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Posted May 16, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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By Stephanie Shapiro | [url=http://www.Sunspot.net]http://www.Sunspot.net[/url]

HAVANA, Cuba - The gaunt bicycle taxi driver in ragged clothes who wheeled a travel companion and me over Havana’s pocked side streets said he earned $7 a month plus tips and could not afford shoes for his daughter.

He would move to the United States if he could. But he didn’t blame Fidel Castro, whom he still revered. How could the leader give to his people, he asked, if he has nothing to give?

Patriotism and acute need make strange bedfellows, but for many Cubans, it’s all of a piece. Such paradoxes seem to define life in the island nation.

Not everyone in Cuba is pro-Castro, of course. His sweeping crackdown on dissidents occurred largely during our stay.

But Cubans of all stripes can point to any number of reasons for their hardships - the U.S. trade embargo, a faltering economy and their government’s archaic restrictions. At this point in the convoluted history of Cuban-American relations, no one cause and no one government can be singled out for blame. They are of a piece as well.

And whether they side with Mr. Castro or with the dissidents he threw in jail, average Cubans have a more pressing concern than ideology: survival.

When the dollar was made legal tender along with the peso by Mr. Castro in 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, he helped to create a class system as a crutch for limping socialism - yet another mind-bending twist. As our van driver intoned with a mock air of sage wisdom: “Dollars are the hope of the world.”

Those who have access to U.S. dollars, through work in the tourism industry or the largesse of exile family members, are at the top of the ladder. The U.S. government recently increased the amount of cash travelers are allowed to carry to friends and family in Cuba even as it severely curtailed educational tours to the country. Such contradictory moves send mixed messages while widening the gulf between Cuba’s haves and have-nots.

Clearly, the striking woman who alighted from a car at the trendy El Aljibe restaurant in Havana was living a dollar-enhanced life that most Cubans can only imagine. Dressed all in white, she made a dramatic entrance, air-kissing friends and staff with movie-star elan.

In Old Havana, we visited a crowded “dollar store,” where those with dollars buy electronics, washing machines and Cokes at prices above those in the United States.

But most Cubans we met were not profiting from policy loopholes. In Havana, we also saw Cubans waiting patiently in long lines to receive monthly rations of meat, flour and other staples. Our bicycle taxi driver told us these provisions often ran out before his appointed time to collect them.

While Cuba trades with other countries and the United States has relaxed the embargo to permit the sale of food and medicines to the country, it still lacks necessities. As a result, everyone, it seemed, has honed a strategy for asking, whether for money or books or toothpaste.

For example, we encountered ingratiating sorts on the street who offered guidance - for a price. When I took a photo of a young man carrying a spectacular cake, he automatically asked for a dollar. When we snapped leap-frogging children, adults demanded candy for them.

In more official settings, asking took on a genteel guise. Students at an arts school performed for visitors who came with donations, including art materials, guitar strings, a violin and cash. At an AIDS clinic in Matanzas, the grateful staff reminded us of all that their American benefactors had done for them. The need for more assistance was implicit.

In Havana, the vice president of a synagogue said she spent much of her time soliciting everything from matzo to medical supplies from Jewish communities around the world.

My travel companion’s mugging in a desolate Havana neighborhood summed up Cuba’s plight. A boy, perhaps 13, had tried to snatch her money belt. He failed, but she was badly bruised and scraped.

At a hospital, she received immediate attention. The visit was free, of course.

But it took stops at two pharmacies to fill prescriptions for an antibiotic and ibuprofen. Even with its own biotechnology industry, Cuba still suffers from shortfalls of basic drugs.

The next day, as we waited for a cab, a man idling on a corner befriended us and asked my friend about her injuries. His concern seemed genuine. But when we got into a cab, he hopped in, too. He insisted on staying with us to make sure there would be no more trouble. It wouldn’t cost much, he said.

When we declined his offer, he shrugged and exited the cab. It was worth a try.

Such constant asking must take a toll on the collective soul of Cubans. As neighbors of the United States, they are also reminded ad nauseam of Americans’ voracious consumption of the luxuries they are denied by the embargo.

After years of this, an ever-present sense of deprivation has set in, determining Cubans’ national character as much as socialism.

Again, it’s all of a piece.

Stephanie Shapiro is a reporter for The Sun.

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