Anniversary of revolution finds Cuba limping along The young are openly questioning benefits still praised by their fathers

January 01, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

HAVANA -- Times are hard here, and Cubans are told they will get worse as the island limps without a patron into the 35th year of Fidel Castro's socialist revolution.

Outwardly, the evidence of collapse is everywhere: Buildings are vacant and decaying; residents stand in lines for meager daily food rations; traffic is practically nonexistent because there is a dire shortage of gasoline; there is no electricity to illuminate street lights or homes at night; and young men and women gather on the sidewalks offering sexual favors to tourists in exchange for a hot meal at a restaurant.

Inside the homes of Cuban families, conflicting sentiments join oddly to keep this island nation afloat: loyalty to Fidel Castro's socialist movement among parents and grandparents who recall the euphoria that accompanied the New Year's Day collapse of Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship in 1959; fear of the present government;and bitter acquiescence among the young.

The opposing views of a prominent pediatrician, in his late 40s, and his 21-year-old son reflect as much.

"My father says I put too much emphasis on material things," says the son, looking from the beach across the dark Havana skyline. "But to be human is to want more than just to survive. I want to really live. I want to accomplish my personal dreams, not the dreams of someone else's revolution."

The doctor and his son, a college dropout, shared their thoughts on Cuba's economic crisis and Mr. Castro's refusal to surrender his socialist movement despite the hardships faced by his people.

It is a measure of Cuba's popular anxiety that both asked not to be identified. And the son asked to be interviewed separately from his father.

The doctor is a conservatively groomed man who smiles easily and enjoys a neat glass of rum after work. Talking by candlelight in his second-story apartment, the doctor is embarrassed that he cannot offer food or soda to a visitor.

"I have nothing," he says, opening his refrigerator door to show only a few green oranges inside. "But we are wealthy in other ways."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its lifeline. About 75 percent of its total trade was eradicated, including most of its supplies of oil, medicine, machine parts and food. Factories have closed, cars are junked, and hospitals scramble to maintain the level of service that made Cuba's public health system the envy of Latin America.

Cuba's production of meat, milk and chicken has dropped dramatically because the cash-strapped country cannot afford to pay for animal feed and herbicides.

The island's trade was based for decades on a barter system with the Soviet Union. It struggles now -- mostly through tourism enterprises -- to generate enough cash to buy products from Europe and the newly-formed republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States. And Mr. Castro says living conditions will be worse.

In an impromptu New Year's message to the Cuban people, the 66-year-old Cuban leader predicted 1993 would be a "tough and difficult year."

The middle-aged pediatrician will support him. He thinks of Cuba'shortages as bearable "limitations."

Unlike his son, the doctor remembers what life was like before Mr. Castro's revolutionaries sent the old Batista regime running for its life.

"For me, the revolution was like someone coming to me one day and saying, 'You are now going to have the same opportunities as the rich kids,' " he says. "It changed my life. My love for the movement is stronger than my love for money."

But outside the apartment, the 21-year-old son's words gush out as if he has been holding his breath for hours. About the only thing he shares with his father is a love of rum. He wears a spiked haircut, smokes one cigarette after another and smiles only when mocking the Cuban government.

He is angered that no matter how hard his father works, the quality of his life never improves. "For eight hours of work," the son says, "my father only gets one cup of rice and two slices of fried platano to eat during his break.

"Why should I try to work when no matter how much money I make, I am never going to have anything," he adds. "So I make my living underground -- on the black market."

The young man explains that by night, he roams the streets offering to exchange tourists dollars for Cuban pesos at the going black market rate of 40 pesos for $1. The legal exchange rate is $1 for 1 peso.

Or he offers to get tourists top-quality cigars and rum for half the prices asked in tourist shops. He has many friends who work in stores throughout Havana, and for a share of his dollars, they allow him inside to buy such luxuries as meat, milk, shampoo and shoes.

Unapologetically, the young man explains that he is not interested in staying in Cuba to join a dissident group and fight for changes. In a month, he will marry his girlfriend, a Mexican citizen, and leave Cuba with her.

"If I speak out, not only would I lose everything, but so would my father," he says. "It's not worth it."

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