- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2001

First in a series

HAVANA —A visit to Fidel Castro's Cuba subtly reshapes many perceptions of the place, even while confirming others. Some of the eight American journalists visiting recently found conditions better than they expected; others found them worse.
Havana is a mixture of new, world-class tourist hotels and a treasure trove of pre-Revolutionary architecture, some of it well-maintained, a portion undergoing restoration, but much of it in varying stages of delapidation ranging all the way to virtual ruins. There also are some bleakly modern state-built apartment blocks.
The population seems well-educated and relatively healthy, neatly if simply dressed, with no public evidence of the malnourishment one can find in many neighboring countries. It is not Palm Beach, but nor is it a Caribbean Calcutta. The people are friendly and hospitable despite years of hostility between their communist government and the United States.
Yes, the old pre-1959 American autos still ply the streets of Havana. They constitute perhaps a third of the automotive stock in the capital. Some are in good condition, others less so, but most seem to run smoothly. There also many cars from the old Soviet Bloc and a large number of recent imports from Asia and Europe.
Still, the prevalence of the older autos and the presence of a large oil refinery near Havana, spewing smoke, result in much poorer air quality than most U.S. cities. One wag in our crowd described the diesely odor as "the smell of communism."
The central streets, though swept and free of garbage and offal, are gritty from the smoky effusions of buses, trucks and autos. All this is ameliorated somewhat by the fact traffic is considerably less in Havana than in U.S. cities its size (approximately 2 million people). This may be due to a shortage of petroleum, only a portion of which is produced by the island itself.
Withal, life seems to move on, in many ways normally, despite politics and shortages. Mothers pull insistently on their foot-dragging toddlers. Young couples stroll along the Malecon, or ocean drive. People try to get by, make a bit of money.
Everywhere around the Parque Central and in Old Havana one is importuned by Cubans eager to earn a buck or two by steering tourists toward cigars of questionable provenance and the often quite good "paladares" or private restaurants. Some members of our entourage also reported being offered women (unsuccessfully). Cuban officials admit the opening of tourism to attract foreign capital and hard currency has stirred an unwanted resurgence of prostitution. They also expressed concern that tourism could make Cuba a transit point in the illegal drug trade and held this out as an item for increased cooperation with the United States if and when the U.S. embargo ends and normal relations resume.
It sometimes appears, as locals joke, that "everything is done and nothing is permitted." Some private restaurants, for example, routinely provide meals for more persons than they are legally allowed to accommodate. The government can choose to overlook such infractions or clamp down depending on the mood of the moment.
The police presence and security, though evident, is not palpably overwhelming to the wary visitor. One of the journalists in our group of eight wondered why certain autos seemed to be flagged down "at random." We found out when our driver merely slowed at an intersection marked by a triangular sign reading "Pare" (Stop).
The driver was promptly waved over by a gendarme, who quietly took his license and rental papers and issued a citation. Though some of the visitors tensed, fearing a problem involving them, we were soon on our way again.
An evening at a modern jazz club near the Malecon provided a different slice of life from garden restaurants and paladares. The jazz was good, often played on modern U.S. musical equipment, despite the embargo. Coca-Cola bottled in Mexico was served.
The club looked out on not only the bay but a soaring, modern hotel that is a joint venture between the Cuban government and Spanish business interests. The hotel boasts 435 rooms and charges up to $500 per night, to provide an idea of the kind of money the government aims to attract. Indeed, Cuba hosts an abundance of visitors from Europe, Canada and Latin America, though the embargo has limited U.S. visitors to a mere trickle.
The developing tourist trade and the "dollar economy" it generates side-by-side with the controlled peso economy has introduced anomalies. The bartender at our hotel was educated as a chemical engineer but earns more money mixing drinks for foreigners.
The U.S. embargo and perhaps official priorities have left the island short of many little extras taken for granted even by the American poor. In a number of spotless lavoratories at government ministries there was in evidence either no soap, no paper towels or no toilet tissue, and often there was a lack of all three. All that notwithstanding, what we saw of Cuba appears relatively sanitary.
Officials were faultlessly courteous and appeared as forthright as one could hope, though many opened with a fulsome discourse on the damages wrought by the U.S. embargo. Bottled water, orange juice and Cuban coffee were unfailingly offered.
Cuban officials proudly showed off the Latin American School of Medical Science on the outskirts of Havana, where they are training more than 3,000 scholarship students from other Latin American countries and from Africa. They are said to expect the first contingent this spring of ultimately as many as 500 students from low-income areas of the United States who are being offered tuition-free training.
Cubans also are proud of their medical research, including development by their Finlay Institute of a vaccine for meningitis B, of which they report distribution of 45 million doses in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America over the last 10 years. They hope European clinical tests and trials in New Zealand will lead to the vaccine's acceptance by the developed nations, even the U.S.
Cuban officials also refer to the straitened time known as the "special period" after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This cost the Cubans more than a third of their gross domestic product and thrust the island into a significant depression. The influx of foreign investment capital and tourist spending has helped Cuba begin to recover in the past five years, with annual economic growth in gross domestic product in the 5 percent range last year.
Next: Cuban policies and explanations.

Benjamin P. Tyree is deputy editor of the Commentary pages of The Washington Times and recently visited Cuba under the aegis of the American Journalism Foundation.

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