The Miami Herald
December 27, 1998

Castro's vision for Cuba carries a price: democracy

             By JUAN O. TAMAYO
             Herald Staff Writer

             Cuba's economy lies in tatters. Finding food is a daily battle. Moral rot is setting in.
             Buildings are caving in. The U.S. dollar rules, and mocks President Fidel Castro's
             calls for an egalitarian society.

             At least one million Cubans have fled his rule, many by jumping into the sea. Just
             this year, 450,000 applied for U.S. visas, essentially saying that, for whatever
             reason, they prefer to live with his archfoes.

             Friday, New Year's Day, will be the 40th anniversary of Castro's rule. He has
             governed longer than any other Latin American ruler this century, and as long as
             Moses led the Jews in their search for Israel.

             Castro today is still trekking through the wilderness, in search of the promised land
             of communism. But his pledges of deliverance for the Cuban people ring more
             hollow every day.

             Under Castro, Cuba has nevertheless notched undeniable advances in health,
             education and social welfare. The island is now a tourism and sports powerhouse,
             an exporter of doctors and biotechnology.

             Havana has a growing number of international friends who back it with votes in
             world organizations, send it development aid and offer it trade and commercial

             Castro has survived decades of U.S. efforts to topple or assassinate him, and he
             boasts that Cuba is now free of foreign controls, be they Spanish, U.S. or Soviet,
             for the first time in 100 years.

             ``Yes, it has survived. And yes, it has created a sense of national honor. No two
             ways about it. But at what price?'' asked Irving Louis Horowitz, an expert on
             Cuba and Rutgers University professor.

             One price: democracy.

             There are no opposition parties. No real elections. No free media. There is jail or
             exile for dissidents. Neighborhood snitch squads, Rapid Reaction Brigades and
             Acts of Repudiation.

             ``In my 40 years, I have known only one president. I have heard only one speech.
             I have had only one alternative,'' dissident journalist Manuel Vazquez wrote in a
             column marking Castro's four decades in power.

             Another price: the economy.

             The end of $4 billion to $5 billion a year in Soviet aid in 1991 -- and, Havana
             insists, the U.S. embargo -- left the island in tatters.

             Cuba, which in 1957 had Latin America's third- or fourth-largest economy,
             ranked 16th or 17th in 1997. The United Nations' Human Development Index lists
             Cuba toward the bottom among 35 Western Hemisphere countries in 1997, ahead
             of only Peru, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Guatemala, El Salvador, Bolivia,
             Nicaragua, Honduras and Haiti.

             Today, the revolution is more like a grand society matron who has slipped into
             shabbiness, wearing threadbare clothes and living in a once grand, now crumbling

             ``I call it the Macondo Syndrome,'' said University of Pittsburgh economist
             Carmelo Mesa-Lago, after the mythical town in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.
             ``That town came out of nothing, had a boom with coffee or bananas . . . and after
             that went into a very rapid decline, went back to dust.''

             Achievements fall short

             Foes who want the autumn of the patriarch to turn into winter may have long to

             The 72-year-old Castro's hands shake occasionally, his beard is gray and wispy,
             his walk is unsteady at times. He is clearly not the young rebel who forced
             President Fulgencio Batista to flee abroad on Jan. 1, 1959.

             But rumors of fatal ailments have always proved wrong, and he has time and again
             cunningly maneuvered to ensure his regime's survival by accepting measures that
             he had rejected in years past.

             After the Soviet collapse, Havana opened the doors to foreign tourists and
             investors, legalized the dollar and farmers' markets, and allowed ``selfemployment''
             for people like plumbers and hairdressers to help Cubans make ends meet.

             Other, less visible, reforms may promise significant changes in the long run. Bent
             on boosting the productivity of state enterprises, Castro has recently allowed a
             degree of decentralization that was unthinkable before 1991.

             Enterprise managers who once answered directly to central planners in Havana
             now have more power to hire, fire and set production quotas, and are developing
             strong voices at the municipal and regional levels.

             Cuba now seems to be headed toward what Horowitz called ``communism with a
             capitalist face'' -- using as few open-market tools as necessary to ensure the
             survival of its socialist bulk.

             But those goals are a long way from the promises that Castro made in 1959, and
             far from the levels of progress Cuba achieved with Soviet subsidies up to 1990.

             Living standards lag

             British historian Sir Hugh Thomas wrote recently that the island now has ``a 19th
             Century economy'' with living standards ``at less than half'' what they might have
             been without the revolution.

             After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist satellite regimes in eastern
             Europe, the Cuban economy shrank by 35 to 40 percent between 1991 and
             1994. The government estimates it will take until 2004 just to return to 1985
             levels. Meanwhile, life grinds on.

             The average monthly salary of 207 pesos -- worth $9.85 -- buys just nine pounds
             of pork. Most consumer goods are rationed. Housing is in desperately short
             supply, and buildings collapse from lack of repairs. Cars and gasoline are so
             expensive that bicycles rule the streets.

             Foreign investments are small compared to those in the rest of the hemisphere, and
             Horowitz said he would bet ``that there are fewer fax machines in all of the island
             than in one square block of the Miami business district.''

             Havana now survives largely on the estimated $400 million to $600 million that
             Cubans abroad, most of them in the United States, send to relatives on the island
             each year, as well as on booming tourism and a destitute sugar industry.

             ``The two big economic complaints of Fidel during the Batista years -- too much
             reliance on tourism and . . . sugar -- have now been repeated. Tourism was this
             foreign evil . . . and now look at the country,'' said economist Mesa-Lago, who
             was born in Cuba.

             ``The Cuban Revolution, as we've known it over the past 40 years, is essentially
             dead,'' said Wayne Smith, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana in 1979-82 and now a
             critic of U.S. policies on Cuba. ``The revolution's gains were real enough to the
             people, but they weren't based on reality.''

             Progress and setbacks

             Cuba's public health system remains the pride of the revolution, a free system that
             has attained first-world levels on many fronts.

             Its infant mortality rate last year hit 7.2 per 1,000 births, the lowest in all Latin
             America and among the world's 25 best. Its life expectancy of 75.3 years is only
             one year behind that of the United States.

             Cuba now has one doctor per 160 people, enough to assign one to every
             neighborhood, hire out 450 to South Africa and send 150 to Central America in
             the wake of Hurricane Mitch.

             Eleven childhood diseases like polio have been eliminated. Biotechnology centers
             are working on everything from AIDS and hepatitis vaccines to new treatments for
             Parkinson's disease.

             Government figures are generally regarded as credible, despite unconfirmed
             reports of occasional manipulations -- for example, raising the threshold for
             diagnosing anemia to lower the number of cases reported.

             But the health system has slumped since Soviet subsidies ended and -- critics of
             U.S. policies say -- since the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act restricted the sale of
             medicines to Cuba by foreign subsidiaries of U.S.-owned firms.

             A 1997 report by the Cuban Health Ministry and the U.N.'s World Health
             Organization said that annual surgical procedures dropped by 40 percent from
             1990 to 1995 because of shortages of medicines and equipment.

             Nearly 70 percent of medical facilities had deteriorated, the Health Ministry report
             added, and the percentage of people with access to safe drinking water dropped
             from 90 percent in 1989 to 40 percent in 1994, sparking outbreaks of several

             Many doctors, who earn about $20 a month, often skip their government jobs so
             they can do other work, like driving taxis, that brings them U.S. dollars.

             And the quality of recent medical school graduates is suspect. In 1996, Jamaica
             ended a 20-year-old policy of allowing Cuba-trained doctors to work there,
             saying a review found ``shortcomings with aspects of their training.''

             A study last year by the American Association for World Health, the U.S. branch
             of the World Health Organization, concluded that the U.S. embargo and the
             Cuban Democracy Act have had a ``devastating'' impact on Cuba's health system.

             Embargo supporters scoffed at the study, noting that Cuba is free to buy medicine
             from other countries and arguing that its medical shortages are tied more directly to
             its economic ruin.

             Cuba, perhaps embarrassed by the grim picture painted by the study, denied its
             central theme. ``One cannot say the embargo has had a disastrous impact on the
             health of the Cuban people,'' Health Minister Carlos Dotres said.

             Advances, limitations

             Cuba's public education system remains an impressive achievement, free from
             primary school through all of the country's 47 university centers.

             Cuba had one teacher per 13.7 students in 1996, and a 95.7 percent literacy rate
             in 1997 that was Latin America's highest. It also has a nationwide average
             eighth-grade education and one of the highest overall enrollment rates in the
             hemisphere -- 96 percent of all youngsters through the sixth grade.

             A study issued this month by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural
             Organization said Cuba's third- and fourth-grade students scored higher in
             language and math tests than those in other Latin American nations tested.

             But the system suffers from politics and shortages.

             Most curricula still require Marxist studies, and the Ministry of Education's
             Resolution 713 has long mandated that teachers put their lessons into
             government-approved political and social contexts.

             ``The advances cannot be argued, but it is a manipulated education that twists
             every topic to government views,'' said Miriam Garcia, a former teacher who now
             heads the dissident Cuban Teachers Association.

             Many textbooks are decades old, classrooms are decrepit, computers in schools
             are rare, and surfing the Internet is not allowed. Only specially designated
             compañeros can carry out Internet searches for others.

             Teachers have recently been quitting in droves in search of better salaries -- a
             starting primary-school teacher earns $8 a month and a college professor about

             Most bothersome to parents is that many pre-university students are sent to rural
             boarding schools known for their sexual promiscuity, long hours of required
             manual labor and steady doses of Marxist indoctrination.

             Pope John Paul II drew some of the most enthusiastic applause when he blasted
             that system during his January visit.

             Openings and failures

             The Cuban Revolution has unquestionably produced an important number of
             sports champions and artists, from writers to painters, movie directors, ballet
             dancers, musicians and poets.

             But many have fled abroad, some in search of U.S. dollars, some to escape the
             ideological blinders that have been relaxed in recent years but still exist.

             ``Poets belong next to the people,'' said Carlos Marti, head of the Union of Cuban
             Writers and Artists, in a hard-line speech this autumn that chilled the spines of
             many Cuban intellectuals.

             And after decades of official atheism, the Roman Catholic Church scored many
             gains before and after John Paul's visit, most significantly the return of Christmas as
             a day off from work. The government let in about 50 new foreign missionaries and
             permitted several outdoor processions.

             But Cuba, alone in Latin America, bans the church from running parochial schools.
             It has forced at least two foreign missionaries to leave the country in the past two
             years, and sometimes rejects requests for permits for outdoor processions.

             Most significantly, Cubans now complain of a widespread breakdown in morals
             and ethical values. They blame it on poverty, tourism and the growing gap between
             the well-off who have access to dollars and the poor who don't.

             Violent street crime is rising. Prostitutes, both female and male, openly proposition
             foreign tourists along Havana's main streets. Theft from government stocks is

             ``Stealing from the government is not theft. It's life,'' said Victor Gomez, an
             18-year-old Havana student visiting Miami.

             And the gap between rich and poor is growing, causing tensions between those
             who receive dollars from relatives in Miami and those who don't or won't -- army
             and internal security officers, Communist Party officials.

             So troubling is the gap that some primary schools asked parents this year not to
             send their children to class with new sneakers, backpacks or even ``extravagant
             lunches,'' Havana teacher Luz Maria de Ojeda said.

             This rending of society's fabric worries Cuba watchers.

             ``This breakdown . . . is identical to what happened before the collapse of the
             Soviet Union,'' said the current chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana,
             Michael Kozak, in a recent speech in Dallas.

             ``As matters now stand, I believe there is a grave risk that even if the Castro
             regime manages to avoid an economic collapse before President Castro dies, it
             will produce a chaotic situation . . . within a short period after his demise,'' Kozak

             None of these failures appear to have disheartened Castro, the last communist
             ruler in the Western Hemisphere and one of four left in the world, along with those
             in China, North Korea and Vietnam.

             He not only remains committed to centralized socialism -- and still closes speeches
             with the slogan ``Socialism or Death'' -- but has positioned himself as the leader of
             a campaign to rescue communism for the world.

             Soviet-style communism did not fall because it was flawed, he argues, but because
             it was badly run. And Moscow's current chaos proves that its attempt to shift to a
             market economy was ``the biggest mistake in history.''

             Castro has attacked the privatization of state enterprises as ``savage
             neoliberalism,'' has called the International Monetary Fund ``the kiss of death,''
             and has argued that capitalism will collapse in the next 100 years, if not sooner.

             Globalization is good, Castro says, as long as it means the globalization of socialist
             values, not capitalism.

             As a young prisoner in one of Batista's jails in 1953, Castro wrote an impassioned
             manifesto defending his revolutionary ideals, History Will Absolve Me.

             History may yet do that. But 40 years after he seized power, the first draft of
             history appears headed toward a different verdict.

             Monday: Forty years after Castro seized power, U.S. sanctions designed to impel
             his communist regime toward change are under one of the strongest assaults
             marshaled by public opinion leaders. Some analysts are predicting a nibbling
             around the edges of U.S. policy.