- The Washington Times - Monday, October 21, 2002

HAVANA This crumbling historic Caribbean capital is a 1950s-style theme park waiting to happen.
With cars from that era whizzing in every direction and block upon block of beautifully ornate buildings that appear to have gone without maintenance for nearly half a century, it isn't difficult to imagine what a fresh coat of capitalism would do.
There are just two sticking points: Fidel Castro and the 42-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba.
For much of his 43 years in power, Mr. Castro has used a healthy dose of anti-Americanism to keep his grip on an increasingly impoverished nation. Think Elian Gonzalez or the elementary school near Havana's Jose Marti Airport named The Martyrs of Playa Giron, the place where the Bay of Pigs invasion was routed.
Now, to listen to Mr. Castro's top aides and others here, Yankee dollars are the key to Cuba's financial salvation.
Cuba si, Yankee dollars even more si.
Asked last week about his country's future by a visiting group of U.S. newspaper editors, Ricardo Alarcon, leader of the Cuban National Assembly, said he envisioned "the same kind of society [with] more Americans coming down spending their dollars."
A spokesman at the Partagas factory, one of the oldest cigar makers in Havana, estimates sales of 25 million to 30 million cigars in the United States if the trade embargo is lifted.
Finance Minister Jose Louis Rodriguez predicts that an additional 1 million American tourists will come to Cuba if the U.S. travel ban is lifted. The country can handle the business when it comes, although he concedes that Cuba already holds back certain facilities and foods for tourists only.
Vladimiro Roca, a leading dissident who had breakfast last week with the visiting journalists, was challenged by security men when he walked into the Dutch-owned hotel because Cubans are not allowed to eat or stay there. Because of the pre-arranged meeting with the Americans, he was allowed in.
As he sat before a heaping plate from the breakfast buffet, Mr. Roca said, "Cuban people don't have the money to eat this kind of food. I can't even come in here."
Such examples are cited by supporters of the embargo, who argue that the Cuban people will not benefit from an influx of American dollars, that the money will only allow Mr. Castro to stay in power longer. The embargo and its accompanying travel ban were imposed in October 1960 after Mr. Castro nationalized foreign companies and property.
"This is a two-tiered economy: those with dollars and those without dollars," says James C. Cason, the United States' unofficial representative in Cuba, who notes the continuing decline of the Cuban economy, including Wall Street's lowest possible credit rating.
The U.S. dollar, not the Cuban peso, is the primary means of exchange. Because of the embargo against Cuba, American credit and ATM cards don't work here. This is a cash-and-carry economy for the estimated 176,000 Americans who visited last year, and even they are limited to bringing back goods worth no more than $100 in total.
Indicative both of the woeful condition of Cuba's economy and its new willingness to please the United States are the terms of nearly $90 million in recently signed high-profile trade deals with American agribusinesses. The agreements are contingent on cash up front, based on Cuba's bad payment record with Canadian and European firms.
According to published reports, the hard currency to pay Americans is coming at the expense of outstanding payments to businesses in other countries, who are increasingly reluctant to trade with Cuba.
Mr. Rodriguez admits that Cuba receives more annual income from Cuban-Americans sending money home to relatives than from its once-mighty sugar industry, although he cites no specifics.
The black market, on which many Cubans depend for a subsistence-level existence, accounts for 50 percent of all retail transactions, says Harvard University's Jorge Dominguez, one of the world's leading scholars on Cuba.
Mr. Rodriguez says his government has no measure of the size of the black market but says it is down since the mid-1990s, when Cuba was still reeling through the so-called Special Period. This is the name given to the years immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the latter's multibillion-dollar subsidies to Cuba were abruptly terminated.
The finance minister similarly acknowledges no measure of what he calls the "informal economy," the small degree of private enterprise now tolerated by the Cuban government.
This includes at-home restaurants called paladares, which are generally limited to 12 customers at a time and may use only family members as employees. By law, none may sell shellfish because they fall under a government monopoly, although larger paladares that routinely feature lobster and shrimp are easy for tourists to find.
The owner of Blanquita's, a typical paladar in the old section of Havana, where a customer can eat a sizable meal with a Cuban Cristal beer for less than $20, says she pays more than $900 a month as a business tax. The former Cuban naval officer, who proudly displays a black-and-white photo from her combat duty in Angola, has been in business since 1996, when the tax was about $20 monthly.
In those heady early days there were more than 300 paladares in the capital city. Now there are considerably fewer than 100 because many of their operators simply did not know how to operate a capitalist venture.
Mr. Rodriguez, who speaks comfortably of reducing the number of state farms and of Cuba's more than 400 business ventures with foreign companies, says he does not view such activities as encouraging capitalism. "The main idea," he says, "is that people have to live upon their work."
Businesses like the paladares are a stage the Cuban economy must go through before it reaches full socialism, Mr. Rodriguez says.
Foreign Minister Felipe Roque refers to economic problems in Brazil and Argentina and speaks of achieving minor adjustments to the Cuban system without making the mistakes that free market economies have made in those countries. "The younger generation has a thorough understanding of the role of the state," he says. "The state can't do everything, [but it] must help certain social sectors."
Estimates vary widely on how much the average Cuban earns these days. Mr. Rodriguez says the island's per capita income is $2,500 a year "but growing." That is fairly close to the official CIA estimate of $2,300 in 2001.
But Mr. Roca, the dissident, says the highest-paid Cuban, not including government officials, earns 700 pesos a month, or, with an exchange rate around 25 pesos per dollar, less than $350 a year.
Mr. Cason says policemen earn 900 pesos a year, compared with doctors, who earn on average 540 pesos. Because dollars fuel the tourist industry, teachers are quitting to work in tourism, he says.
Chris Edgerly, whose Canadian company operates a joint natural gas venture with the Cubans in neighboring Matanzas province, explains: "Money talks where I come from." To get good Cuban workers, he says, "We have to use other motivation" because of the low salaries.
His Cuban counterpart on the project, Alberto Villaonga, says he is paid 500 pesos a month, or about $240 a year.
But like others interviewed last week by the visiting group from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Mr. Villaonga is quick to point out that he and his family receive free health care, free education and even free haircuts.
"The cost of health care is in the price the Cuban people have to pay in their freedoms and their lifestyle," counters Mr. Roca. "You are all capitalists. You know nothing is free."
In one of the many ironies found on this island, Mr. Roca's father, Blas, was one of Mr. Castro's closest associates and a founder of the Cuban Communist Party, as his son's first name attests. The father has an honored place in Havana's Museum of the Revolution, and the son this year completed a five-year prison term for his political opposition to the regime.
Cuba's brand of communism has unintended consequences.
Martha Beatriz Roque, a 57-year-old economist who is one of the island's most outspoken dissidents, laments that Mr. Castro's government has turned all Cubans into thieves, stealing from their jobs in order to survive.
A saying on the street here goes, "No Cuban steals a million dollars a day, but a million Cubans steal one dollar a day."
This is necessary to supplement the ration cards people must use for basic food and household items.
Ms. Roque, who has spent several years in prison for her criticism of the Castro regime, estimates that a monthly ration card meets an individual's needs for the first 10 days. For the remainder of the month, Cubans must rely on what they call "inventions."
Without the black market, Ms. Roque says, the average Cuban simply could not survive. Some even buy coffins on the black market because those provided by the state are so shoddy that it is not uncommon for the body to fall through the bottom during a funeral, she says.
"The government is like a magician: The government disappears everything," Ms. Roque says.
For tourists, most of them from Europe and Canada, these "inventions" include constant badgering on the street with offers of illicit cigars and other items and in the evening the easy availability of prostitutes, many of whom appear to be in their teens.
Tourism remains the Cuban government's bright hope.
In neighboring Matanzas province to the east of Havana, perhaps best known for the beaches of Varadero, provincial President Nils Diaz Fendora speaks longingly of future American tourists.
"We will treat the American people the way they deserve to be treated," he says, not in the rhetoric of the Cold War but that of a local Chamber of Commerce. But Mr. Diaz quickly adds that his province's 40 hotels are not ready yet for an influx of tourists from the States.
In Washington, there is growing bipartisan support in both houses of Congress for lifting the travel ban and trade embargo, although President Bush made it clear in a speech in May he will veto any such effort.
Cuban government officials openly attribute this to the power of Cuban exiles in southern Florida and this year's close Florida gubernatorial race, pitting Mr. Bush's brother Jeb against Democrat Bill McBride.
Mr. Roque, the foreign minister, refers to this simply as the "Miamiization" of U.S. policy.
He says Cuba wants more exchanges in health sciences, sports, culture, academics, even journalism, but that the U.S. government has adopted a far more restrictive visa policy under the Bush administration.
In addition, Mr. Roque says, his country has unsuccessfully sought cooperative agreements with the United States on drug trafficking, terrorism and legal immigration from Cuba.
"We now believe that there is a general sentiment to normalize relations between our two countries," he says. Referring to improved U.S. relations with China and Vietnam, he asks, "Why don't you normalize relations with Cuba?"
Mr. Cason says simply that "there is a great deal more freedom in Vietnam and in China." Mr. Castro, he says, "just doesn't believe in change."
He and Mr. Roque in separate interviews both cite the same fact to back their arguments.
The Cuban official, touting his contention that there is no widespread anti-Americanism in Cuban society, says proudly that no U.S. flag has been burned here in 43 years. By contrast, Mr. Roque says, flags were burned in Miami during protests after the return of Elian. "That did not happen here," he said.
Mr. Cason says it is impossible to imagine even the shortest period of time in the United States without a protest flag-burning. The 43-year-figure, he says, shows "the incredible amount of control" the government has in Mr. Castro's police state.
The lack of crime on the streets is indicative of the tight control the police maintain. Uniformed police are omnipresent. Police in street clothes are reportedly just as common, working in conjunction with neighborhood CDRs, local revolutionary committees that handle civic chores and keep an eye on their neighbors.
But for tourists it's hard to imagine a Caribbean city where one feels less danger, even late at night.
Cuba still has an estimated 400 political prisoners, the highest number in Latin America, says Harvard's Jorge Dominguez. The government continues to use "extremely harsh penalties very selectively," he adds.
For the more prominent dissidents, exile is the biggest threat. With Cuba now putting on its best face for U.S. and international political consumption, its government is not likely to kill or imprison leading dissidents. Besides, several officials told the visiting U.S. delegation that the dissidents' assertions are of more interest to the international media than to local journalists.
Dissidents have been told by the Castro government that they may leave the country to claim human rights awards they have won, but there is no guarantee they will be allowed to return to Cuba.
For all his government's control of Cuban society, Mr. Castro is more of an unseen presence day-to-day. While Che Guevara's romanticized image is on billboards, buildings and countless souvenirs and T-shirts, Fidel, as government officials and the man-on-the-street alike refer to him, is only occasionally pictured on the billboards throughout the city that tout the triumphs of the revolution and curse its enemies.
But his hook, and that of party doctrine, in the Cuban people are unmistakable. An editor of Granma, the paper of the Communist Party and the largest of Havana's two daily newspapers, says there is no need for investigative journalism in Cuba because "our society does not have the problems" that American and other reporters must uncover.
Another prominent journalist who met with his U.S. counterparts describes the Varela Project, a dissident-driven effort seeking a referendum on individual freedoms, as "a project subverting the order of society." For this reason, he says, the Cuban media is ignoring it.
"The Varela Project intends to go back to capitalism. We don't intend to go back to capitalism ever," says this editor for a newspaper for trade workers who does not give his name.
A few independent journalists try to buck the system. One, Raul Rivero, hopes to produce the first issue of a monthly underground newspaper before an Inter-American Press Association meeting in Havana at the end of this month.
Mr. Roque dismisses Mr. Cason's comments earlier in the week that the United States is doing all it can to help the dissidents achieve "rapid peaceful democratic change" in Cuba, saying that is no more his business than it was Cuba's business how America handled the Bush-Gore election contest in Florida.
Still, the Bush administration shows no signs of wavering from its hard-line support of democratic opposition to the Castro regime, although Mr. Cason stresses that the United States is providing the dissidents only with paper, pens, fax machines and materials of that kind.
Mr. Cason surprised the visiting ASNE group at his official residence last week by having Mr. Roca, Ms. Roque and Oswaldo Paya, the main player behind the Varela Project, on hand to promote and explain their efforts to the American journalists. All agree that Mr. Castro has betrayed the Cuban revolution and produced a Stalinist state.
But like much of what one sees and hears in this contradictory country, the one thing the dissidents disagree on is the continuation of the American embargo.
"We neither ask for the embargo nor believe it is the solution," says Mr. Paya, who describes it as a problem between the Cuban government and the U.S. government.
Only Ms. Roque urges the U.S. government to stand fast. "Lifting the embargo will give him [Mr. Castro] air to live 10 years more," she says, adding that the regime may last only two or three years more if the trade ban remains in place.
"I am 57 years old," Ms. Roque says. "I want to live in freedom for at least 10 years."

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