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COLUMN ONE : In Cuba, Hardships Only Grow : Residents of one of the last Communist bastions are squeezed by shortages of food and fuel. Some see it as a test of their resolve, but frustration deepens.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Merida Tolera and her fellow workers at the Che Guevara truck depot lost a cherished revolutionary tradition a few weeks ago. Due to food shortages, their company-paid lunches were cut from daily to twice a week.

The 26-year-old bookkeeper, a single mother, said she reluctantly accepted the austerity at first, viewing it as a mixed blessing. With no lunch break on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, she could finish work at 3 p.m. instead of 4:30 and spend more time with her 6-year-old son.

But since then, emergency fuel rationing has forced the bus company to reduce its runs on the road between this provincial capital and the town of Esperanza, where Tolera lives with her parents. There was no announcement. Buses simply stopped coming as often. Some days they don’t come at all.

To make the 32-mile round trip and work a seven-hour day, Tolera now must rise an hour earlier, at 4:30 a.m., and fight her way onto an overcrowded bus or thumb rides. Her evenings have disappeared along with her lunches.

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“I often get home long after dark, exhausted and with a headache,” she complained to a motorist she had flagged down one day after work. “We’re being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. How long will we be like this? The people are never told.”

A year after President Fidel Castro imposed a “special period” of extended rationing to cope with shortages of virtually every consumer item, the squeeze is being felt in cities, small towns and farming settlements by the 10.5 million people of this defiantly Communist outpost.

Castro’s resistance to world change hits a motorist head on. Here at the center of the island, where Ernesto (Che) Guevara won the battle that brought Castro to power 32 years ago, the martyred guerrilla’s image glares from highway billboards vowing “Socialism or Death.” Busts of V. I. Lenin, the father of Soviet communism whose icons are toppling across the Soviet Union, still grace the gateways of Cuban factories.

But scratch this militant surface and the people’s frustrations pour out. Dozens of Cubans interviewed in August, during a reporter’s journey across the island from Havana to Santiago and back, lamented the scarcity of food and medicine, the ordeal of getting from one place to another, the postponed dream of better housing, the uprooting from city life to till the land.

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Some, like the weary bookkeeper, said the hardships were being demanded by a system they felt no part of. While few dared to criticize Castro’s socialist convictions or his one-party monopoly, the daily sacrifices described by all suggest how seriously his regime is challenged by the collapse of its Communist allies, first in Eastern Europe and now in the Soviet Union.

Other Cubans encountered on the journey said they had overcome poverty and social inequity thanks to Castro’s revolution, and they still support it. They stoically described their trials as part of a patriotic effort to help this beleaguered island of socialism survive on its own.

But despite mass mobilizations of city people to work on farms and innovative tinkering to keep factories running, most production managers interviewed said that their quotas were not being met--a sign that Cubans face an even harder year ahead.

Older Cubans describe the past 12 months as the worst in memory.

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As Eastern Europe shed Communist rule in 1989, Cuba lost a reliable source of cheap canned food and machinery. The Soviet Union, with economic woes of its own, reduced Cuba’s main supply of oil last year, then raised the price. Long before last month’s failed coup in Moscow drove Castro’s allies from the Kremlin and unraveled the Soviet Union, shipments of Soviet grain and 700 other products to Cuba were lagging behind schedule.

Castro responded to the crisis in August, 1990, by declaring a “special period in time of peace.” The government diverted manpower to the countryside for emergency food production and tightened curbs on the consumption of gasoline, electricity and nearly every article of food and clothing.

Discontent glares from food lines in the capital, where scuffles break out at times. Journalists in Havana for last month’s Pan American Games heard an earful of complaints. Officials branded the complainers as misfits who loiter in the hotel district and sponge off foreign tourists, misrepresenting a silent majority of hard-working revolutionaries in the provinces.

“You go around in a ghetto,” Ramon Sanchez Parodi, a Foreign Ministry official, lectured me. “Go to the countryside, to the factories. Talk to working people. Compare what they say to what these other people say.”

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Meeting the People

Thus encouraged, I hooked up with Nicaraguan photographer Mario Tapia, and we spent six days in a rented car, picking up hitchhikers and dropping in on homes, workplaces and vacation spots.

The most striking image of the 1,300-mile trip was of the crowds of people standing at the edge of sugar cane fields in 100-degree heat, pleading for rides to the next town and railing against the gua-gua , Cuban slang for that most unreliable of Cuban services, the bus.

One in 70 Cubans owns a car. But the government’s fleet of Hungarian-made buses is breaking down. Hungary no longer sends spare parts, and fuel for the buses has been cut by more than half.

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“The last gua-gua passed here three hours ago,” said Altagracia Mendoza, 91, scanning the road near Santo Domingo through her cracked eyeglasses. “There were 50 of us waiting, but only four could shove their way on. Since then, we haven’t seen even an oxcart.”

If the focus of unrest in Havana is the food line, in the provinces it’s the bus stop. People in the provinces are closer to the land, so food shortages aren’t as acute. But while 300,000 bicycles have been distributed in Havana to replace vanishing buses, that’s no solution in the provinces, where many people travel from one town to the next to work or look for scarcities.

Alejandro Fonteni, 45, a bus fare collector from the Sierra Maestra hills where Castro first trained his revolutionary army, catches grief all day from commuters between Santiago and Palmas de Soriano. He shares it.

“My little town had nothing before the revolution,” he said. “Now we have paved streets, a school, a hospital. But this crisis has hit us very hard. We are living on the last resources of our lives.”

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A Trip to the Hospital

The most desperate hitchhiker on the road was Teresa Perez.

Her 2-year-old son, screaming in her arms, had lost half his right ring finger in a corn grinder. For nearly an hour, Teresa hailed motorists with the same white handkerchief used to staunch the blood. We were the first to stop.

At the hospital in Contramaestre, she had to knock on the emergency room door and spend 13 minutes filling out forms before anyone would treat the child. But things went smoothly after that and, within half an hour, he was medicated and bandaged.

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Despite the hardships, the government still provides free health care and education, cheap housing and child care to all. Many Cubans value these revolutionary gains and say today’s sacrifices are a tolerable price for keeping them.

“If this crisis had come in the old days, half of Cuba would be dead because only the rich would be eating. Today, we tighten the same belt,” said Rolando Trompeta, 66, who lives near the Moncada fortress in Santiago that was stormed by Castro and his rebels on July 26, 1953, the start of their five-year guerrilla war against Fulgencio Batista’s right-wing dictatorship.

Trompeta, a ninth-grade dropout, remembers that date. His wife was in labor, but it was carnival week and policemen in their barrio were too busy partying to help get her to a hospital. Resentful, he joined Castro’s rebel army.

The son born at home that night became a marksman on Cuba’s 1972 Olympic team and is now a Havana prosecutor. Their eight other children are white-collar professionals in Santiago. One of them, Eduardo, is a high school principal charged with educating 1,500 students and hustling them off to work on collective farms 45 days a year.

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“It’s a good learning experience,” Eduardo claimed. “You can count on two hands those who won’t go.”

Forced Farm Labor

Service in the emergency food program is supposed to be voluntary, but many new field hands say there’s little choice. Tens of thousands of workers are simply transferred from crippled factories or building projects by Cuba’s omni-employer, the state.

“I am a child of sacrifice,” said Julio Sanchez, who was born in 1959, the year of Castro’s takeover. “So I had to sacrifice my job.”

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A sharp drop in Soviet cotton imports over the past 20 months has forced Cuba’s largest textile mill, in Santiago, to lay off 3,200 of its 7,500 workers. Sanchez, who helped build the mill, was one of them. He was drafted to the new 614-member Laguna Blanca collective farm near Contramaestre, far from his young son.

Cuban officials say the emergency mobilizations helped boost the harvest of vegetables, potatoes and other root crops last year, while meat and dairy production declined. “They saved us from a more alarming, critical food situation,” said government economist Eugenio R. Balari.

One reason Cubans eat less meat is that 200,000 bulls have been yoked as oxen to relieve fuel-starved tractors. The Bay of Pigs Victory Cooperative, for example, put 23 pair of oxen in the field as five of its 10 Soviet-made tractors sputtered to a halt.

Even so, the co-op’s 56 permanent workers and 100 urban “volunteers” met only half of their 4,500-pound quota of produce in 1990 and are well below this year’s goal. Managers of other farms said the oxen and extra manpower failed to offset the ravages of flooding and drought on 1991 harvests. Some blame the shortfall on thievery by black marketeers.

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“When this bad period began, they started stealing animals,” said Eneida Vagarrote, who works on a dairy farm in Havana province. “We lose three or four calves a month. The police don’t do a thing.”

After she said this, a man pedaled by on a bicycle with a live piglet strapped on his back.

Tinkering to Survive

Castro’s management of the “special period” relies not only on diktat but also on the Cuban passion for inventiveness. That can-do spirit is on display in the form of 1957 Oldsmobile 88s, 1953 Chevrolet Deluxes and other pre-revolutionary relics that share the roads with much newer Soviet-made Ladas.

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The talent for tinkering that has kept those American cars running through a 30-year-old U.S. trade embargo is being tapped to hold Cuba’s aging factories together. In each workplace, the government’s Assn. of Innovators and Rationalizers recruits a team to find ways to save energy or substitute worn parts that can no longer be imported. The cleverest inventors win prizes, new Ladas, at the association’s annual convention.

At the last Batista outpost seized by Castro, now a shoe factory in Palmas de Soriano, inventors are busy. Among other things, they’ve figured out how to adapt oil filters from Soviet cars to replace clogged filters on a Soviet-made machine that attaches soles to boots.

“The Soviets probably never imagined that was possible,” quipped Liberne Sanchez, the factory manager.

None of the factory’s 255 employees have been ordered to the farms. They are too busy trying to fill a daily quota of 1,600 pairs of work boots for the “volunteers” already there.

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But their performance, as in other factories and much of the countryside, falls below quota, Sanchez admits. “Even with all our inventions, these machines break down a lot. Nearly every day.”

Shortages Hit Home

The revolution has fallen short in many ways for Santiago Diaz, a 70-year-old retired sugar refinery chemist, and his wife, Fidelmina Fernandez, 68.

The high ceiling and tall wooden doors of their two-bedroom home in the town of Florida are rotting. Years ago, the place was condemned as unsafe, and new housing was promised.

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“With this special period, they’re not building anymore,” she said. “We’ll probably die here.”

The old man puts on bifocals and pulls out his ration book, a record of necessities “guaranteed” but not delivered: Bath soap, one bar per month, unavailable in June and July. “So we wash with toothpaste,” he said.

Black bean rations, 60 ounces, cut in half in June, July and August. . . . Toilet paper, three rolls in January, none since. . . . Butter, none all year.

For the first time in his life, Diaz visited Miami last year, a trip paid for by relatives there. Stunned by the mounds of fresh fruit in a supermarket, he picked up an apple and exclaimed: “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!”

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He came back to Cuba and told his wife: “Fidel’s system doesn’t work. You go to a market here and it’s barren.”

But she’s a romantic and won’t leave. “Fidel is a god for me. Compared to prerevolutionary days, we’re millionaires,” she said.

Then she leads a visitor to a bedroom and whispers a secret that belies her revolutionary faith: That sewing machine in the corner makes children’s clothes for the black market. “We can’t live on my husband’s pension.”

U.S. Relatives Help Out

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There are other ways to get by, inside the system or out. Yaneth Bina, a divorced 29-year-old epidemiologist in Camaguey, has turned down invitations by aunts and uncles to join them in the United States. Her mother is here, her job is interesting, the streets are safe, her children’s schooling is free.

So she reaps what’s left of socialism while surviving on the charity of capitalist relatives. “Every time I need something, they send it,” she said. “Shoes, clothes, underwear. I’m asking for more and more these days.”

August is vacation time in Cuba. Extended families pile into cars, strap luggage onto roof racks and motor to the beach. For those without cars, some government offices organize truck transport for groups of vacationers.

Hermes Suarez, who drives grain to market, got space on a truck for his group of five adults and 20 children, four tents, two folding tables, eight chairs, three inner tubes, a bicycle, several sacks of food rations and an ice chest. They spread it all out for a week under a tree on Matanzas Bay, where they fished for dinner.

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“The special period hasn’t done away with our annual vacation,” Suarez boasted, shirtless and relaxed near the rocky shoreline. “We’re holding our own, while the rest of communism is crawling backward like a crab.”

His 9-year-old son and namesake wasn’t buying that. Sheepishly approaching his American visitor, the boy asked: “Can you take me home with you? Here we have nothing.”

Stay or Leave?

Stay and endure, or leave--that is what political choice comes down to today in Castro’s one-party, one-owner Cuba. Few people encountered on the trip would discuss any option in between.

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Perhaps this is because Castro has skillfully staked his orthodox socialism to the banner of nationalism and anti-imperialism, arguing that any embrace of capitalism would turn Cuba into a “colony” of the United States and threaten the people’s social benefits.

Many Cubans echo his claim that the longstanding U.S. embargo is the root of their economic pain. Few in Havana and fewer in the provinces are aware of the extent of their dependence on the Soviet Union, which supplies 90% of Cuba’s petroleum, or the degree to which the upheaval in Moscow could make their suffering much worse.

Just as inhibiting, perhaps, is the fear or futility of challenging a police state. A network of security agents and Revolutionary Defense Committees keeps tabs on what Cubans say and do. Once during the trip, at the Laguna Blanca collective farm, we were stopped by police and immigration authorities and told we had no authorization to conduct interviews.

“There is a majority here who are not content with the system, but they keep quiet because they depend on it and don’t want trouble,” said Ofelia Inee, a 67-year-old widow in Jatibonico. “You have to sympathize with the people. All they can do is wait for better times, or for death.”

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One voice, expressing a hope to change the system, to make it more responsive, spoke up at the end the journey. It belonged to Ernesto Vasquez, a 19-year-old army conscript on leave and hitchhiking home to Havana.

“I wouldn’t change my country for any other,” he said. “We don’t live bad. Anyone who says we are starving is lying. But if there’s one thing we need, it is free expression. If you complain about anything, they call you anti-social. They put you in jail. We want to be able to speak our minds.”

Troubled Neighbor

Shortages of food and medicine are common in Cuba. While some Cubans complain, others still put their faith in the socialist system.

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Santa Clara: “We’re being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. How long will it be like this? The people are never told."--Merida Tolera, accountant.

Jatibonico: “There is a majority who are not content with the system, but they keep quiet because they don’t want trouble. . . . All they can do is wait for better times, or for death.” Ofelia Inee, widow.

Florida: “As long as Fidel and the President of the United States are fighting, there’s no way out for Cuba.” Santiago Diaz, retired chemist.

Havana: “Anyone who says we are starving is lying. But if there’s one thing we need it is free expression.” Ernesto Vasquez, army conscript.

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Camaguey: “I have a house, a horse, a refrigerator, a television set. What more do I need?” Silvino Palomares, rancher.

Palmas de Soriano: “The special period is . . . teaching us to be more productive. We were a little wasteful and disorganized.” Guido Hidalgo, transport manager.


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