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Posted January 06, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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Castro sees advances in economy, medicine, but grumbling rises

By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News

HAVANA – Fidel Castro will celebrate his 45th year in power Thursday after seeing some of his most turbulent, yet momentous times since the early 1990s.

Castro loyalists kept the economy growing in 2003 despite fierce U.S. opposition. They kept the increasingly restless Cuban populace in check. They advanced in education, science and sports. And they did it on the cheap, running the entire nation on a budget only four times bigger than that of the city of Dallas.

It’s a remarkable tale of survival and endurance. But where Cuba is headed and what shape it’s in now are matters of heated debate.

Mr. Castro, looking weary but determined at 77, tells supporters that Cuba is on the right path. Tourism – not the sugar industry – now drives the economy. Production of oil, gas and electricity is up. Record numbers of children are enrolled in Cuban schools, many equipped with computers for the first time.

Mr. Castro, looking weary but determined at 77, tells supporters that Cuba is on the right path. Tourism not the sugar industry now drives the economy. Production of oil, gas and electricity is up. Record numbers of children are enrolled in Cuban schools, many equipped with computers for the first time.

As for the nation’s mood, Castro loyalists say, life is tough but people are generally content.

Not all Cubans agree. They say they’re tired of the socialist government rumbling like an old Chevy held together by baling wire and belching black smoke.

They see Cuba as a nation of 11 million struggling souls having to work, sweat and sometimes even steal just to get their hands on a cold can of Coke.

On a recent morning on a highway east of Havana, for example, a thirty-something taxi driver pulled up next to a transit inspector and slipped him a dollar bill equal to four days’ wages for many Cubans.

“Everything’s in order,” said the inspector, paying little attention to the driver’s documents as he pocketed the cash and sent the cabby on his way.

Everything does seem to be in order in Cuba, at least on the surface. The island is peaceful. The main avenues are clean and well kept. Crime is low the police make sure of that. And the violence and rioting seen in much of Latin America doesn’t exist here.

Problems below surface

But the island has plenty of problems, some Cubans say. For starters, many are unashamedly dishonest. Like the transit inspector, they only pretend to be loyal to the state while using their government jobs to bring in money, albeit illegally.
They say it’s hopeless to challenge the all-powerful government, so they play along, keep their mouths shut and wait.

Others are starting to speak out. After more than 10 years of economic hardship, shortages and long lines, they’d just as soon be rid of the socialist regime.

“How long do we have to wait until Fidel’s gone?” asked one exasperated woman, frustrated over the high prices at a Havana shop. “Nothing will change until then.”

Such vocal complaints about Mr. Castro and his government were rare a few years ago. Now they’re slowly creeping into everyday conversations.

It’s not that Cubans are worse off than they were six or seven years ago. It’s that their expectations are changing. Cuba is changing.

Nearly 2 million tourists visited in 2003. While helping boost the economy, some experts say, they also gave Cubans a window into the outside world, where people earn more money and enjoy greater freedom.

Cuban officials say the vast majority still supports the socialist regime. Some complain “because that’s a Cuban characteristic. Your average Cuban likes to talk. He has a big mouth,” said one official, spreading his hands 2 feet apart. “But they’re not against the government.”

American politicians, of course, would be thrilled to have Mr. Castro’s official approval rating of 98 percent. Some dispute that number, few deny that the Cuban president has legions of supporters, particularly among those who remember the corrupt and brutal government that he replaced.

Third World hero

Mr. Castro has ruled the country since he and a loyal band of rebels defeated a much larger U.S.-backed force on Jan. 1, 1959. He has since become one of the most recognizable figures on the planet. He is a hero to many, particularly those in the Third World. And he has kept Cuba afloat despite the decades-long U.S. trade embargo.
Cuban officials blame most of their economic troubles on the embargo and demand it be lifted.

The U.S. sanctions have virtually no international support. That was clear last month when the United Nations voted l79-3 to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Only Israel and the Marshall Islands voted with the United States.

“If we were speaking in baseball terms, we would say this was a perfect game,” said Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, referring to the vote, a resounding political victory for Havana.

Successes in 2003

Among Cuba’s other successes in 2003: Economic growth was 2.6 percent, higher than expected and outpacing the Latin American average of 1.5 percent. Cuba continued opening doors to Americans, buying millions of dollars in food and agricultural products from U.S. producers. Scientists created promising new vaccines and medical treatments. Cuban athletes shined in the Pan-American Games, beating every nation in the Americas except the United States.
By necessity, Cuban officials say, they must achieve a lot with very little and they do.

The national budget for 2004 is barely $8 billion. The largest American cities easily spend more than that every year, and smaller urban areas aren’t far behind. The Dallas city budget, for instance, is $1.9 billion.

In contrast, the state of Texas spends $117 billion per year, and the U.S. government budget is a whopping $2.2 trillion.

U.S. officials say freedom and not money is what matters. By May 1, a Bush administration commission is expected to issue a report recommending how the U.S. government can “bring about a peaceful, near-term end to the dictatorship” in Cuba.

For years, American officials have complained that the Cuban government denies its people basic human rights. The biggest crackdown on the opposition came last spring when Cuban authorities sentenced 75 dissidents, journalists and pro-democracy activists to prison terms of up to 28 years. That same month, they also executed three young men who tried to hijack a ferry to Florida.

The actions drew widespread condemnation in the United States and Europe. A German human rights group sent Mr. Castro a black Christmas ball ornament this year.

Cuban officials accuse the Bush administration of funding the opposition and have produced documents, videos, photographs and books that they say prove that many dissidents received money and material from U.S.-supported organizations. American officials deny that.

Dissidents vow to continue the fight. Some of their wives this year topped their Christmas trees with cardboard and aluminum figures shaped like the number 75, representing how many activists are in jail.

Protest marches

Some wives have also marched quietly outside a Havana church on Sunday mornings, despite threats that they may be imprisoned.
“He never expected the families to react like we have,” said one, Laura Polln, refusing to say Mr. Castro’s name. “We haven’t kept quiet.”

The marches “are the only way we have to keep protesting,” she said. “It’s like a little flame we keep alive each Sunday, a way of saying the 75 aren’t forgotten.”

Her husband, journalist Hector Maseda, is serving a 20-year sentence for his dissident activities. Ms. Polln hopes international groups will push for his release within the next four or five years, but says: “We know it’s a long road. Our president is very stubborn, and he’s not going to release the 75 dissidents all of a sudden if someone twists his arm.”

Blanca Reyes worries that her husband, poet Ral Rivero, 58, will be forced to serve his entire 20-year term.

“When I leave the prison after visiting him, I feel destroyed,” she said. “He’s innocent. All he did was write.”

She said her only consolation is that her husband has shed half his weight of 360 pounds.

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