From Dog Owners to Dancers, Cubans Are Getting Organized


Through the clamor of rumba music, Jamaican-accented English drifts from the open door of a neatly painted clapboard house.

A sign identifies the building as the West Indian Welfare Centre, an organization that has existed for most of this century--ever since Jamaicans arrived to cut sugar cane. Founded to help Jamaicans in financial trouble, it became a social center and has now taken on a new vibrancy.

Old men still form a circle of rocking chairs in the afternoon to compare their memories, but often they are joined by young historians, who jot their recollections in notebooks. Two years ago, the group's youth division started an English-language school; it graduated 19 students, its first class, this spring.

Other towns with a West Indian tradition have asked the center to help them form their own local organizations, said Robert Plaxton, the group's president. "Better conditions have been created to allow traditions to be carried out," he said.

The old association and its offshoots are part of a growing Cuban civic society that has blossomed in the four years since the government passed a law recognizing such groups. Ethnic, religious, environmental and special interest groups from dog owners' organizations to dance societies have sprung up.

Critics claim the law is aimed at controlling civic groups because it requires them to register with the government. Earlier this year, dozens of leaders whose organizations are concerned with human rights or political reform were arrested.

Because government officials did not respond to requests for interviews, the number of registered organizations was unavailable. However, the groups are thought to total about 2,000, including long-standing offshoots of the Communist Party.

"Civic organizations are far more dynamic in Cuba than most people realize," said Joel Suarez, coordinator of the Martin Luther King Center in Havana. The center was founded as an ecumenical body in 1987 and has expanded to include housing, educational programs, work with the elderly and other activities that the government once monopolized.

"The government cannot take on everything," said Martha Garrilasco, vice president of Habitat-Cuba, a group that builds and remodels low-cost housing for minimal fees. Cubans also noticed that while governments were cutting back on foreign aid, more money was becoming available for civic groups through nongovernment organizations.

Civic organizations have not just accepted the financial burden of what used to be government responsibilities. They are also meeting their goals in different, generally more democratic, ways.

When Garrilasco worked for the government housing authority, she said, "We never spoke with the people who were going to live in the housing." In contrast, Habitat has sociologists on staff to help architects and engineers consult with the people whose houses they are building or remodeling.

The group receives no Cuban government support. Administrative costs are covered by dues of less than $1 a month paid by professionals in the group's Community Architect program. Money is also donated by foreign governments and organizations.

"During the 1960s and 1970s, diversity was discouraged [by the government] for fear it would damage unity," Suarez said. Now, "a new space for other groups has been created."

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