BY TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News
Fidel Castro summed up 2004 like this: “There couldn’t have been a worse year, and there couldn’t have been a better year, either.”
Two hurricanes, a stubborn drought, spiraling energy costs and stepped-up U.S. sanctions hammered the economy. But Cuba survived and managed to move forward, Castro supporters say.
The economy grew at a rate of 5 percent, and unemployment dropped to 2 percent. A reserve containing as many as 100 million barrels of oil was discovered off the northern coast, the government reported. And in late December, Castro delivered some remarkable news, saying for the first time that Cuba was finally emerging from the “Special Period in Peacetime,” an economic austerity program launched in 1991 after the collapse of the island’s chief sponsor, the former Soviet Union.
Castro’s critics say the government’s economic figures are revolutionary nonsense. And they contend that living standards are actually sinking.
“Families can barely feed themselves, and there is little room for luxuries like children’s toys or a night out with the family,” said James Cason, the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba.
Castro is “determined to remain on the wrong side of history,” he said, while Cubans wait for his “strange and unsuccessful experiment to come to an end.”
Undaunted, Castro celebrates his 46th year in power on New Year’s Day. He has outlasted nine American presidents and is working on his 10th. He is the longest-ruling leader of government on the planet.
“He’s a tough old bird,” said a veteran foreign journalist, stunned to see the Cuban leader walking in public the other day just two months after he shattered his kneecap in a fall televised around the world.
When Castro began his revolutionary crusade in 1953, he was a feisty young lawyer. Now 78, he’s one of the most recognizable political figures of modern times. And some say it’s time to christen him with an “ism.”
The world has seen Leninism, Maoism and Stalinism. Why not Fidelism, argues Reinaldo Escobar, editor of Consenso, a fledgling Havana magazine that is critical of the government.
“He has been in power for 46 years, longer than Lenin or Stalin. He has total legitimacy to launch Fidelism,” Escobar said. “Whether it will be successful or not is another question.”
Indeed, Cuba’s future is uncertain. Besides the island nation, only four other communist-run countries are left - China, Vietnam, North Korea and Laos.
Castro loyalists are convinced his revolutionary government will remain after their comandante is gone, but the Cuban leader is taking no chances.
Key to his strategy is what he calls the “Battle of Ideas,” an all-out campaign to spread revolutionary ideals.
“The work of convincing and persuading human beings, one by one, is historic,” he said earlier this year. “Religions were created this way and have lasted thousands of years.”
The government began losing the support of youths in 1991 when the Special Period began. Legions of young people left school and took to the streets. Many women became prostitutes. Men worked as hustlers willing to do just about anything for a buck, from selling contraband cigars to escorting tourists through the back streets of Havana.
Cuba became a hot destination for sex tourism, and the black market thrived.
The government cracked down in 1998 and 1999, enforcing tough new laws and taking tens of thousands of people off the streets. But officials realized that wasn’t enough.
They needed to give young people an alternative. So they revamped the educational system and sent people back to school. They eased admission standards. And they began giving a modest allowance to students from 17 to 30 years old.
Overall school enrollment began climbing, reaching a record 380,000 this year.
Cuban schools are now producing more social workers, teachers and computer specialists than ever.
Education and ideas - not tanks or guns - will decide the nation’s future, Castro says.
Critics say they’d rather see the government loosen up the economy. Otherwise, they say, professionals will continue abandoning their fields for jobs that pay hard currency.
Out on the streets, many Cubans say all they want is a living wage.
Kirenia Cutino, 22, stands to earn less than $10 per month when she graduates as a nurse next year.
“That’s not going to be enough,” she said. “I’d rather meet a foreigner and leave Cuba.”
Others say they have trouble believing the government’s rosy economic figures.
“Fidel has done some good things,” said Santiago Gonzalez, 40, a security guard. “But if we’ve got 5 percent growth in the economy, where are the jobs?”
Cuban officials say they used a new, more accurate formula this year to calculate growth, taking into account not only domestic production but the economic contribution of free government social services. They didn’t say what the growth figure would have been without the change.
Some critics say the government may be hiding a dismal economic performance.
Whatever the case, no one disputes that it’s been a tough year for Cuba. According to a Cuban government report: Hurricanes Ivan and Charley wrecked tens of thousands of homes and caused $82 million in damage. Power plant failures triggered a summer of blackouts and $76 million in unexpected costs and lost productivity. The drought in the eastern province of Camaguey killed 127,600 cattle and dried up 200,000 tons of vegetable crops in 2003 and 2004. And U.S. sanctions limiting visits by Cuban-Americans deprived Cuba of millions of dollars during the last half of 2004.
Despite the setbacks, more than 2 million tourists visited Cuba in 2004, up 8 percent over last year. The production of nickel, one of Cuba’s main exports, rose. And a large oil reserve - enough to supply the entire island for nearly two years - was found off the coast of Santa Cruz del Norte, east of Havana, the government said.
Still, some say, very little prosperity is trickling down to the populace, and a lot of young people are unhappy.
“Youth in Cuba have their feet here in Havana but their head in the United States,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, a former economist who has been jailed for her opposition activities. “Many people are afraid to talk, but the majority is against the government.”
And she contends that not even the Battle of Ideas will save the revolution.
Undeterred, Castro said that over the past few years, he has spent more than 7,000 hours - equal to more than three solid years of 40-hour work weeks - meeting with and guiding young leaders who are carrying out the ideas campaign.
“Never before, or anywhere else, has a people done what the people of Cuba are doing today,” Castro told supporters recently. “This cannot lead to anything but the victory of ideas, to the firm belief that this revolution will not disappear or crumble.”