Many Question Embargo as Cubans Suffer

Times Staff Writer

While her grandchildren eat their dinner of rice and crackers, Felicia smokes to curb her hunger pangs. Cigarettes are cheaper than food.

Eddy's trick for stretching the family rations is mixing water with the milk given only to preschool children. That way his ailing grandmother can soothe her stomach, even if it is at the expense of the baby.

Jusleta, a single mother earning $4 a month watching children at a state day-care center, hustles tourists for their free hotel soap bars. She sells them to fellow Cubans for dollars she uses to buy cooking oil and canned tomatoes.

"Look how skinny my kids are!" laments Felicia, a security guard at a government ministry taking home $7 a month. "Everyone in Cuba is living on the brink of starvation. Even beans now have to be saved for a special occasion."

Life in Cuba, once one of Latin America's most prosperous countries, has deteriorated over the past decade, putting the tropical island on a level with the region's most hopeless and destitute nations.

Abandoned by Soviet mentors and isolated by more than 40 years of U.S. embargo, Cubans wanting to put food on the table now must navigate shortages, poor distribution and a newly emerged class system that allows only those with dollars to shop at state stores that sell some goods at a 240% profit.

In what amounts to a case of cutthroat capitalism to cover communism's economic failures, the regime of President Fidel Castro -- who came to power on New Year's Day 44 years ago -- is cashing in on the U.S. sanctions imposed after the 1959 revolution in the hope that deprivation would prompt Cubans to revolt.

But those most affected by the sanctions -- the impoverished laborers beholden to the leadership for what state-subsidized sustenance they get -- insist that they are powerless to oust the aging revolutionaries, even though many seem to want to.

"I'd get 20 years in prison even for talking about this," said Eddy, huddled with his wife and baby daughter on a bare mattress that covers most of the family's one-room apartment.

Though friends and foes agree that the main reason for the economic misery is Castro's adherence to the misguided economics of communism, many -- including, by some tallies, a majority in the U.S. Congress -- increasingly see the policy aimed at isolating and impoverishing Cubans as a pointless infliction of misery and a humanitarian disgrace.

Supporters of the embargo defend the sanctions as a tool for forcing democratic change in Cuba.

At its heart, the embargo forbids Americans from spending money in Cuba. American credit cards cannot be used in this country because U.S. banks are barred from paying those charges. No airlines fly from U.S. cities to Havana and they are forbidden even to provide information about flights to Cuba from other countries. There is no U.S. Embassy here, only a heavily fortified Interests Section.

Most damaging, however, is the ban on extending credit to allow Cuba to buy more food from the bountiful U.S. farm belt.

Congress moved two years ago to allow the sale for cash of food and medicine, and that liberalization touched off the beginning of what some businesspeople in both countries hope will become a gold rush. The first U.S. agricultural fair in four decades was staged here by 288 food producers and exporters who brought their wares in October. Cuban purchases of U.S. food in 2002 exceeded $250 million, said Pedro Alvarez, head of the state-run Alimport food procurement company. He added that Cuba could be spending at least 60% of its $1 billion in foreign food purchases on U.S. products if the embargo and its credit restrictions were lifted.

The United States rose in the past two years from the least significant of the island's 228 foreign markets to No. 10 in 2002, and Cubans argue it could easily be No. 1, considering the quality and proximity of U.S. products.

"The United States is shooting itself in the foot with the embargo," said Roberto de Armas, the Foreign Ministry's U.S. desk chief.

"American people are coming here, discussing what they want, and they are seeing that there is another way of life here," he said. "We aren't afraid of this. We would welcome 2 million more."

The increased number of U.S. travelers is building pressure for reconsidering the embargo. From Castro admirers to aging emigres seeking a last look at their ravaged homeland, Americans are visiting in defiant droves. They are bringing food and moral support for Cubans caught between Castro's refusal to admit that his revolution has ruined the country and the Bush administration's demand that the omnipotent former guerrilla chief cry "uncle."

What only two years ago was a trickle of U.S. visitors urging better ties has become a flood. The U.S. Treasury Department, which issues embargo exemptions, recorded 176,000 U.S. visits here in 2001, and analysts estimate 25,000 came without permission. Those numbers are expected to double when 2002 visits are tallied.

In December alone, trade delegations visited from California, Kansas, Indiana, South Carolina and Minnesota, and were joined by college exchange program organizers and the "Semester at Sea" ship, a cruising university program. Hollywood denizens and jazz fans flew in for back-to-back film and music festivals.

The traffic appears to be making inroads into the political consciousness of average Americans. Offended by curbs of their freedom to visit the island and disturbed by the political use made of shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez during the 2000 election, many tell pollsters they favor lifting the embargo.

"In the last two years, both the left and the right have moved to the center" on policy toward Cuba, said John Kavulich, head of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economics Council. Conservative Republican lawmakers from farm states have begun pushing against the trade ban to allow marketing of agricultural products and equipment, and left-leaning cultural figures have begun to acknowledge that Castro's ideology has impoverished the country. Many Americans see the suffering as a foreign policy embarrassment.

"I was thinking all these years that I'd visit as soon as Castro kicked the bucket, but who knows when that will be?" said Rita Popelsky, whose Jewish family found refuge in Cuba for five years after fleeing the Nazi advance on Poland in 1939.

"People were poor when I lived here. I know, I was one of the poor. But not like today. No one then had to beg for soap or powdered milk," said the retired antiques dealer from Marlboro, N.J., on a visit to the island. "The people are much poorer now and the state of the housing is heartbreaking."

Like virtually every visitor here questioned about U.S. policy on Cuba, Popelsky condemned the embargo as "a disgrace."

"They don't like their system very much but they don't feel they can do anything about it," said Mark Noznisky, who came from New York last month as part of a B'nai B'rith humanitarian mission to distribute aid. He also used the occasion to dedicate a tombstone on his father's grave. An exile since before the revolution, Noznisky wondered aloud who Castro will blame for his country's failures if the embargo is lifted.

Embargo supporters, such as the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, accuse U.S. visitors of falling victim to Castro's charisma and a public relations campaign to get the restrictions lifted.

"They spent a lot of money over the last year trying to prime the pump," CANF Executive Director Joe Garcia said of Havana's recent U.S. food purchases.

"The reality is that Cubans are hostages and we are paying ransom," he said of the hundreds of millions of dollars in remittances sent to the island from the huge Cuban communities in southern Florida and northern New Jersey.

Those communities have helped power a domestic political lobby that makes it unlikely the Bush administration will seek to reduce restrictions, despite potential benefits of increased commerce for the hard-pressed U.S. economy.

Administration officials would not discuss on the record their policy toward Cuba. Both the head of the State Department's Cuba Desk and a senior diplomat at the Interests Section here categorically refused to explain U.S. policy except "on background." The U.S. insistence on an adversarial relationship with Havana comes through loud and clear.

"Axiom No. 1 is that if the Cubans are pleased," you've messed up, said an official responsible for Cuba policy in Washington.

Allowing U.S. farmers to sell Cuba the food it needs on the credit terms extended to other nations would provide a reprieve to the deprivation Castro has brought on his people, the official explained. Relenting would deflate what public pressure exists for economic reform and democratic freedoms.

Those who support the embargo said there is little discomfort at going it alone in trying to starve Cuba's Communist leadership into submission. That Canada, the European Union, Japan and other allies are invested in developing tourism on the island is merely evidence that those countries "are two-faced and frustrating," the official said.

Western businesspeople and politicians from outside the U.S. disagree, noting that Castro continues to keep up a grueling schedule and travels even at 76. To wait for his departure, which could take years or even decades, squanders opportunities to better living standards here and trade with other nations.

"If you can have business between Cuba and Canada or Spain or Japan without communism falling, I don't see why doing business with the United States would be different," said Mauritz M.X. Looijen, the Dutch manager of the Parque Central Hotel, where 90% of the clientele is composed of visiting Americans.

Many visitors here note the contradiction of U.S. trade with other countries accused of human rights violations, most notably China, in disputing the need for economic isolation of Cuba. Others contend that the ideological battle has been won, making the embargo an irrelevant remnant of Cold War strategy.

"To build these incredible obstacles nowadays is an obscene abuse of power," complained director Julie Taymor, who brought Miramax's "Frida" to the Havana film festival last month. "The embargo is such a dated concept. It has nothing to do with communism. Everyone knows that communism is a dead issue."

Most analysts argue that U.S. policy toward Cuba has long been too low a priority and always too late to adjust to historical changes.

"The logical time for mending relations would have been 10 years ago, after [the Cubans] were dropped by the Soviet Union," said Glenn Baker, Cuba project coordinator for the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "But logic has never had anything to do with our relations with Cuba."

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Williams was recently on assignment in Cuba.

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