba's largest tourism region, I asked a local official what would happen if the United States lifted its travel ban. His eyes lit up. "The number is beyond calculation," he said.

    New hotel plans may be premature. There are some signs of softening in American policy toward Cuba, but the rhetoric from the Bush administration has taken a harder tone. Meanwhile, most trade restrictions and the travel ban remain in place.

    General Electric made the turbine at the electricity generating plant, but Chris Edgerly, a 26-year-old Canadian, says it is impossible to get parts (although the Cuban plant manager drives a Ford F150 pick-up). A Cuban biotechnology center that researches and produces medical vaccines bought a $1-million instrument from Japan because a better, less expensive American alternative was off limits. When the machine needs service or technical support, it is a long way from Japan.

    James Cason, the chief U.S. diplomat to Cuba, is new in town but wastes no time in laying out a harsh assessment of the Cuban regime, starting with Castro: "a totalitarian dictator who runs a repressive regime increasingly reliant on the military." Castro presides over a "Jurassic economy," said Cason. "He wants us to throw him a lifeline of unlimited tourism."

    Even though Castro remains in power 43 years after the revolution, the embargo needs more time to work, according to Cason. The problem is not with U.S. policy, but that the rest of the world isn't going along.

    The administration's position does limited support, however, at least outside Miami. A majority of both houses of Congress now favors some relaxation of the U.S. restraints, but not by margins big enough to override a veto by President Bush. Still, the Cubans sense a shift in American public opinion, and they are mounting a full-court public relations press.

    Government officials have polished their lines about the injustice of the embargo and the hypocrisy of American foreign policy. Officials note with wry irony that American diplomats push for democratic reforms in Cuba, even while elections still go awry in Miami. Cuba's 37-year-old foreign minister, one of the next generation of political leaders, asked why Americans can travel to China or to Vietnam, where 58,000 American soldiers were killed, but not to Cuba, just 100 miles away. "There is not a single American family weeping over the loss of a beloved person who was murdered in Cuba," said Felipe Perez. "Why Cuba? It is not easy to explain that policy."

    With international attention on them, Cuban officials have loosened just a bit their own restrictions on press freedom and dissent. Estimates put the number of political prisoners in Cuban jails in the neighborhood of 400. When a group of dissidents organized a petition drive to seek greater freedoms, they gathered 10,000 signatures. The government responded with its own petition drive that swamped the first one, but not with jail. In his interview with Barbara Walters, Castro even confirmed that Cuban citizens have the right to petition the government. The interview was broadcast on Cuban television.

    A number of Cuban dissidents were bold enough to meet with the American editors both in our hotel and at the U.S. diplomatic residence. One of them, Valdimiro Roca, went to prison in 1997 for signing a declaration endorsing greater human rights. He got out five years later, just five months ago. "I'm doing exactly what I was doing in 1997," he told us.

    Martha Roque, a 57-year-old economist, showed a similar belligerent bravery. She went to jail at the same time as Roca and was released after three years. She has no children of her own; two sisters in Miami send her money and clothes. "I am in the position to go to prison again," she said. "My prison cost Fidel Castro more in the political way than it cost me in my health."

    But among the dissidents I spoke with, only Roque showed any enthusiasm for keeping the U.S. embargo and travel restrictions in place. The rest were either neutral or negative, even when speaking in front of the U.S. diplomat who was pushing that hard line. The embargo is "completely counterproductive," said Gisela Delgado, who is organizing a project for independent libraries. "It gives a weapon to the Cuban government."

    Castro blames the "blockade" for the shortages squeezing average Cubans. If it were lifted, it is hard to know which extreme would be more dangerous for his regime. If the change made little difference, how would Castro then explain persistent and pervasive poverty? On the other hand, if the flow of American tourists, investment and dollars was too great, would even Castro be able to hold back the tide of counter-revolutionary ideas and culture?

    Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, you could have lost a lot of money betting on the political decline of Castro, who has stayed on the stage long after his Cold War contemporaries have gone. His survival skills are uncanny, his political reflexes still keen.

    Castro may no longer be able to project Cuban influence in foreign policy by sending his army to Angola or other distant conflicts. So, on a former naval base, he has created a massive college to train medical students, mostly from other Latin American countries, who will eventually return as doctors to ease the disease and suffering at home. The Cuban government pays all the costs of the six-year program.

    The school was founded after two hurricanes ravaged the Caribbean in October of 1998. It now has 6,000 students from 24 countries -- including the United States.

    There are three dozen young Americans, mostly women and minorities, in their first and second years of medical training, compliments of the Cuban government. We met most of them during a visit to the school. As classes finished for the day, the delegation grew steadily, with students passing the microphone to identify themselves and their hometowns. For most, the chance for a free trip through medical school seemed a stroke of great fortune. For a few, politics were part of the appeal.

    James Creedon, 25, said he had worked for three years as a paramedic in New York City before he was accepted by the Cuban school this year. He was a wearing a lapel pin of a red star on his shirt pocket and described himself as a socialist. He said he wants "to bring the lessons we learned here back to the United States, where more than 40-million people do not have health care."

    After four decades of hostilities and stand-off with the United States, Fidel Castro takes in some of its sons and daughters to train them as physicians, so that one day they can help care for the sick in the world's richest nation. With such political skills, Castro has managed to survive the decline of socialism, so perhaps he could also withstand the rise of free-market forces.

    There is one way to find out.

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