Havana journal

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Dec 22 10:11:41 MST 1999

NY Times, December 22, 1999


To Have and Have Not: Cubans' Life With Castro


HAVANA -- Behind a display case filled with cassettes of Cuban music from
decades past, Wilfredo del Río keeps another oldie under glass. It is a
photograph of Fidel Castro, smiling and youthful, taken in the heady days
after the revolution triumphed in January 1959.

"I have it guarded, like a relic," said Mr. del Río, a cashier at the store
in the Barrio Colón section of Havana. "It is something big for us. We love
Fidel a lot. He has his defects like anyone else. But I consider him to be
the man of the century."

He reeled off a litany of advances in education and health care in the 40
years since Mr. Castro came to power, a familiar refrain for many Cubans.
For most of that time, the island has been under a United States trade
embargo, a move intended to force Mr. Castro out of power or, at least,
bring about democratic reforms. Despite the pressure, Mr. Castro and his
Communist government remain in power.

The brunt of the embargo's impact has been borne by Cuban citizens, the
most desperate of whom take to the seas in small boats and rafts, sometimes
with tragic results. Those who remain scramble and improvise to supplement
their small monthly incomes with American dollars from relatives abroad or
with tips from tourists and trades with neighbors and co-workers. If not,
they simply do without.

"We lack a lot that is needed to move forward and resolve the economic
problems," Mr. del Río said. "I think to resolve the economic problems
there should be a little more liberty and democracy so that foreign
investors will come and invest in Cuba."

Despite this, he insisted that he still had great affection for Mr. Castro
as a person.

Such a mix of emotions are often encountered here, pitting whatever
personal admiration people may have for Mr. Castro and the revolution
against their daily struggle to make ends meet as the nation recovers from
the economic crisis brought by the collapse of the Soviet Union eight years

While officials point to recent economic reforms that have led to some
growth -- legalizing the owning of dollars and courting foreign investment
-- many Cubans complain privately that those benefits have yet to filter
down to their households. In their daily lives, they are left reconciling
their allegiance to the revolution's social advances with their individual
pessimism about improving their standard of living after years of barely
getting by.

Some Cubans have benefited from the modest liberalizing of the economy --
and not just in the tourist sector with its gleaming new hotels filled with
dollar-laden foreigners. Tradespeople have gone into business for
themselves while other enterprising types have opened up paladares --
restaurants they operate in their homes -- in return for paying a monthly
tax in hard currency to the government.

The legalization of the dollar a few years ago has increased buying power,
at least for those Cubans with jobs in the tourist industry or relatives in
the United States. But it has also brought with it an uncomfortable
distinction between those who have access to dollars and those who do not.
In a country where people line up to receive their monthly rations of food,
there is now yet another line, this time of people waiting to get into the
state-run dollar shops.

"They say this is a socialist government," said Mr. del Río, who
supplements his monthly income with several hundred dollars sent each year
by relatives in the United States. "But I see a mix of capitalism and
socialism. On one side I see the dollar in circulation. Here, we work with
the national currency. We do not get dollars. Yet all the good merchandise
from clothes to food is in dollars."

On this particular morning, few people had passed by the record shop. Mr.
del Río's co-worker, Mercedes Martín, acknowledged that the economy was
tight and that people had little money for amusements. At the same time,
she considered it a small sacrifice.

"I lived under capitalism," said Ms. Martín, 53. "I suffered. When I was 11
I was cleaning floors in private homes. I could not go to school. My father
was jailed because he was for the revolution. Things were hard."

"Now," she said, "we are another people. There is less diversion, but we
have other things. We have a roof. We have security. We have schools for
our children."

They also have the embargo, which for her and many other Cubans is the
biggest impediment to their future. But it was a burden she insisted she
was still willing to bear.

"If we did not have a blockade, we could live like we are supposed to," she
said. "But I prefer the blockade to Fidel leaving."

Almost absent-mindedly, she stroked Mr. Castro's photograph, under glass
and frozen in time.

"Leave Papa here," she said. "You think we would trade this because of the
blockade? No."

Others are not so sure. A young man who lives in the Cayo Hueso section
said that when he was not working at his maintenance job he tried to earn a
few dollars by steering tourists to restaurants. He pointed to a child
riding her bike on the street.

"I make $8 a month and that bike over there costs $30," said the man, who
declined to give his name. "I get paid in pesos. How could I buy that? You
cannot live on that. Who can?"

He wondered how much longer it would be like this.

"Things have got to get better," he said. "Maybe by 2005?"

But guessing when change will come, either by political reform or
biological inevitability, has proved to be a perplexing game. At 73, Mr.
Castro has outlived many of his fiercest critics. At a summit meeting in
November of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations, he was resolute in
affirming the path he had chosen 40 years ago.

Rather than speculate about any possible transfer of power, publicly at
least, many Cubans prefer to criticize the embargo, saying that it has not
accomplished much except to deny American businesses the chance to invest
in Cuba.

"They themselves lose more by not selling to us," said Cristóbal Solano
Zuleta, a barber in Cayo Hueso. "So why not remove it? There is still a
little group in Miami who are pressuring Washington because they have
money. But it will not remove Fidel."

A few of his friends and neighbors had gathered inside his cramped
apartment to celebrate his wedding earlier in the day. Apart from festive
music and glasses filled with rum, there was not much else to fuel the
party, but they made do with what they had.

"I only wish for a better future," Mr. Solano said. "Economically,
socially. I don't know. To live a little better. We are of the lower class,
but we live well. Poor, but well. We eat every day. We struggle, like any
human being."

It wasn't easy, his friends said, but they insisted it was the only way
they knew.

"There are people who say Fidel is going tomorrow, or that he is gone,"
said Raúl Cabrera, 39, who dropped in on the party after finishing his
shift at a construction site. "But those of us who were born with this will
follow the revolution until the end."

More neighbors joined the party, as a young boy beat out a dance rhythm on
a wooden block mounted on a steel pipe.

"Our wine is bitter," Mr. Cabrera said. "But it is ours. We labor. But it
is ours and we drink it."

Louis Proyect

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