ONCE there was a small, proud nation that sought to achieve a more just society. Its citizens felt the pain of poverty, oppression by corrupt governments, the betrayal of hopes, the envy bred by great economic inequality and the resentment fostered by racism. They had seen their children die at an early age and their women sold as prostitutes.
Then they revolted. They threw out the corrupt government. They took control of the land from the wealthy. They mobilized the resources of their country to educate their people, to make them healthy, to raise their living standards, but above all, to give them dignity. It was hard work. Along the way they made many mistakes as they sought to invent a more just society based on cooperative economics.
And by the third decade of their grand experiment, the people of this Caribbean island had succeeded in building a middle-class society. It had a system of free health care that reached all of the population. The infant mortality rate had declined, and life expectancy had risen. Women became professionals. Agriculture was mechanized. During the 1980s, when standards of living were declining almost everywhere else in Latin America, only this country became more prosperous.
I have just returned from my ninth visit to Cuba, and I am saddened to see the progress of these three decades being eroded. Having overcome many of the afflictions of the rest of Latin America, Cuba is now being forced into Third-World conditions, in part because of the continuing United States trade embargo.
Today, the pedestrian boulevard along San Rafael Street in central Havana resembles an Asian bazaar. Peddlers are everywhere, selling everything imaginable from packages of cigarettes for 30 pesos (about 38 cents) to cheese sandwiches and homemade lanterns. These items are in short supply -- as is everything else -- but they're being stolen from state supplies and sold here at inflated prices while police look the other way.
It is now legal for people to work in their own small businesses, and they are springing up everywhere. In the neighborhood of my friend Raul there are several home restaurants called paladars (a name taken from a popular Brazilian soap opera). We eat at one that can seat 10 on home-made stools in what used to be the living room. I get a dinner of chicken over rice and beans with a cabbage salad and yucca for only 80 pesos, about $1. The place is doing a brisk business in a country where average wages are 150 to 200 pesos a month.
So, too, is the little pizza shop in an apartment across the street where a couple make pan pizzas for 20 pesos -- and even make home deliveries. If you want some beer or rum, there are other houses you can go to. One house even has a hand-made sign out front advertising caldosa, a popular Cuban soup, for 2 pesos. This happens to be the apartment of the head of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution!
While this kind of self-employment is legal, one wonders where the supplies come from for these little businesses. No one asks. It's understood that people have to take care of themselves. Cubans can buy everything available on the ration plan for about 40 pesos a month. But that isn't nearly enough, so they rely on their wits -- and on networks of relatives, friends, neighbors and other contacts.
Things are much easier for Cubans with access to dollars, either from relatives in the U.S. or because they work in tourism. When a dollar equals 80 to 90 pesos, it doesn't take many of them to make a big difference. An old friend who teaches at the University of Havana gets paid about 350 pesos a month. "That's $4," he told me sadly. That's why many Cubans are leaving teaching to work in tourism, especially those who know English. From tips alone they can make more in a day than they earn in a month teaching! Thus, many Cubans with college degrees have jobs waiting on tables, bell hopping and driving cabs. Cuba may have the most highly educated service personnel in the Third World.
There's serious erosion in education, caused partly by a shortage of teachers, and in health care. Medicines are in short supply, and the hospitals even have trouble feeding patients. It used to be that visitors were strictly forbidden to bring food to patients, but now relatives are encouraged to bring anything they can. Many patients are being sent home early to conserve scarce resources.
But more serious is the erosion of social values that has become visible since the legalization of dollars last fall. A friend of mine who teaches English at the foreign language institute tells me that when his former students (all now working in tourism) visit the school, they mock him for his dedication: "Why are you still here, Eduardo? Are you stupid?" As people begin to chase dollars, it almost seems that those interested in themselves do better, and those committed to social values receive the least rewards."