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Posted April 01, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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HAVANA (CNS)—“Life is expensive,” said 85-year-old Gregorio Crespo Becker as he looked down at his sandwich of two thick slices of bread and a thin slice of cheese.

He and his wife live in one room and have to make ends meet on his pension of less than $7 a month, so three times a week they come to Our Lady of Charity Parish soup kitchen in downtown Havana for a free lunch.

Besides the sandwich, they get a bowl of soup and a handful of pork-flavored fried crisps.

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

HAVANA (CNS)—“Life is expensive,” said 85-year-old Gregorio Crespo Becker as he looked down at his sandwich of two thick slices of bread and a thin slice of cheese.

He and his wife live in one room and have to make ends meet on his pension of less than $7 a month, so three times a week they come to Our Lady of Charity Parish soup kitchen in downtown Havana for a free lunch.

Besides the sandwich, they get a bowl of soup and a handful of pork-flavored fried crisps.

Crespo and his wife, like most Cubans, do not have access to dollars to get around Cuba’s shortages and beaten-down economy.

In this topsy-turvy economy, a waiter at a tourist hotel getting tips in U.S. dollars earns more than a doctor at a state hospital. Someone who is unemployed but with relatives in the United States who send dollars is better off than a full-time state employee receiving nothing from abroad.

A doctor earns the equivalent of $18 a month in Cuban pesos. A waiter or taxi driver working at a tourist hotel can earn that much in dollar tips in a few days.

In Cuba’s multitiered economy, people with access to dollars are on top and can buy goods at special dollar stores or on the black market. At the bottom are those whose income is limited to Cuban pesos and who have to fight for what’s left over.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana said that more than $1 billion a year is sent to Cubans by relatives abroad.

Cuba’s economy has been spiraling downward since the fall of the Iron Curtain. For decades, the Soviet Union subsidized its allied communist state to the tune of several billion dollars a year, and Cuba’s main trading partners were the East European countries making up the Soviet bloc. Cuba’s farm-based economy is hard-pressed to meet the needs of its 11.2 million people without favorable foreign trade agreements or subsidies.

Cuba’s Catholic Church also has to navigate in the country’s troubled economic waters. Besides having to analyze the situation to understand the needs of its faithful, it often needs to tap into Cuba’s black market to purchase goods and to get things done.

The church can do so because it has access to dollars and other hard currencies through aid from other bishops’ conferences, international Catholic organizations and religious orders with members in Cuba.

“I live in the black market,” said Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiu of Santiago de Cuba. “I don’t get permission to do things.”

The archbishop was referring to the need to secure government permission to repair church buildings rather than just hiring construction workers not licensed by the government.

Bishop Emilio Aranguren Echeverria of Cienfuegos, general secretary of the Cuban bishops’ conference, said it is often convenient not to ask for a receipt. He cited buying bread for the lunches of the conference staff.

“If we ask for a receipt, it will cost us $8. If not, $4. With the other $4 we can buy bread for a parish soup kitchen,” he said.

Several bishops said that the government knows the church is dealing on the black market but turns a blind eye as long as the church provides services—such as the soup kitchen—that the government cannot and is bringing dollars into the cash-strapped country.

Access to dollars and foreign assistance also keeps the church afloat.

“The faithful give us offerings in pesos. But these are of no value,” said Cardinal Ortega. “Bishops can’t travel outside Cuba if the ticket is not paid for by someone else.”

Bishop Carlos Baladron Valdes of Guantanamo-Baracoa said that the only two cars owned by his diocese came through the efforts of Pope John Paul II.

The government blames the economic woes on the 40-year-old U.S. economic embargo, which virtually prohibits U.S. companies from trading with Cuba.

“I’m against the embargo,” said Cardinal Ortega. “But it’s not to blame for all Cuba’s ills.”

The cardinal and other bishops cited corruption, inefficiency, inflation and a rigid centralized government as other main factors. They said rural to urban migration by poor people is a growing phenomenon adding to the pockets of poverty in urban centers.

A Feb. 24 pastoral letter by Cardinal Ortega criticized economic conditions that include poor housing and salaries not adjusted to keep pace with the cost of living. He asked for greater freedom for Cubans to engage in economic activities without having to get expensive government licenses, forcing people to illegally engage in economic endeavors.

The cardinal’s letter said despair over the situation is “the primary cause of emigration.”

Other bishops said the drive to emigrate is especially strong among young people because many see no future in Cuba.

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