A tale of two communisms

SUN JOURNAL

Contrast: While China has emerged as an economic powerhouse, Cuba continues to struggle with a failing socialist system.

December 26, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

HAVANA - You can stand in the middle of Cuba's national highway and wait several minutes before seeing a vehicle. Odds are it will be a battered DeSoto, a '57 Chevy or a horse-drawn cart. Fuel is so scarce in Cuba that hitchhiking remains one of the most reliable ways to travel.

Halfway around the world in China, the scene is completely different. Thousands of cars, including Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Buicks, jam the Avenue of Eternal Peace, Beijing's main boulevard. Traffic is so treacherous that first-time visitors are often afraid to cross the street.

Cuba and China, home to two of the world's last Communist regimes, are a study in contrasts. One is an increasingly modern country, brimming with energy, the other, a decrepit throwback to the Cold War. In the past decade, China has emerged as a powerhouse with one of the world's fastest-growing economies, while Cuba continues to struggle with a failing socialist system.

China and Cuba provide a postscript to the collapse of global communism, but such comparisons are becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to make firsthand. Visiting China is easy - Americans accounted for 1.5 million trips there in 2002 - but traveling to Cuba, which is under U.S. embargo and travel restrictions, is getting tougher.

The last licenses for "people-to-people" educational exchanges expire this month as the Bush administration continues to tighten restrictions on travel to the island. The licenses allowed tens of thousands of Americans to visit Cuba in recent years. Administration officials say many abused the opportunity, turning cultural exchanges into rum-fueled tourist junkets.

This fall, the U.S. House and Senate voted to halt enforcement of the travel ban, which Washington has used for more than three decades to deny dollars to Fidel Castro, but the White House successfully pushed legislative leaders to drop the provision.

At first glance, Havana appears to be a city on the move. In midafternoon, hundreds of Cubans crowd the cobblestone streets of the colonial capital, pouring past the columned facades of old Spanish buildings. But like many aspects of Cuban life, the crowds are deceptive - more a sign of fatigue than vitality.

People pack the streets on weekdays because many have given up on Cuba's state-run economy and have nowhere else to go. Instead of clocking in for a government job that pays on average $10 a month, they have leapt into the island's "dollar" economy, hawking services and knockoff cigars to foreign tourists.

"Cohiba, best cigar in the world," hustlers say under their breath in Old Havana's palm-fringed Central Park

"Che Guevara T-shirt?"

"Girls?"

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the $5 billion a year it provided to Havana in subsidies, Cuba has failed to develop a healthy private sector. Castro knows that liberalizing the economy means loosening political control.

The island's economy relies on tourism and money sent from relatives in Miami. Cuba is divided into haves and have-nots; those who receive money from relatives or tourism can buy foreign-made products.

Many who still work for the state add to their meager earnings by ripping it off.

Rolando, who asked that his last name not be used, repairs medical machinery. Standing along the Malecon, Havana's seaside boulevard that overlooks the Straits of Florida, Rolando reached into a red pouch hanging from his belt and flashed a packet of the antibiotic tetracycline.

Cuba suffers from a shortage of many items, including medicine, which Castro blames on the U.S. embargo. Rolando steals pills from the hospital where he works and sells them on the black market to supplement his $6 monthly salary.

"Everybody has to steal," says Rolando, a handsome 45-year-old with three children. "How else can you live?"

Rolando blames the island's economic problems on Castro. Faced with financial collapse, the Cuban government has allowed more than 150 professions to operate privately, but maintains enough regulations to shut them down at any time.

Like other Cubans, Rolando criticizes Castro in private, but is too nervous to utter his name. "The old man," he says, stroking an imaginary beard, "we don't want him anymore."

Castro runs this island of 11 million with a firm hand. This year, the government carried out the biggest crackdown in more than a decade, jailing more than 70 dissidents, opposition leaders and independent journalists.

U.S. officials say the Castro regime maintains a loose network of informants numbering in the tens of thousands, making its security apparatus "one of the best in the world," according to James C. Cason, chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section, the United States' de facto embassy in Havana.

Chinese capitalism is more than a decade ahead of Cuba's first efforts. Shanghai and Beijing are vibrant cities with private law firms, restaurants, software companies and art galleries.

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