Burst of discontent echoes through Cuba

August 20, 1994|By John Lantigua | John Lantigua,Knight-Ridder News Service

HAVANA -- The Malecon has protected Havana from stormy seas for centuries. But the riot that erupted with a fury along the old sea wall two weeks ago unleashed a different kind of force.

It was a small but sudden explosion of anger that demanded change -- a thunderclap that momentarily shook the sense of government control here.

The rock-throwing, window-breaking and shouts of "liberacion" Aug. 5 involved less than 1 percent of the population and were contained in the traditionally rowdy seafront barrios of Old Havana and Colon. But the government's attempt to label the melee as an isolated incident involving only "delinquents" from that area has failed.

Committed government supporters condemned the demonstrators who caused the worst street violence in President Fidel Castro's 35 years in power.

But many other Havana residents -- who once looked down on inhabitants of these densely populated, poor neighborhoods -- expressed a measure of understanding for the rioters.

"That's because these days everyone is going through the same scarcity, the same hunger," said a man who was in the crowd.

Mr. Castro, most people say, is not in any immediate danger of falling. Even some of his enemies concede that he still has majority support. Control was regained over the port area on the same day and there have been no further eruptions since then.

"After the riot happened, Fidel warned that the United States was causing this and that it could result in chaos, in a blood bath in Cuba," said a Cuban journalist opposed to the government. "I think that was a message to Cubans on the island. He was trying to scare those people who are in the middle from trying to do the same thing."

The hope among many of those "in the middle" now seems to be that the street violence will serve as a wake-up call to the government to loosen its reins on the economy and allow more private enterprise.

But if it doesn't, then what?

When asked if the riot could happen again, many Habaneros, as Havana residents are known, looked concerned, even scared of that threatened chaos.

'It could get very, very bad'

"This time the police only shot in the air, but if things don't change, it could happen again and worse. Then Fidel will have to make a decision," a cabdriver said. "Then it could get very, very bad."

He was driving through the older neighborhoods of the capital explaining why the trouble happened there and not somewhere else, and why it could happen again.

"You have to understand that some of these people from these areas are rough and not afraid," the cabdriver said. "Most people in the city are more complacent, they live with the problem and try to survive, as I do.

"But down here, there are people who are used to doing business and used to having trouble with the police."

The neighborhoods were once typical port slums, full of bars, brothels that served sailors and other businesses legitimate and not.

Many of the neighborhood's streets lead to the sea, just as many of the people's hopes lead to the sea and beyond it, to the U.S. shores. And many of their buildings are crumbling, just as many of the people say Mr. Castro's ruling system is crumbling.

"The rocks people threw at police were from their own deteriorating homes," said Gerardo, 36, a teacher from Colon who said he witnessed the riots.

Many residents were originally shocked and frightened by the violence. But in the quiet days that followed, when asked to comment on the riot, they gave the protesters a kind of absolution. Many uttered the same phrase: "You must understand how difficult things are."

Some of those involved explained that anti-government sentiments were fueled by a recent crackdown by police on black market activities, which these people need to feed themselves and their children.

The crackdown is affecting many people throughout Havana.

'Something has to change'

"What do you expect people to do when they aren't sure where their food will come from?" asked a doctor who earns the equivalent of $2.75 per month working for the government. "Something has to change."

Old Havana, with its crumbling Spanish colonial grandeur, has been developed as a tourist center, bringing the poor there in contact with dollar-carrying tourists. Last year, when it became legal for Cubans to possess foreign currency, many people changed their way of life to chase U.S. dollars.

"This is becoming two different societies in one country," said an economist who now rents himself out as a chauffeur to tourists. ** "Those who have dollars and those who don't. That is very dangerous. There must be an opening."

That phrase is heard over and over again -- "There must be an opening."

What most Havana residents mean by it is basically economic reforms that will allow Cubans to run their own small businesses, to carve out an existence for themselves and to do it legally.

That is not possible now.

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