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A noisy, drunken game of dominoes is being played at the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution on Havana’s San Lorenzo street, the pieces slapped down on the bare wooden table to the accompaniment of colourful, if amicable, abuse.
“We may have problems, my friend,” says one player, as a bottle of white rum does the rounds at the Saturday night game. “But we have Fidel. He has the answers.”
The fading posters on the wall feature quotes from “the commander-in-chief”, Fidel Castro, urging Cubans to “keep up their guard”. The room smells slightly of stale urine but the reception is one of typical Cuban warmth.
“If someone steals your wallet on the street here, I will run after them myself and get it back,” promises Lazaro Gonzalez who, though 74 years old, means what he says.
He has no doubts whatsoever that, 44 years after Castro and his bearded rebels swept into Havana to oust the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista, the revolution is alive and kicking. “This is the most marvellous revolution in the world,” he says.
If you want to find diehard adherents of Castro’s version of state socialism, you can do no better than visit any of the thousands of CDRs, each pledged “to carry out the revolution in every neighbourhood”.
The San Lazaro CDR organises nightly neighbourhood patrols to keep eight city blocks clear of crime. It is an objective that, in a safe city already patrolled by numerous police, is reached with few problems.
But here, as almost anywhere you turn in Cuba, contradictions quickly emerge. For the CDR has a nastier reputation as a Cuban Big Brother, snooping on the neighbours and watching out for “counter-revolutionaries”, wherever they may hide.
When Ivan, a student, refused to sign last July’s state-organised referendum declaring Cuban socialism “irrevocable”, his sister signed his name for him. “She wanted one of the television sets the CDR was giving away,” he explained.
On a Havana street corner a billboard carries the boast “200-million street children in the world, and not one of them Cuban”. Cuban children are just as likely to reach the age of five as their counterparts in the US. At current rates they will live to 76, one year less than in the US.
The few children on Havana’s streets during the day are invariably dressed in neat school clothes. Their teachers claim they are serious students who flourish without the distractions of the consumer society. Literacy rates reach 96%. Again, however, the contradictions soon appear. Some of the girls will go on to find a career in jineterismo—looking for European sugar-daddy tourists, or simply selling their bodies to sex punters for US dollars.
David Hickey, an Irish surgeon and professor at Havana University, says Cuba does amazing things with limited health resources. “They are short of virtually everything, but I am amazed at the integrity and commitment of the Cuban doctors,” he says.
When Fidel Castro wanted to show the film director Oliver Stone the splendours of the Cuban revolution while he was filming his recent documentary, Comandante, they travelled to Havana’s Latin American School of Medical Sciences. Castro was mobbed by some of the 3 400 student doctors from Latin America, and even a few from the US, studying for free at the Cuban government’s expense.
However, the head of surgery at a Havana hospital, Hickey complains, may earn less in a month than a hotel waitress gets in tips in a single day. Little surprise, then, that some doctors work nights as taxi drivers or that others have abandoned the profession entirely.
“I used to be a doctor in pharmacy but I had to leave it to do this,” explained the owner of a beautiful US-made Plymouth ‘48 automobile, who now chauffeurs tourists for $25 a day.
The quality of surgery is so good that health tourism has taken off, with doctors performing operations for dollar-paying customers whose funds boost the health budget. That has led to complaints that foreigners are getting a better service than native Cubans.
The most coveted jobs in Cuba are now in a tourist sector that is the country’s biggest earner. The dollar became a legal currency in 1993 as Castro sought to refloat an economy which had been propped up by the old Soviet Union. It rules supreme, at least in the minds of many Cubans.
Those who live solely with Cuban pesos can make ends meet—but only just. Those who have dollars live best. The average monthly salary that goes into a Cuban pocket is 353 pesos, exchangeable for just $14.
A walk up San Lorenzo street gives an idea of how the inequalities function. At the Ideal corner shop, jam jars of rice, soya and oil are on display on the almost bare shelves. The Ideal is part of the peso economy, most of its prices controlled by the state and incredibly cheap. Here a pound of rice costs the equivalent of less than 1p. That would stretch the average salary a very long way, if the same goods were not rationed.
Walk into the air-conditioned, dollar-economy Friendship supermarket further up the street and there is a large array of unsubsidised goods, from cornflakes and pots of baby food to olive oil and port wine, all priced in dollars. Ordinary Cubans queue to spend up to $20 a go on food. A brand new fridge here costs $1 000.
Who can afford that? And if they can, how? Have they earned the money themselves, working in the tourist sector or the black market? Or has it been sent to them by relatives in Miami? One estimate is that 60% of Cuba’s 11-million people have access to the dollar. But for those with empty pockets staring through the windows of the dollar economy, where all tourists are obliged to live and many—if not most—Cubans would like to be, envy is an easy feeling.
It is, of course, impossible to say with any accuracy how much support Castro’s ageing revolution enjoys. One seasoned Cuba watcher, a European academic, puts pro-Castro and anti-Castro Cubans at similar numbers—but with even more either too indifferent, tired, scared or conservative to mind about anything more than their immediate lives.
So why do millions go to the May Day parades or queue up to sign Castro’s petitions? Not all are pushed there. “Think religion and you can’t go too wrong. Like some Catholics, they go to mass without really knowing why, out of custom or a sense of identity,” the academic says.
Nobody, however, is prepared to predict how many will hold the faith when Castro, 76 next month, goes.