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Cuba sinks under weight of Fidel's dated phobias

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

My cab makes its way through the sweltering noonday heat from the dingy Havana airport to town. On the right, a tall, shabby building described as a school closed for the summer looks as if it has been abandoned for years.

In other less developed countries recently -- like Syria and Vietnam -- whose economies were in transition, I sensed a dynamism: new buildings going up, the infrastructure in good repair. But here the city is crumbling before our eyes.

The contrast with Cancun, Mexico, where I spent last night, is startling. A few years ago an insignificant fishing village, today it reminds you of Pinnochio's Island of Bad Boys, where the Fox and the Cat lure swarms of children to a pleasure park that magically transforms them into donkeys.

In Cancun, at midnight, as the airport bus mounts a series of landscaped terraces, like climbing a Mayan pyramid, to the plush international resort hotels, hordes of American teenagers in Calvin Klein T-shirts and baggy shorts drift from one disco to the next "making the scene." In Havana, I explore the back streets where children huddle half-naked in doorways of 19th-century mansions converted into one-family-per-room apartments, boom their music out the window and play volleyball without a net.

I have come to Cuba this July for the same reason as other travelers I meet along the way: to see the world's last thoroughly communist society in what may be its last years -- or months.

I live for five days in Cuban standards at a parish church in the poorest section of Havana, and for three days as a tourist -- two on a package bus tour of the old colonial town of Trinidad on the southern coast, and one in the Old Havana Hotel Ambos Mundos, where they charge you two dollars to see the room where Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and two more to take a picture of his Royal portable and his boots.

At my church we eat rice daily, flavored with corn or beans or occasionally with pieces of one of the turkeys raised with the chickens on the church roof outside my bedroom door. Across the way our neighbors sweep their balconies and hang out their laundry in the afternoon sun. Below, the monstrous "camel" metrobuses (named for their two-hump-like tractor-trailer design), passengers crammed in like prisoners, rumble by with an ear-shattering roar.

Far down Salvador Allende Boulevard, where a rare new shopping mall is going up, a shirtless, muscular, black man straddles a girder and slaps a coat of red paint on it. I suspect it is the one fresh coat of paint in Cuba.

Our air-conditioned tourist bus is filled with French, Italian, Swiss, Spanish and three American travelers. It rolls south along the highway, past hundreds of hitchhiking Cubans waiting for passing government vehicles, which, because of the gas shortage, are required to pick them up. We pull into thatched-roof way stations, constructed purely for tourists like us, where the band plays "Guantanamera" and singers and dancers amuse us between lunch and trinket-buying.

In the evening we stroll the Trinidad cobblestone byways, and our guide has us step right off the street into the front parlor of a local middle-class family to admire their antique furniture, as if the whole town were a quaint museum on display for our benefit.

The 1991 decision of the Fourth Party Congress to expand the tourist industry -- now bringing in over a million tourists, who spent $1.25 billion last year -- has complicated Cuba's already tense and paradoxical relations with the United States. On the one hand, Fidel Castro uses America's antagonism -- particularly the 34-year ban on trade and commerce, made worse by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which attempts to punish foreign investors in Cuba -- as a kind of emotional glue. His intent is to hold together a society whose economy has been on an austerity program, which Castro calls "A Special Period in a Time of Peace," since the loss of Soviet subsidies in 1991. Castro exhorts the Cuban people to bear with food rationing and ride bikes rather than drive cars and blames the U.S. embargo for the island's poverty. A huge billboard in downtown Havana depicts a Cuban soldier shouting across the sea to a menacing Uncle Sam, "Hey, Imperialists, we are absolutely not afraid of you!"

Yet, to let in tourists and dollars is to open the door to their culture as well. Part of Cuba's current charm is that it lacks the junk -- MacDonald's architecture and fast-food plastic and Styrofoam in the gutters, waste, the consumption ethic, the relentless assault of advertising -- that goes with capitalism. But Cuba is on the way toward a "dollar (or tourist) apartheid." Tourists are increasingly segregated in special hotels and resorts. On July 26, the holiday commemorating Castro's 1953 failed attack on the Moncada army barracks that signaled the start of the Revolution, the beautiful public square in front of the old Havana Cathedral was sealed off from the public so rich people could have a party.

Meanwhile, the average Cuban earns 180 pesos or about $7 a month, which, to survive, he must supplement by barter, raising chickens and other animals for slaughter, odd jobs, and breaking the law. Cuban society has been divided into those with access to dollars (from transactions with tourists or exile families in the United States), which enable them to buy imported goods at "dollar stores," and those without. Ironically, the most expensive sneakers in the dollar store are named Harlems and sell for $37. A Harlem teenager might well wear $75 sneakers; his Havana equivalent, never.

I have read Jon Lee Anderson's new biography, Che Gueverra: A Revolutionary Life. I have arrived in Cuba a few days after Che's bones, unearthed from a secret mass grave in Bolivia 30 years after his death, are returned. Receiving the casket, Che's daughter says that those who died in Bolivia are now "transformed into heroes, eternally young, valiant, strong and daring." I tour the Revolution museums in Havana and Trinidad that contain exhibits on the atrocities of previous regimes (Spanish firing squads, whips and a testicle crusher from the Batista days), Raul Castro's shirt, Fidel's rifle, Che's hammock, everybody's .45 cal. pistols, a hunk of a shot-down American U-2, the stuffed carcass of Che's mule. I find it pathetic that except for the 19th century poet-revolutionary Jose Marti, Cuban history seems to have begun in 1959, and that so much of the nation's spiritual identity seems to be built around the mystique of Castro, ruthless ideologue. The Revolution executed 500 of its opponents in its first months, and Che himself justified the killings with a cold "us or them" morality.

In a half-hour discussion at the American Interests Bureau, a Western diplomat put all the blame for Cuba's poverty directly on the character and personality of Fidel Castro, who micro-manages the economy, refuses to learn from his mistakes and fails to comprehend market principles like supply and demand. For instance, although hotel space is already plentiful, the government is building more hotels and raising the prices of rooms. Remember, the diplomat says, Havana was once a First World city; Castro has reduced it to a shambles. Although Fidel blames all of Cuba's problems on the embargo, the diplomat says, even when it had six billion dollars a year in Soviet subsidies, Fidel couldn't make his country work. In comparisons with other Latin American countries since the Revolution, the diplomat even discounts Cuba's famed progress in health care and education.

The decay of the infrastructure is obvious; but standard histories and statistical records, like the Statistical Yearbook for Latin America and the Caribbean and the Gale and Country World Rankings Report, support Cuba's claims to health and educational leadership -- particularly if we define education as providing basic opportunity to the broadest segment of the population. Cuba's life expectancy, 75.3 years, is the highest in Latin America, and its infant mortality rate of 10 deaths per 1,000 births is close to the United States' nine. According to UNESCO, Cuba's illiteracy rate is 4.3 percent; Argentina's is 4 percent; Brazil's is 16.7; Mexico's is 15; and Nicaragua's is 34.3. In a population of 10.9 million, 198,474 are students in higher education, mostly in technical fields, according to 1992 figures.

But Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman in his 1990 book Cuba: A Journey asks, What good is literacy when your people have nothing to read? My saddest observation is of the intellectual poverty that comes from bookstores displaying little but hagiographies of Fidel and Che, the one daily newspaper -- the Communist Party's Granma -- not available on the streets, no newsstands or mass circulation magazines, two government-run TV channels with daily commercials about Che.

While Cuban Catholics hope that Pope John Paul II's January 1998 visit may set the spark that revives Cuba's dormant Catholicism, where less than 2 percent practice their faith, some communists fear he may "pull a Poland" and stir up political unrest. But it is unlikely the pope will do anything to jeopardize the church's good relationship with Fidel, who personally invited John Paul II in 1979. Castro, although not an adherent of Catholicism, expresses his respect for it, especially since he sees liberation theology as having moved the church toward the Revolution's goals.

How long can this go on? A broad segment of world opinion, expressed in repeated U.N. resolutions, the Caribbean Christian Conference (meeting in Havana during my visit), and the recent meeting of the 15-member Caribbean Community -- CARICOM -- has argued for an end to Cuba's economic isolation. In a 1978 address to the World Festival of Youth and Students, Archbishop Francisco Oves Fernandez of Havana told his audience that the church has "said no to the blockade ... as a violation of international social justice." A Cuban friend suggested to me that the United States ought to remove the blockade so that Castro could no longer use it as an excuse -- although Fidel would quickly think up another.

Castro is 71. Ideally, he could follow the Francisco Franco scenario: designate a successor and prepare for an orderly transition. But Jerrold Post, a George Washington University psychiatrist, argues that Castro, as a "charismatic personality," is emotionally incapable of stepping aside with his dreams of glory unaccomplished.

It is more likely that he will hold on until it is too late. When he begins to falter because of health or some unforeseen crisis, his immediate cadre, who owe their position to him, may attempt to tighten their already oppressive hold on power. A backlash from the lower levels of government may lead to chaos, and again thousands of Cubans will head for the boats. Next, warns my diplomat, someone in Congress will go on TV and say we should send in the Marines.

Which is where we were a hundred years ago.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 1997