An economist might diagnose the conditions in Cuba today as a depression. President Fidel Castro prefers to call it a “special period,” urging his people to unite through hard times to preserve the Caribbean island as a “bulwark of socialism.”
Many of Cuba’s problems result from oil shortages. People are restricted to 10 gallons of gasoline per car each month. Those who live within 12 miles of their jobs are required to travel by bicycle, 200,000 of which recently were imported from China. Farmers use ox-driven plows in the fields instead of tractors. Fruits and vegetables die on the ground because they cannot be transported quickly enough to market.
Gas is not the only commodity in short supply. Women waited in line for more than an hour one day last week in Old Havana for fresh-baked bread. Men complain that razor blades have been rationed. One woman said that she is given a choice each month of buying either deodorant or perfume, not both.
New construction has been postponed because of the difficulty in obtaining materials, but the work continues so methodically in certain sections of Havana that it might be mistaken for a boom town. That is particularly true in an area about six miles east of the central city, where principal construction is under way for this summer’s Pan American Games (Aug. 2-18).
On a hill overlooking the small fishing village of Cojimar, which is best known as the home of Ernest Hemingway’s protagonist in “The Old Man and the Sea,” about 4,500 workers a day are building a 1,473-apartment village for the 7,200 athletes and officials who will participate in the Games. Within a mile, another 4,000 to 6,000 workers a day are building modern swimming and diving pools, tennis courts, a velodrome and a 35,000-seat stadium for track and field, and opening and closing ceremonies.
In a news conference last week with foreign reporters, Castro was unfazed when asked to justify the country’s expenditure in terms of both money and manpower on the Pan American Games during an economic crisis. He said that Cuba would not have submitted a bid for the Games under the current conditions.
“But the commitment was made four years ago, in November of 1986, when none of these problems existed,” he said. “This is an international commitment we have made to the world, a sacred commitment. We are meeting the commitment.”
The cost of that commitment has been estimated at $100 million to $200 million, but Castro indicated that the figures have been exaggerated.
“Economically, it is not such a heavy burden,” he said. “We are spending less than 1% of our budget on the Pan American Games. Most expenses have already been paid.”
Western European diplomatic sources said that it is difficult to calculate the amount of money in U.S. dollars that Cuba has spent on the Pan American Games, but they supported Castro’s contention that it is not as much as it appears because of the relatively low cost of labor and construction materials in Cuba.
The sources said that the country has used some of its valuable hard currency to purchase items such as scoreboards, artificial tracks and bowling lanes from countries such as Germany and Japan, but it expects to recoup that investment with money spent during the Pan American Games by an expected 15,000 to 20,000 visitors from the 39 North, Central and South American and Caribbean countries involved.
They said more manpower than ever is available because so many other construction projects have been delayed because of the economy. The work force at the athletes’ village consists not only of construction workers but also of white-collar professionals who have temporarily left their jobs with the expectation that they eventually will live in the apartments they are building.
Cuba’s housing shortage is particularly acute in Havana, which grew dramatically after the 1959 revolution and has been unable to provide adequate living space for its population of 2 million. After the Pan American Games, the 55 buildings of two- and three-bedroom apartments in the athletes’ village will become homes for about 6,500 people. But only those who contribute to the construction will have a chance to live there.
Castro said that he is particularly proud of the modern architecture in the athletes’ village, a radical departure from the unimaginative Soviet box-style that has been prevalent the last three decades.
“The Pan American village is a construction for the people of Cuba,” he said. “We will have 1,473 new apartments as part of our housing program. As an additional benefit, it has brought about a revolution in Cuban architecture. In Cuban architecture, there will be two major periods--before the Pan American Games and after the Pan American Games.”
Justifying construction for housing is one thing, but does Cuba need new sports stadiums?
Anticipating the question before it was asked, Castro said that providing sports for the people of Cuba has been an integral part of the revolution. Like many socialist countries, Cuba also has used sports as an international stage for promoting its political system. In virtually every interview, its athletes pay tribute to the revolution. They have been very successful in baseball, boxing, volleyball and some track and field events.
“Havana will have excellent facilities--not to be used in just one month but to be used by our people for tens of years,” he said. “Even without the Pan American Games, our country has invested billions--billions--in the construction of sports facilities. In the future, we will continue to build them.”
There is no question that many Cubans are sports fans. One of the two government-operated television channels features sports programming almost every night. But one Western European diplomat based in Havana said he believes most Cubans eagerly anticipate the Pan American Games because of reasons not confined to sports.
The Games, he said, will provide a diversion from the country’s economic problems, which resulted to a large extent from increased oil prices, decreased subsidies from the Soviet Union and diminished contacts with its former East Bloc trading partners.
“For Cuba, it’s also a psychological question,” he said. “The Pan American Games are for the national prestige. Cubans aren’t always committed communists, but they are committed nationalists. Maybe some people are not too happy with the Pan American Games, but they are proud to organize them. It stimulates their national progress.”
That assumes that the Games will be a success. Some among the group of journalists and U.S. Olympic Committee officials were skeptical after visiting the construction sites last week. Although the Cubans have projected that most facilities will be completed by mid-May, that would require a mini-miracle in some cases.
USOC President Robert Helmick said he is not yet concerned. “It will be more important to look at the status of the construction in April or May,” he said. “I am satisfied that progress is being made.”
But he expressed doubt that the new swimming complex will be completed for the Games. If not, he said that the U.S. swimming and diving federations will have to decide whether to compete in the old pool, now scheduled as the site for water polo.
The Cubans said that they will call on all available resources if necessary to complete construction before Aug. 2. That includes the military, students and even athletes, who are required to work 80 hours on the sports facilities.
“All persons in Cuba are under our control,” said Reynaldo Gonzalez Lopez, who is in charge of construction at the athletes’ village. “It is true that we have only seven months. But if you work 24 hours a day, seven months become 14 months.”
During his news conference, Castro said, “We cannot conceive of not completing all the facilities for the Pan American Games.”
A sign in large block letters draped across the outside wall of the swimming complex says, “Fidelidad,” which means fidelity or faithfulness. Or, in this case, perhaps “Have Faith.”