In Cuba, Life Under Castro Is Dissolving : Economy: Even being government loyalists isn't enough for family to have level of existence they seek.


Ena Santamaria's home is a theater showing the daily life of Cuba, a microcosm of a land that combines sadness and joy, promise and disillusion, dreams and reality.

It is a tiny room, formerly the entry to what had been a three-bedroom house in Miramar, which was the neighborhood of Cuba's elite before Fidel Castro officially ended social distinctions.

Ena, a clerk in a store catering to foreigners and Cubans with dollars, is lucky to live in lovely, embassy-dotted Miramar, even in overcrowded conditions in a house that looks abandoned, so overgrown is its yard, so shabby is the exterior.

Ena's parents, Marta and Pablo, her two sisters, a brother, two uncles and an assortment of cousins and friends occupy the same house. One day this month Ena, Marta, Pablo and a guest sat side by side on the single piece of furniture in the room, a couch-bed.

"We sleep in shifts," Ena said. She shares the couch with a sister at night; a brother and his wife use it in the early morning.

In the dimness of a fading afternoon sun, no lights came on. Electricity is severely rationed, with most neighborhoods receiving no more than eight hours a day, two to four hours at a time. During the long summers, the allotment is less.

Candles were lighted, and a bottle of rum appeared.

Ena and her family are Castro supporters and argue that much of what is wrong in Cuba is the fault of the United States and more than three decades of the trade embargo put in place when Castro established a Communist government.

As blacks they said they felt less discrimination than what they read about in the United States, and they spoke proudly about one of Ena's brothers who works as "an official" in the Finance Ministry.

And the family seemed well-educated and well-informed. All said they could read and write--Marta and Pablo attended adult literacy classes in 1962--and the level of discussion was sophisticated.

Yet it was clear from their lifestyle and what they said they needed--especially food, clothing and transportation--that being Castro supporters wasn't enough to maintain the level of existence they felt they needed.

In reality, all of Cuba seems to be living a life that is dissolving.

A tour of the Havana of March, 1994, is a trip of visual despair. Gracious old homes and office buildings stand in near-derelict condition with window glass missing and shutters hanging as if from incomplete amputations.

What paint there is droops in strips or clings in patches, the uncovered wood and mortar cracked, rotting and covered with oily grime. Only those structures reserved for tourists, diplomats and a handful of foreign business people are maintained.

As Ena's home shows, Cuba suffers from a major housing deficit. Houses once inhabited by a single family now are crammed with five families, and often more. Three- and four-member families live in 45 square feet of space.

Only diplomats, foreigners and privileged Cubans, especially government and Communist Party officials, enjoy space and privacy.

So little gasoline and spare auto parts are available that traffic jams are unknown. It is safe to walk down the middle of the most important streets without fear of being run down by anything but Chinese-made "Flying Pigeon" bicycles.

Water from a system that has not been upgraded or repaired since the pre-revolutionary days of the 1950s is undrinkable, by government admission.

Most restaurants used by ordinary Cubans are closed (other restaurants exist clandestinely or are open only to tourists). Grocery stores stand empty. Theaters function only on weekends, and only when there is electricity.

Cuba is out of almost everything. Meat has long disappeared from the market, as has most vegetables and fruits, baked goods, milk, eggs, cooking oil and fuel. A pound of potatoes, if it can be found, costs twice what a minimum-wage worker earns in a day.

And what is available is severely rationed. According to a government proclamation covering March, each person will get a quarter pound of cooking oil, six pounds of rice, 30 ounces of beans, three pounds of sugar and three pounds of evaporated milk for the month. The ration for milk and beans, however, includes portions not delivered in February.

Small shares of fresh milk and meat are allotted specially to children and expectant mothers.

Even the so-called dollar stores, which serve only foreigners and the relatively few Cubans who can acquire dollars, are facing shortages.

One recent Saturday, the baked-goods store serving the wealthy foreign residents of Miramar was out of bread. The cheese department also was empty. Neither had received any products from the central distributing agency.

People line up for nearly everything--to use phones, enter clothing stores, buy food at the infrequently open street stands and, most of all, catch a bus.

In every part of Havana, and all along the roads in the countryside, people stand looking expectantly into the distance for a bus. There seems to be no schedule. At one intersection on the road south out of Havana, about 75 people waited more than an hour for a bus.

When a smoke-belching dinosaur of an East German-made bus did arrive, it was so jammed that only about eight people were able to cram aboard.

People at bus stops and elsewhere were surprised to meet an American, but when they did they seemed to have only two questions: "Do you like Cuba?" and "When is the blockade (as the embargo is called) going to end?"

Otherwise, they talked matter-of-factly about their hard lives, but with more resignation than bitterness and often with a risque sense of humor. They laughed easily at cautiously humorous remarks about Castro, particularly in reference to his lengthy speeches and his legendary sexual potency. A visitor is bombarded with offers of a special Cuban pill that "will make you the equal of Fidel in the bedroom."

While there is no evidence of Stalinist-style political repression--Cubans complain about the shortages and inconveniences even to strangers--people shy from discussions that raise questions about Castro's enormous power or that move toward the possibility of a major change in the system here.

This is not to say that freedom of expression exists in any way familiar to Americans or Western Europeans. The United Nations and international private human rights groups constantly condemn Cuba for abuses. And the media are totally controlled by the state.

Diplomats and foreigners living here say the only truly efficient sector of Cuban life is the government's large security apparatus.

Still, a small human rights group exists here, and a handful of independent, anti-Castro journalists print pamphlets and semi-underground journals even though what they do is to little effect.

"What you have to realize," said a European diplomat, "is that little by little, Cuba is changing. It is in transition. Castro and his people know that with conditions as bad as they are, they have to create safety valves to keep the place from blowing up.

"So you even have academics now cautiously discussing the merits of other systems, seeking books even from the United States. It isn't a free society, and Castro could always crack down," he said. "But right now what the Cubans refer to as 'that old stuff' seems to be gone."

The safety valve theory is used by critical diplomats to explain the economic reforms and policies put in place over the last three years that have eased some problems, particularly gasoline shortages.

"They don't have any more fuel this month than they did last fall," said one diplomat. "But they permitted more to be sold, and they put a few more buses on the streets when they sensed people were becoming seriously frustrated.

"They also use this (tactic) as a means of control," he said. "They allow some relaxation, then they pull back. It's manipulation."

There is no sense in Cuba, not even among the few U.S. officials present here, that Castro faces serious opposition or is in danger of falling.

"Something could spark a problem," one Western diplomat said. "A policeman could do something stupid and start a violent reaction, you can't dismiss that. But the reality is that Castro is in control and likely will remain so as long as he's alive."

And whether by manipulation or because of remaining revolutionary idealism, there are some achievements that allow Castro, 67, and his supporters to claim continued popular backing.

While Cuba was one of the Caribbean's best-educated countries even before Castro, with a literacy rate of 86% in the mid-1950s, he talks proudly of 100% literacy, of sending every child to school.

Cuba's educational system separates it from nearly every other Caribbean and Central American country. Attendance is mandatory, and it is enforced. During school hours, children are in classes, not on the streets. There are few of the begging preteen urchins that plague Santo Domingo or Caracas or San Salvador.

Population growth is under control, and infant mortality remains one of the lowest in the world, because nearly every Cuban has easy, free access to a fully trained doctor.

And while life may have collapsed for the middle class in Cuba, there is little of the abject misery found among large segments of the populations of most other Caribbean and Central American nations.

But foreign experts say there is a shortage of medicine and school supplies, not to mention amenities that would result from a functioning, modern infrastructure.

Last year's crucial sugar crop, which is overwhelmingly Cuba's main economic engine, was victimized by poor planning and destructive weather and produced only 4.2 million tons by official count. Diplomatic and private sources say it fell closer to 3.5 million tons.

Even by the official estimate, sugar was 30% below predictions, which were some of the lowest in decades.

Without a successful sugar crop, and with a soft market for its few other natural resource products--even the export of high quality cigars fell drastically in 1993 and this year--Cuba is broke.

Public transportation is at 10% of what it was before 1989, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Communist allies ended billions of dollars in aid and subsidies.

Lacking markets, only about 20% of Cuba's industrial capacity is in use. The government debt is 30% of the total economy; average workers earn from $13.50 a month to a rare high of $30 a month; the value of exports was under $2 billion in 1993, and imports totaled $1.7 billion, half of which was for oil products.

Theoretically, there is no unemployment, and every citizen is guaranteed an income. But there is little work available in factories, many of which are closed, and furlough pay and guaranteed wages have been cut dramatically.

What earnings there are have been steadily debased by inflation and the introduction of the dollar as a legitimate currency.

The arguments are endless about what is to blame for Cuba's condition: a romantic political and economic system driven by an ideology that has collapsed worldwide; the end of a $6-billion-a-year barter and aid relationship with the Eastern European Communist world; or the unrelenting antagonism, including the three-decades-old economic embargo, of the world's most powerful nation toward this country of 10 million people.

Regardless of whether the cause is one or all of those factors, Cuba is unlikely to change much in the near future.

Finance Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Garcia recently spoke of low-key recovery for 1994 based on improved sugar harvests, higher nickel exports, increased oil availability and growth in tourism.

But international economic experts and diplomats here say Rodriguez's modest assessments are in doubt, but even if he is correct it will, as one envoy said, "just keep them from falling further."

"Cuba has no money and no real way of getting any," an international official here said. "As long as things stay the way they are, the people here will survive, but that is about as optimistic as I can be."

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