The Miami Herald
March 17, 1999

Troubling changes fan fear, anxiety in Havana

             By JUAN O. TAMAYO
             Herald Staff Writer

             HAVANA -- A high school teacher commenting on Cuba's recent crackdown on
             crime and dissent stops suddenly to ask, ``What's Castro afraid of?

             A mere rumor of another Mariel exodus sends 2,000 people rushing to the

             ``Everyone is afraid. Everyone is nervous, says economist Oscar Espinosa. And a
             well-known Cuban author whispers to a visitor, ``It's the end of the millennium,
             and you know the troubles that brings.

             Havana is in an anxious mood these days, with Cubans and resident foreigners
             alike saying their collective apprehensions stand at levels not seen since Cuba's
             economy hit bottom in 1994.

             The capital today seems virtually under siege. Police from elite units check IDs of
             passersby at most main corners, and Cubans who once met openly with foreigners
             now seek private encounters and speak in whispers.

             Prostitutes who jammed the seaside Malecon boulevard have been hauled away to
             ``reeducation camps. Police are even seizing illegal but long-tolerated TV antennas
             capable of receiving Miami broadcasts.

             Two new laws have imposed tougher jail terms and even death sentences on
             criminals. And a new category of counterrevolutionary felony was created --
             ``supporting hostile U.S. policies.

             Castro has said the reasons for the curbs are simple: Crime was getting out of
             hand, and too many dissidents were accepting U.S. aid to ``subvert the revolution.

             Some find this a credible explanation, but there's also a growing sense in Havana
             that the ground under Cuba's Communist system has shifted in recent months --
             shifted subtly, yet in ways that Castro, common people and foreign analysts alike
             view as potentially troublesome.

             ``Everyone I talked to there has the intuition that there's something more than what
             is said in public, said Joaquin Roy, a University of Miami expert on Cuba's
             Spanish heritage who visited Havana last month.

             But in Cuba, an opaque society where ``public opinion'' is practically nonexistent,
             finding answers requires much reading between the lines.

             At first glance the island appears to be continuing its recovery from the ruin it faced
             after billions of dollars in Soviet subsidies stopped flowing in 1991. Cubans today
             look better fed and clothed than three years ago. There are more cars on the
             streets of Havana and more new construction. A good number of colonial-era
             buildings, many on the verge of crumbling, are being repaired.

             Furthermore, the government is increasing salaries for some state employees for
             the first time in years, and its recent move to strengthen the peso, from 21 to 20
             pesos per dollar, increased the purchasing power of families on an island where
             most goods are now priced in dollars.

             ``Compared to '93 and '94, when we had 20-hour electricity blackouts, no gas to
             cook with and just rice and sugared water to eat, we're better off, said retired
             engineer Miguel Angel Fuentes.

             Yet that progress pales when compared to the cocktail of afflictions that Cubans,
             and foreigners living in the country, say is fueling a climate they call ``restless,
             ``anxious and ``uneasy.

             Rumors in January that Castro would again open the port of Mariel swiftly drew
             2,000 people to the area, two witnesses said. Several scuffles with police broke
             out, and Interior Ministry troops were called in to block off all surrounding roads
             for two days.

             Loss of control

             Behind the crackdown lies a recent acceleration in the government's loss of control
             over people, Cubans and foreigners say, a process that began when Castro was
             forced to accept economic reforms and slash subsidies on goods in 1993.

             ``This is a battle against everything that means disorder, crime, disrespect for
             authority, illegal business and lack of social controls, said one government official
             in describing the reasons for the constraints.

             Subsidized food rations that once lasted 15 days out of every month now last
             barely 10 days, Havana residents said, forcing them to go to the far more
             expensive farmers' markets to shop for food.

             With an estimated 30 to 40 percent of all Cubans now surviving on dollars sent by
             relatives abroad, mostly in South Florida, the government has lost much of its
             power to command the loyalty of its people.

             ``The government is no longer the only source for the little things that it traditionally
             used to control the populace -- food, a new TV, a fan, a pair of shoes, said a
             Latin American diplomat in Havana.

             ``With dollars in your pocket, you can tell the [Communist] Party to go away
             when they want you to go to some demonstration, said restaurant waitress Victoria

             Haves vs. have nots

             Some Cubans indeed believe the latest crackdown was demanded by party,
             military and government officials who are unlikely to get remittances from Miami
             and feel angry that the ``dollarized Cubans now eat and dress better than they do.

             ``Those who are loyal to Castro now get the least benefits. And those who are
             least loyal, those who look to Miami, live the best, said a Western journalist who
             has lived in Havana for several years.

             But Cubans complain that party, military and government leaders have been
             making up for this drawback by accepting bribes to overlook illegal activities from
             prostitution to people smuggling.

             Low-level corruption, long a necessity for getting around Cuba's socialist
             inefficiencies, has blossomed into a more Western version of high-level graft and
             racketeering, they argue.

             ``Before, we all had friends in high places who did favors. Now we have mafias at
             the highest levels, an insult to everyone who sacrificed for this revolution, said a
             worker who claimed to have surrendered his party card last year to protest a
             hushed-up corruption scandal at his factory.

             Economic frustration grows

             Cubans are beginning to realize that the timid economic reforms Castro adopted in
             the eight years since he declared a ``special period in time of peace -- a
             euphemism for the island's post-Soviet crisis -- cannot resolve its basic problems.

             ``They are all just patches on an old tire, said Espinosa.

             ``Although the economy looks good, it's all cosmetic, added another Western
             journalist living in Cuba. ``The real problems have not only not been addressed,
             they are not even being thought about.

             The absence of hope for economic recovery in the near future appears to have
             increased the level of frustration among many Cubans.

             ``Until last October or so, most Cubans would tell me they were resigned to the
             fact that no change would happen until Castro dies, said a Canadian businessman
             who lives in Havana. ``Now they say that's too long. They are restless, and they
             talk more about the need for change.

             In an apparent blunder, the government raised the credibility of dissidents when it
             televised the prosecution's final argument in the March 1 trial of four opposition
             leaders who include Vladimiro Roca, son of a late founder of the Cuban
             Communist Party.

             ``The son of Blas Roca! That's incredible! said a Havana taxi driver. ``Here the
             government is always saying the counterrevolutionaries are nothing. But the son of
             Blas Roca, that's someone very important.

             Cuban officials appear largely untroubled by Havana's mood, with one calling it
             ``the intended result of steps taken to cut short a series of unwanted phenomena
             that we had been seeing over the past six months.

             And there's little evidence that the restlessness could easily translate into more
             serious trouble.

             ``Although the government can no longer dole out those little benefits -- the TVs
             and the fans -- it still has a big stick, a repressive machine that can stop any
             challenge to stability, the Latin American diplomat said.

             That has not stopped Cubans from worrying, sometimes to an astounding degree.

             One taxi driver was complaining about Havana's potholes last week when he
             stopped to make a seemingly disconnected declaration to a foreign passenger:

             ``When this is over, blood will flow in the streets.