- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2002

HAVANA, Cuba — "Life is change," Roberto Alarcon, Cuba's No. 3 guy behind the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, tells a visiting group of black American journalists, who include me.

He is trying to explain to us at length with too much dogma and too few facts why it is no big deal that in this post-Soviet age Cuba is flirting with free enterprise. It always has, he tells us, recalling the land reforms that broke up the country-sized estates of American corporations into small family farms in the early days of the 43-year-old republic.

But, hey, those token reforms don't begin to describe Cuba's recent transformation into two separate worlds jostling each other to occupy the same real estate and state of mind.

The government, in the interest of order, tries to keep the two apart. The result is a weird form of tourist apartheid: Cubans are not allowed to stay in Cuba's fanciest hotels or use many of its fanciest beaches, cafes or restaurants, unless maybe they are guests of tourists.

Tourists shop in "dollar stores," which take only American money, and ride spiffy new "dollar taxis." The cutest of them is the bright-yellow, three-wheeled "coco taxi," so nicknamed because of its hemispheric shape. Like gadgets out of "The Jetsons," the "cocos" whiz visitors on short halls from one tourist stop to another.

Cubans have the same old "peso taxis" they always have had, along with the "peso stores," which have what a family needs to get by and not much more.

And tourist dollars bring out the black market, which is what communist states call any kind of unauthorized entrepreneurship. You can get anything from the "jinateros" and "jinateras," male and female hustlers who offer tourists anything they want "anything" for dollars.

How do Cubans like the new apartheid? Many don't. A few will let you know it. When I asked one independent and government-suppressed Cuban journalist, he grumbled, "The government does not like Cubans anymore."

But most Cubans seem to go along with it in the way that Cubans have been forced to go along with other abuses over the years. Besides, I am constantly reminded, there are many ways to get around "the system," and the famously innovative Cubans will make the system work for them.

"People think of Cuba's system as inflexible," a young government reporter told me. "Actually, we are very flexible."

Sure. Fidel Castro has justified the new class divide as putting capitalism to work for socialism. Cubans were starving in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union evaporated along with more than a million dollars in daily aid. Desperate, Mr. Castro loosened the barriers against entrepreneurship, made deals with international hotel and hospitality corporations, and legalized private ownership of dollars.

The dollar has turned Fidel's fiefdom upside-down. Overnight those who worked menial jobs for tips were making more money than the masses whose salaries were set very low by socialist policies. Suddenly doormen were making more than doctors, who receive the equivalent of $30 a month from Mr. Castro's socialist government. A waitress can make more than that one night in tips.

The result has been a new optimism you can see on the faces or hear in the voices of Cubans. It cannot comfort the regime that this new optimism comes because Cubans are tasting the joys of a free-market system atop the economic safety net that Mr. Castro brought, with benefits that include free health care, free schools and free university education.

Cubans do not want to go back to Mafia-backed Fulgencio Batista's bad old days, when the poor often starved and the island's black majority was banned from good jobs, schools and even beaches. But you can easily tell they don't want to stay where they are, either.

Cuban enterprise is waiting for President Bush to lift the U.S. embargo so it can be truly free. Many are positive he is only supporting it to improve his brother Jeb's chances of being re-elected governor of Florida with the help of anti-Castro exiles in Miami.

Similarly, uncertainty trembles in the voices of Mr. Castro's government officials. They don't say it, but they must be relieved to have the embargo in place. It gives Mr. Castro an excuse for his inefficient government's failings and slows the pace of change that is rushing his country into a future that holds little hope for a revival of Marxism.

In other words, Mr. Bush pretends to support the embargo, while Mr. Castro pretends that he doesn't. Yes, life is change, all right. And strange.


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