Finest things dollars can buy

Cuba | More than 40 years after Castro seized power purportedly to end economic injustice, disparity is in fashion once again

Issue: "Scorched-earth politics," Sept. 7, 2002

HAVANA—Contrary to conventional wisdom, Cuba is a land of material plenty. Store shelves are full. Meals of pork and lobster abound. Homes are decorated in the finest tile and newest furniture. Doctors and nurses stand by, ready to stitch the smallest wound.

It's an amazing but real world-for those Cubans who possess American dollars. The government of Fidel Castro may proclaim its revolutionary principles and flaunt its independence from America, but in Havana the greenback rules. Pesos paid by the government to an electrical engineer buy very little. The dollars he earns driving a pedicab are what ensures that his family has enough to eat.

Cubans desperate for dollars swarm Westerners in Havana. "Where are you from?" "Are you looking for a nice restaurant?" "Would you like some cigars?" Most Cubans who begin these conversations with a come-on in the end plead for dollars to buy food for the family or milk for the children.

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Cases in point: Mike is a 22-year-old dance instructor. Alejandro is a 21-year-old construction worker. Mike lives with his family in a decrepit ground-floor apartment, one of a half dozen down a narrow alcove off a side street. Alejandro's family of six lives in a small, two-bedroom walk-up apartment. Their worn-out furniture consists of two beds, a small sofa, and a couple of chairs. The Soviet refrigerator is usually filled with chicken feet. A large metal pot serves as a bathtub.

Each family gets a 3-inch by 15-inch block of soap, one box of laundry detergent, and one bottle of cooking oil per month. Each person also is entitled to a kilo of beans, two kilos of rice, a small portion of meat, and three eggs per month. The eggs, however, aren't always available. Only children 7 and under are allowed to receive milk, and then not every day. Mike's family shops at a small corner bodega, with a concrete floor, wooden counter, and small metal scale.

Just three blocks from his outdated grocer is a large supermarket, its shelves full of soda, mineral water, soap, and food. Prices there are all in dollars. The supermarket serves Cubans like Carlos, who relies on funds from abroad and says he "represents Spanish capital." His two-story house in a nice Havana suburb is filled with modern furniture and a monster television set. A fine oil painting hangs on the wall and a large porcelain statue graces the entry. A security fence surrounds the home, which also includes a swimming pool and generator. The compound is patrolled by two Dobermans and a German Shepherd. A Mercedes sits in the driveway.

In short, Cuba is divided by access to dollars or other foreign currency. About one in five Cubans receives remittances from abroad. With their foreign earnings, people like Carlos can shop at the supermarket or smaller "dollar shops" that sell appliances and other luxury items. They can also eat in fancy government restaurants or paladares, private eating establishments, dealing only in dollars. Another 40 percent work in foreign ventures or the tourism industry, or, like Mike and Alejandro, solicit tourists directly for dollar transactions.

Havana likes to blame the U.S. trade embargo for its economic problems. For his first three decades in power Mr. Castro relied on abundant subsidies from his patron in Moscow. The Soviet Union's collapse ended Cuba's free ride. Mr. Castro courted foreign investment and a modicum of private domestic activity. Last year nearly 2 million foreign tourists, mostly Europeans, contributed some $2 billion, supplemented by $800 million in family remittances from Cuban-Americans.

Yet the Cuban economy is failing. The Castro regime is preparing to close half of its archaic sugar industry. Falling plaster and peeling paint afflict nearly every building. Potholes turn driving into an obstacle course. A jogger would risk life and limb on the uneven streets. American cars from the 1950s mix with Soviet vehicles, particularly the small, box-like Lada. The smattering of modern luxury cars, which go to foreigners and well-connected Cubans, suggests to many a future without the U.S. embargo or a communist regime.

For now, the only path for upward mobility for most Cubans is to search for foreigners with dollars to supplement incomes that average about $10 a month. Most Cubans earn only enough dollars this way to buy a little extra for their families when their rations run out.

Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, who heads the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, observes: "The government in Cuba owns everything. It owns all the economic enterprises, all the media, the telecommunications system, the banks, and foreign trade." The nation's economic problems, he says, are due to a regime that is "repressive and inefficient."


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