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
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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
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,
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
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
The 72-year-old Castro's hands shake occasionally, his beard is gray and
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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,
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
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 --
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
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
are working on everything from AIDS and hepatitis vaccines to new treatments for
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
central theme. ``One cannot say the embargo has had a disastrous impact on the
health of the Cuban people,'' Health Minister Carlos Dotres said.
Cuba's public education system remains an impressive achievement, free
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
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
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
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
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.
ARTS, SPORTS AND CHURCH
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
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
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
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
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
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,
18-year-old Havana student visiting Miami.
And the gap between rich and poor is growing, causing tensions between
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
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
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
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
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
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
values, not capitalism.
As a young prisoner in one of Batista's jails in 1953, Castro wrote an
manifesto defending his revolutionary ideals, History Will Absolve Me.
History may yet do that. But 40 years after he seized power, the first
history appears headed toward a different verdict.
Monday: Forty years after Castro seized power, U.S. sanctions designed
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.