For Elian, Cuban life might not be so grim

Propaganda: Given Cuba's emphasis on schooling and its free medical care, not to mention a loving family, life in that socialist nation might not be as horrific for the little boy as some in Miami suggest.

March 30, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Soon, Elian Gonzalez may be headed back to Cuba, back to the very life that his mother and 10 others died trying to escape.

But what is that life like, really?

As with everything involving the wrenching case of Elian, the truth may well be buried under the intractable political stances that each side has taken.

"Yes, it's a socialist society and it's not an open, democratic society, but kids by and large are happy and well cared for," said Wayne S. Smith, the former chief of the U.S. interests section in Havana and co-director of the Cuba Exchange Program at Johns Hopkins University. "The right-wing crowd in Miami would have you believe there's blood in the streets and everyone is starving. There are problems, to be sure, but it's not as they portray it."

Of course, neither is Cuba the rose-colored, socialist paradise as those on the other side of the issue would portray it: a country whose limited resources are spread more equitably than they would be in a capitalist nation like the United States and where there is free health, education and welfare for all.

What Elian would face as a child -- albeit a now very famous child -- growing up in Cuba, may well be impossible to know. Every point made by one side can be argued by the other. Consider the milk ration: After age 7, it is frequently noted, Cuban children no longer qualify for discounted milk.

"I hear, `Oh, they're going to take away his milk at 7,' " Elena Freyre, director of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, a Miami-based group that takes a more moderate stance toward Cuba than other organizations there. "What other country in Latin America, in the Third World, guarantees milk for every child until they are 7? Go to Liberty City here -- that's a poor neighborhood here in Miami -- and ask the parents if their children are guaranteed milk."

Elian's life in Cuba -- as his life has been for the past four months in Miami since he was rescued clinging to an inner tube off the Florida coast -- would be far from typical.

As surely Cuba's most famous 6-year-old boy, his would not be an entirely normal life. Already, he is considered a national hero, and his homecoming would be celebrated as the return of the prodigal son.

By most accounts, Elian already had a fairly good life in Cuba before his mother decided to flee with him aboard a rickety boat. In his hometown of Cardenas, a coastal community east of Havana, he has a loving, extended family and parents who, as workers in the burgeoning tourist industry, were paid in the American dollars that give them greater buying power than those who earn Cuban pesos.

The horror stories about the harshness of life in Cuba often date back to what the Castro government delicately calls "the special period," the years after the 1990 collapse of the country's primary sponsor, the Soviet Union. Within several years, Cuba began experiencing severe shortages -- of food, medicine, electricity and other vital supplies.

"It was incredibly awful," says Marta Farinas, a Cuban-American writer in Miami who frequently travels to Cuba. "It looked like Lebanon, a war zone -- buildings collapsed, there were no lights, trash was not picked up."

While shortages still occur today, Cuba has started to bounce back from those years, many agree. The government has encouraged foreign companies to build hotels and other businesses in Cuba, providing an influx of jobs and dollars. And, starting in 1993, Cuban leader Fidel Castro began allowing Cubans to receive money from their relatives in the United States. As a result, and quite ironically, hundreds of millions of dollars flow into Cuba from the exile community that Castro regularly bashes, and is responsible in no small part for shoring up the country's faltering economy.

"There are still power outages, but they're planned. You know that in your neighborhood, for example, it's Tuesday and you won't have electricity for two or three hours," Farinas says. "So you either cook early or you go out for pizza."

Farinas and others say food and medical care is widely available even if supplies can be spotty at times.

"They pride themselves on the medical system. But there is this oxymoron: They have great doctors. They have great hospitals. But they don't have aspirin," she says.

Anecdotes abound of patients having to take their own linens to the hospital with them, or of pharmacies running out of common medications. And yet, in some respects there can be greater access to medical care in Cuba than in the United States, many say.

In fact, a group of Maryland physicians, led by Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Peter Beilenson, toured Cuba last year to see what it might learn from the country's universal health system. They plan to use the information to develop a plan for how Maryland might better assure health coverage for its population.

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