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Thursday, August 1, 1991

Cuba: Misery and Hope

Jorge Amador is editor of The Pragmatist, a current affairs commentary. The names of private individuals in Cuba have been changed for their protection.

It arrived in January as the Gulf War opened, and it read like a dispatch from Baghdad or . Kuwait: “The situation here is desperate. There is no food, or water, or electricity.” But it wasn’t a press account from a place ravaged by bombing or military occupation. It was a letter from an ordinary citizen, writing about Cuba into its fourth decade of socialism.

Cuba’s economic plight is hardly news. A cursory glance at United Nations historical statistics shows how a once up-and-coming developing nation has slowly sunk into the bottom half of Third World economies. But somehow the parade of grim statistics never really hit home until a series of letters and personal interviews with relatives in recent months added a human dimension to the cold numbers. These are not the rantings of embit tered exiles, but the firsthand accounts of men and women who grew up in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

I met my aunt Josefina in November, when she came to the United States with my grandmother for a three-week visit. She last saw me when I was still a toddler in 1961. She belongs to the generation of idealistic youth who helped put Castro in power in 1959.

What do you talk about with a relative you’ve never met before? As a nephew and a journalist, I was bound to ask, “What are things like over there?”

“We’re going back to the 19th century,” was her short reply. Josefina confirms press reports that horse-drawn carriages are replacing delivery trucks in Havana. The government recently issued bicycles for urban workers to get to work, and put in an order for thousands of oxcarts to replace tractors in the countryside.

Electricity is strictly rationed in Cuba, she says, enforced by scheduled and unscheduled power outages. Those who spend more than their monthly electricity allowance get their power shut off for three days a month. Twenty-five-watt bulbs are the rage in Havana. Depending on their location, homes in the city have running water for a few hours every second, third, or fourth day. Josefina should know: she’s employed in the waterworks.

For years the Cuban economy was kept barely afloat by Soviet subsidies, but recently it has foundered as formerly Communist countries in Eastern Europe have started demanding hard currency, not worthless rubles or Cuban pesos, in exchange for their goods. The sharp rise in crude oil prices following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait made things suddenly much worse. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was quick to blame everything on the price of oil, but the economy continued to deteriorate even after Desert Storm started and oil prices returned to pre-invasion levels.

Consumer Hell

In response to the growing crisis, Castro has decreed a “special period of austerity” reminiscent of wartime economies. Rationing has been in place for most consumer goods since the 1960s, but now everything is strictly rationed, and buying one rationed item forfeits the right to obtain something else until the next ration book arrives.

“Things are very difficult here,” writes another aunt, Rosa. “To give you an idea, it was my turn to shop on Friday. If I bought a refill for my pen, I would lose the right to buy perfume . . . . Absolutely everything is [bought] by the ration book.”

“I am a Fidelista, but not a comunista,” declares my grandmother defensively over this kind of dinner talk. She admires Castro’s carefully cultivated image as the dynamic Maximum Leader.

“That’s because you stay home all the time, and I’m the one who has to stand in line for hours to do the shopping,” retorts my aunt Josefina. “You just see what they put on television. If you went out more often, you’d realize how bad things really are.”

As in other centrally planned economies, Cubans have plenty of money, but little to buy with it. Socialist labor bosses can boast that the system has given workers unprecedented levels of income, but shoppers begin lining up in the wee hours of the morning before the stores open to make sure they get in before the goods run out.

Predictably, the preponderance of buyers over sellers has resulted in minimal levels of quality and service. “Let me explain to you how it is here so you understand,” writes my cousin Lidia. “Youtake a roll of film to be developed. Three or four months later—if you’re lucky—you get back maybe half the pictures you took. You go through the negatives and find undeveloped photos, but there’s nothing you can do about it; you can’t go and complain. And forget about getting extra copies of your prettiest pictures: it’s impossible.”

Unlike a “seller’s market” in a free economy, however, entrepreneurs cannot enter the market to provide the relief of competition. Nobody else is allowed to fill the people’s needs, and the sellers themselves derive no profit from their endeavors, so they lack the incentive to increase their own production. The result is not a seller’s paradise, but sheer hell for consumers.

“Stone Age Man” in Manhattan

My cousin Domingo, 38, left Cuba for good with his two sons late in January. He was eager to tell me about Cuba, and to offer his first impressions of the United States. “Coming to the United States from Cuba is like putting a man from the Stone Age smack in the middle of New York City,” he said to me. “The differences are that great. Here you have everything; over there, we had nothing.”

Unlike Josefina, Domingo lived in the countryside. I probed him for information about rural Cuba. Whatever became of the farmers’ free markets that Castro allowed for a few years in the mid-1980s? Didn’t they help to ease the shortages of food staples?

“They were relatively expensive,” replied my cousin, “but you could get things you couldn’t find in the state stores. Fidel closed down the farmers’ free markets because, as he put it, they were ‘exploiting the people,’ selling rice at 1.30 pesos a pound. So then he set up these state-run, so-called ‘parallel markets’—and they sold the same rice at 1.50 pesos a pound? Now even the parallel markets are closed, since there’s nothing to sell.

Whatever the economy’s material failings, apologists for Cuban socialism are quick to point out that Cubans now possess “dignity,” an intangible commodity we are said to have lacked before Castro. Whether or not Cubans had dignity before, Domingo Would disagree that they have it today. “what hurts the most,” he says about conditions in Cuba, “is the discrimination against Cubans by the government itself.”

The Cuban government, he explains, runs stores where only people with hard currency (e.g., U.S. dollars) are allowed to shop. Since Cubans aren’t allowed to possess foreign currency, only foreigners are admitted into the stores. The hard-currency shops offer a wide variety of goods not available to the average Cuban, who has to ask visitors to go in and buy things for him.

“There are restaurants where anybody can sit down to eat, but there are two sets of menus—one for foreigners and another one for Cubans,” says Domingo. “You can sit at the same table and not be allowed to order the same things, unless the customer with the hard currency offers to pay for your meal.”

Cracks in the Monolith

Because the regime quickly swoops down on displays of public dissent, Cuba presents an outward image of undisturbed harmony. But dearly there is widespread private disenchantment with the socialist system. One relative reports the results of an informal poll she took at her office in Havana: 75 percent said they are against the government, 10 percent are in favor, and the rest declined to say. The fact that she felt safe enough in her surroundings to undertake such a project is itself revealing.

During my interview with Domingo I turned to his sons and asked what young people think of Castro. Aren’t they indoctrinated in socialism from Day One?

“Yes, but nobody believes it,” said Andrés, age 19. “Whenever Fidel goes on TV we say, ‘The heck with him,’ and go out and party.” After 32 years, the state’s efforts to imbue youth with socialist ideology can’t compete with the hard evidence of its failure all around them.

His brother Ián, 8, played with a remote-controlled toy fire truck. But misery had made him wise beyond his years. Ián took me on a tour of his grandfather’s home in Connecticut, which the family was leaving for sunnier skies in Florida. Strewn all over the house was the debris of moving preparations.

Ián led me to the garage. He walked me around a pile of items to be discarded before the move: a wooden wine-bottle box, a rack full of dusty cups and glasses, some old tools, dirty clothes. “Here [in the United States] you consider all of this trash, junk to be thrown out.” He picked up the wooden box by the handle. “But in Cuba we would save all these things. When you’re poor you have to make do with what you have.”

In the face of crushing poverty and stifled formal speech, Cubans have turned to humor for relief. Cuban jokes about features of daily life, from rationing to Castro’s personality cult, serve to express popular feelings about the socialist “revolution” and its Maximum Leader.

In a recent compilation of Cuban political humor ( Chistes: Political Humor in Cuba [Washington: The Cuban American National Foundation, 1989]), Luis Aguilar, a professor of history at Georgetown University, includes one about Sherlock Holmes, the master of logical deduction. Walking the streets of Havana with Dr. Watson, Holmes stops to watch a man wiping his brow with a handkerchief and walking briskly past them.

“Watson, do you see that man who has just passed us? Well, he doesn’t have any underwear.”

Watson couldn’t believe his ears about Holmes’s statement and asked the man in question if it was true. Upon hearing his affirmative reply, Watson inquired from Holmes how he had reached such a conclusion.

“Elementary, Watson, elementary. In this country, he who spends his ration coupon on a handkerchief forfeits his right to underwear!”

The cracks in the Cuban monolith are slowly growing. Listening to Radio Martí or TV Martí, the U.S.-sponsored services broadcasting into Cuba, is a punishable offense. Nevertheless, Radio Martí is the most popular station in Cuba. “When Radio Martí comes on, the streets are emptied,” says Domingo. “Everybody plays it real low so nobody can hear you listening to it from the other side of the wall.”

TV Martí has been jammed by the Cuban government since it first came on the air, but that may change soon. “The jamming signal is transmitted from a helicopter,” claims Josefina, half seriously. “We’re all waiting for the helicopter’s fuel to run out so we can watch TV Martí uninterrupted.”

But what about those great rallies we see on television, where everyone cheers Fidel’s every word? “People go because they get off from work that day,” explains Domingo. “It’s like a holiday. But if you don’t show up for the rally or don’t cheer, you’re suspect.”

And what of those infamous “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution,” the busybody block committees that are supposed to keep tabs on the people’s political correctness? Josefina is the vice chair of her block committee. Participating in the CDRs is a matter of survival, not ideological commitment.

So how soon can we hope for change in Cuba? Domingo was pessimistic. “The problem is that everybody complains in private, but nobody is brave enough to be the first to go out on the street and start a revolution. They’ll shoot you.”

Politically, Cuba today appears to be in what we might describe as a pre-revolutionary high simmer: it could boil over at any time. There is general discontent, but as yet no widespread opposition movement to give it direction. Crackdowns on formal dissent have made it more difficult to organize the opposition, but as the example of Romania suggests, organized opposition may not be necessary.

“You know,” I told Domingo, “in Romania they had a big rally for the Communist dictator Ceausescu, and the crowd started booing when they were supposed to cheer. It was quite a shock. The people then poured onto the streets, and the regime collapsed in a matter of days.” Even a massive state security apparatus, personally loyal to the dictator, could not stop the people when enough of them decided they couldn’t take it anymore.

Not surprisingly, my cousin had not heard of this. Couldn’t the same happen in Cuba, I asked, when things get so bad that somebody might decide they’ve got nothing to lose? It only takes one small spark to set off a tinderbox.

My cousin’s eyes lit up. “It just might”

  • Jorge Amador is a free-lance writer and editor of The Pragmatist, a current-affairs bimonthly.