Cubans skeptical amid economic, electricity woes
By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff
Cubans yesterday ended a three-day holiday marking the rebellion that culminated in the 1959 revolution with hardly any of the public fanfare or mass celebrations of previous years. The subdued atmosphere reflected a widespread malaise in the Communist nation, fed by rising prices and 12-hour power blackouts during a steamy summer.
The few pro-democracy dissidents willing to demonstrate were harassed by government supporters and detained by authorities last week.
In the face of food shortages, low wages, dilapidated housing, and persistent power cuts, exasperation with penurious living conditions is at its highest levels since Cuba suffered an economic shock from the loss of Soviet subsidies in the early 1990s, according to residents.
But critics, from nervous average citizens to outspoken activists, cautioned that pervasive discontent does not mean Cubans have any plans to rise up against the government of Fidel Castro. That is not just for fear of harsh punishment, but also because a good many Cubans still believe Castro means well yet is hampered by ideological enemies abroad and incompetent lackeys at home.
The irony, say many who are as annoyed with the United States as they are with their own government, is that average Cubans are suffering the effects of further restrictions of the US trade embargo imposed by President Bush a year ago, while the intended target—Castro—retains an unchallenged grip on power.
Clad in his trademark olive fatigues, the 78-year-old leader addressed Communist Party faithful Tuesday night for nearly four hours, blaming his country’s hardships on the US blockade imposed in 1962. Yet he asserted that the economy has grown 7.3 percent in the first half of the year. The World Bank calculated economic growth at 1.1 percent in 2002, the latest year for which it provides data.
Castro delivered his annual state-of-the-union-style address in a low-key gathering inside the Karl Marx Theater, in a break from his tradition of speaking on July 26 in open-air plazas where multitudes gather to cheer.
Chanting ‘‘Viva Fidel!” as he took the stage, a few thousand invited guests, including more than 100 Americans from a charity that brings humanitarian aid to Cuba in contravention of the US embargo, applauded Castro’s assertion that a system that boasts free healthcare and education is better than most societies in the world.
‘‘We, like any country, have problems,” said Gloria Hernandez, 55, a local school principal among the invited guests. ‘‘But here nobody goes to sleep without dinner or wakes up without breakfast.”
Blaming the US diplomatic mission and foreign media for promoting a false image of unrest on this island of 11.2 million, Castro said his Cuban-American enemies in ‘‘the Miami mafia are practically packing their suitcases for an imminent collapse of the revolution.”
He acknowledged that a number of critics tried to protest last week. Nine out of 33 are still under detention, according to opposition leaders, including three who may face subversion charges carrying 20-year prison terms.
But to a roar of applause, Castro said ‘‘traitors and mercenaries”—a reference to local dissidents whom he claims are paid by the United States—will not succeed in ‘‘going one millimeter past what the revolutionary public . . . will permit.”
Acknowledging that long blackouts were causing discomfort, he said the government had spent more than $150 million to maintain and update power stations and the electricity grid, and had acquired $282 million in new energy-saving equipment.
The government has not forgotten the severe electricity shortages in August 1994 that prompted rioting and a migration crisis that saw 30,000 people set out to sea on rafts. Tuesday night, Castro promised these blackouts will soon be over. ‘‘We will overcome. Have a little bit of faith,” he urged.
But with sweltering 90-degree-plus heat and humidity, many Cubans say it takes more than faith to sleep without a fan, stay clean when water pumps aren’t operating, or save scarce food from spoiling in refrigerators without power.
Sonia, 42, who like many people asked that her last name not be used for fear of reprisals, said she could not sleep and was attacked by mosquitoes during all-night outages.
‘‘The economy is at its worst ever,” she said glumly, adding that she cannot afford to feed her 12-year-old son meat most days. A resident of Cabaiguan, a few hours’ drive east of Havana, she hitchhikes to Havana to sell farmers’ cheese, earning 300 pesos a month (about $12), about average for Cuban salaries.
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former government economist-turned-dissident who is on medical parole from a 20-year sentence for opposition to the regime, said yesterday that he could not reconcile Castro’s prediction of 9 percent growth this year with official data that showed dramatic declines in sugar production to 1908 levels, and a drop in electricity generation that is affecting industry.
The 312 pesos that the average Cuban earns monthly ‘‘is not enough to buy 6 liters of domestically-made soy cooking oil. . . . The ration cards let us buy only one subsidized soap every two months,” he said. ‘‘This has created great social divisions.”
A recent government report said 43 percent of Cuban homes need repairs, and 500,000 new houses must be built. Last month, officials said 1.7 million Cubans had no running water due to drought.
Candid commentaries in the party newspaper Granma indicate the government is aware of the problems. There are rumors of authorities painting over graffiti mocking Castro’s bid to offer subsidized electric rice cookers at a time of power blackouts. In hushed conversations, Cubans grouse about their lot and sarcastically mimic the government’s slogan painted on garish billboards: ‘‘Vamos bien” (’‘We’re doing well”).
Subsidized oil from Venezuela and credits from China have allowed Castro to alleviate conditions somewhat, two months ago raising retiree pensions to 150 pesos ($6 a month), and giving doctors a raise so that the highest-paid now earn the equivalent of $25 a month. Tuesday night, Castro said he was making available some 14 million subsidized appliances.
But these populist measures may not be enough to satisfy those who say they have lost faith in the system.
‘‘I was born and bred with this revolution,” said Mario, 50, a state taxi driver. ‘‘But today, what’s to celebrate?
‘‘It’s a facade, a sham,” he said of Castro’s discourse about a better future. ‘‘The words are beautiful, but the reality is something else. Like everyone I know, I’m very disillusioned.”
� Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company