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Posted July 15, 2005 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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By Marc Frank | FT.com

Record summer heat has combined with hurricanes, relentless power cuts, water shortages and crumbling housing to tax Cubans’ traditional patience with President Fidel Castro’s government and the strains caused by the US embargo.

“I’ve never seen people talk this way about Fidel. That they want his head. Most of them really do not mean it. It’s more like they are really frustrated with their father,” a Havana housewife said the other night sitting in her pitch-black home in the La Lisa district.

Mr Castro raised expectations this year when he announced a big increase in reserves, centralised control of foreign exchange and alliances with China, while oil-rich Venezuela finally put an end to Cuba’s 15-year crisis that followed the Soviet Union’s demise.

The Cuban leader, who turns 79 next month and has been in power for 46 years, said hundreds of millions were being spent to insure the chronic energy shortage that marked the crisis would improve by the holiday months of July and August and disappear completely within a year.

Mr Castro also increased most state salaries and pensions, announced plans to improve free healthcare - strained by the absence of thousands of doctors sent to Venezuela - and promised to shore up waterworks and transport and build 50,000 homes a year.

But since May, daily blackouts of six, 12 and even 18 hours have left Cubans miserable and expectations dashed, even as millions live with little if any running water due to a prolonged drought and then suffer leaky roofs when it does rain.

Cuba’s power grid simply cannot meet demand. Obsolete plants need constant maintenance and they burn a sulphur-ridden local fuel that clogs and destroys equipment. Breakdowns throw the entire system into crisis.

Small, scattered protests have taken place from one end of the island to the other, unusual events in this tightly controlled society.

“A few people have been putting up anti-government posters and stirring people up,” a nurse in the central part of the country said.

A Havana resident said people were throwing bottles from his high rise apartment complex when the lights went out at night.

A rare July hurricane, Dennis, has made matters worse, killing 16 people, causing $1.4bn (1.15bn, 800m) in damage, destroying 15,000 homes and cutting power lines between the east and west of the country.

A recent National Housing Institute report said 500,000 new homes were needed and 43 per cent of the current stock was in mediocre or poor shape, due in part to six hurricanes in less than five years that damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of dwellings.

“Dennis multiplied the problems. We are still without water, the blackouts are just as bad, if not worse, and the storm blew away what little we managed to plant in recent weeks,” said Antonio, a government-supporting pensioner in drought-stricken eastern Holguin province.

Above-normal June rains combined with Dennis eased the impact of the worst drought in a century. This saw 2m of Cuba’s 11m citizens fetching water from trucks and turned the island’s lush greens into ugly yellows and browns, forcing the government to almost double food imports that already accounted for 50 per cent of the local diet.

The drought is far from over in three of the country’s 14 provinces, and the decaying system still wastes 50 per cent of what reservoirs collect. But for now, “there is green everywhere, the cows have something to eat, the farmers have moist soil to plant, and a few hours of running water every five days is better than none,” says Pastora Acosta, a university professor in Camaguey, Cuba’s third-largest city.

“I couldn’t believe it when the pipes began to rumble, I turned on the spigot and water gushed out,” she exclaimed gleefully.

“More than a year without running water is something serious. I went out to the street and it looked like the whole neighbourhood did the same. Despite all the problems there was a big celebration,” she said.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on July 16, 2005 by I-taoist with 213 total posts

    And so we see the sad reality of an overly centralized bureaucracy trying to control all aspects of human existence.  It was the same in the Soviet Union, and this is what eventually led to its demise.  In the end the Soviet system resembled a Rub Goldberg gizmo that produced a hairpin from stack of steel beams. 

    An old Chinese philosopher once observed: “When government governs little, as with a light hand, the people are happy.  When it governs much, they are miserable.” 

    Cuba is the living proof of this axiom.  If not for our outside threat to their independence and the scapegoat we provide the communists with our embargo, this system would have long ago gone by the way.  Only after detente - the relaxing of tensions between the U.S. and Russia - did the Russian people have the collective will and power to throw off communism.  It would have been the same for Cuba by now except for our emotion driven, reactionary, and short sighted policies, largely authored by the extremists in Miami and New Jersey. 

    This subtle and ironic truth seems beyond the Bush administration’ comprehension.  Neoconservatives, you see, regardless of reality, in their idological purity, already have their minds made up. At least the Clinton administration could appreciate the potential value of engagement with average Cubans.  If Bill Clinton and Madeline Allbright had only had the guts to more fully implement the dismantling of the embargo and travel restrictions we would be seeing a very different reality in Cuba today.

    Meanwhile, sadly, it is the poor, courageous and good Cuban people who continue to suffer in the middle of this chess game of madmen. 

  2. Follow up post #2 added on July 16, 2005 by bernie with 199 total posts

    Hey I live in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan USA
    Last week for 3 days we could not drink the water
    because a water clorinator was broken.  Also we have
    been having some severe thunderstorms, that have
    caused us to have a power blackout for a few hours
    with the humidity in the 90’ its not nice.
    CUBA you you are just like us here in the USA. Big Deal.

  3. Follow up post #3 added on July 18, 2005 by yumaguy with 176 total posts

    It’ pretty simple. The harder you squeeze Castro’ balls, the more he will leech of the Cuban people. It’ the little people, the folks without family in the U.S., the ones without a cushy govt. or Party job, that suffer the most from a combination of the exploitative regime and the nasty economic side effects of the embargo.

    It’ unrealistic to hope there will ever be an end to the travel ban as well as a dismantling of the embargo while Castro is still alive. But it would be nice to see some of the bureaucratic red tape and BS cut when it comes to selling food and medical supplies.

    I understand there’ some concern of abuse or exploitation of these products (i.e., food bought from the U.S. to stock the hotels for the tourists, etc.)

    Still, I think it’ possible to open some trade in these categories as long as there’ some accountability on Cuba’ part, and if the U.S. can observe how its products are being used by the regime. If the Castro regime abuses the privilege, the U.S. should call them on their BS and cut back trade. That could play out as a minor political victory for the U.S., exposing the regime’ corruption without having to sink to rhetoric, but with actual statistics and facts (presented to the U.N. and so on wink

    In any case, such a policy would bring us closer to an “ethical” embargo if such a thing is not an oxymoron, much less possible. It would take away some of Fidel’ ammo in his usual spiel about how the embargo punishes the people. IMHO, I think it’ worth a shot.  It’ not like ANYTHING ELSE HAS WORKED WITHIN THE PAST 45 YEARS!  wink

  4. Follow up post #4 added on July 18, 2005 by bernie with 199 total posts

    You have to be a MORON to think that their could
    be such a thing called “ethical embargo”.

  5. Follow up post #5 added on July 18, 2005 by yumaguy with 176 total posts

    That’ why I put “ethical” in quotation marks. grin

    I’m trying to be realistic. Dismantling the embargo is just a PIPE DREAM as long as Fidel is alive. There are hundreds of political reasons for this that we should all be aware of by now. grin

    I’m just trying to propose a policy that would give the “little people” on the island some “breathing room” until Castro finally dies and Cuba can begin the next chapter of its history, for better and/or for worse. . .

  6. Follow up post #6 added on July 21, 2005 by GregoryHavana with 196 total posts

    I agree with you regarding the need to remove the embargo. Howeever, I strongly disagree with you belief in the old Chinese axiom regarding the value of minimal government. In fact, notwithstanding its many failures and problems, it has been the model of interventionist government which has brought a modicum of development and social justice to previously underdeveloped countries. Look at Japan, South Korea, and present day China. Moreover, compare social acheivements and the meeting of basic human needs in Cuba with the rest of Latin America. Only Costa Rica and Chile come close to Cuba’ level. I would remind you that it is dangerous to live by axioms, and especially the one you favor. I prefer to look at United Nations statistics on basic human and social development. In this respect, one can only admire the Cuban system.

  7. Follow up post #7 added on July 21, 2005 by Dana Garrett with 252 total posts

    >>An old Chinese philosopher once observed: “When government governs little, as with a light hand, the people are happy. When it governs much, they are miserable.”<<

    The problem w/ these maxims when they are used in the USA is that they really donít translate into less governance of peopleís lives.  They are used to shift the governance of peopleís lives from the public to the private sector.  They certainly donít mean a democratization of control shared by most of the population. 

    I work in place where I donít have free speech (I canít tell my boss to take a hike w/o getting fired), freedom of assembly (I canít gather my coworkers together to discuss forming a union), privacy rights (my employer can inspect anything I bring into the building or monitor any call I make), etc.  When governments do these things, we call it horrifying.  But when a corporation or a private firm does the exact same things to us, we call it a necessity and their “right.”

    Some states (mine included) are leasing or selling public roads to private companies who will exact a toll from those who must drive on them.  Thatís less government control, but itís not less control per se since businesses are merely assuming the governmentís former roll. 

    I wish people in communities, cities & states could organize to jointly govern themselves by sets of mutual; agreements and practical cooperative associations, even in their workplaces, and make their lives truly democratic.  But if I had to choose between government control and private control, I would chose government control for one rather obvious reason: Governments are at least occasionally democratic when they are subject to mass pressure, but private corporations & businesses are not.  They are tyrannies run by bosses totally unaccountable to those “below” them.  From “9-5” each day most of us are subject to dictatorships and yet we oddly argue that they prefer them and we, more oddly, call their reign over our lives “freedom.”  It is straight from Orwell. 

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