Dallas Morning News
January 20, 2002

Can Cuba's economy hold steady in '02?

Government keeping up drumbeat of optimism; dissidents unconvinced

By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News

HAVANA Global recession threatens much of Latin America, including Cuba, but one of Fidel
Castro's top economic gurus says that the island is ready to meet the challenge.

Trade Minister Ricardo Cabrisas told state-run media recently that few other countries in the world
are as well equipped for crisis as this proud but battered island in the Caribbean.

The Cubans have much experience in crisis management. The island recently has been pummeled by
the worldwide economic downturn, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a slump in tourism, its most
important industry.

Then, in November, Hurricane Michelle struck. Five people were killed, a far smaller toll than that of
Hurricane Flora, which left 1,150 dead in 1963. But the economic damage easily running into the
hundreds of millions of dollars was the worst in a half-century, Cuban officials say.

Still, Mr. Cabrisas, Cuban tourism officials and others in recent days have been upbeat for 2002,
predicting economic growth of 3 percent.

Not everyone believes such cheery expectations. Cuban dissidents say they don't trust the
government's economic numbers and fear that the country is in worse shape than officials
acknowledge.

Much economic data, such as the government's budget, are kept secret, the dissidents say. And most
islanders have access only to state-run newspapers, radio and television, where the message is the
same: The 43-year-old revolution will endure.

Some Cubans look for answers elsewhere, such as Yoruba, a faith imported by African slaves in the
17th century. Yoruba leaders predicted a dreadful 2002 in their annual "Letter of the Year."

But have no fear, they said. Yoruba priests say they have the power to ward off evil using such things
as white roosters, kitchen leftovers and cemetery dirt.

Roberto Broque, a 16-year-old student in Havana, said he doesn't believe in that. He agrees,
however, that this will be a tough year.

"Every year is difficult," he said.

The Cuban economy has gone through tough times since the former Soviet Union cut off billions of
dollars in subsidies a decade ago. The gross domestic product plunged by 35 percent during the
worst years. Dozens of factories and sugar mills closed. Store shelves went bare. Inflation and
unemployment rose.

In serious trouble, officials adopted a series of economic reforms. They greatly expanded the island's
tourist industry, wooed foreign investors and allowed a limited amount of private enterprise. With
those and other measures, they managed to stop the slide, and the economy grew.

Cuban officials say there were some encouraging signs during the first nine months of last year:
Exports grew by 9 percent and imports by 3 percent over 2000.

Still, the island saw a drop in the prices of its key exports, including tobacco, nickel and sugar. The
terrorist attacks and global economic conditions only made things worse, Cubans say.

Two days before the eye of Hurricane Michelle hit the country, Mr. Castro took to the airwaves and
warned his countrymen that 2002 was going to be a year of austerity and belt-tightening.

The storm hit Nov. 4. Tens of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed. More than 1,500
schools were damaged. About 125 high-voltage towers standing more than 130 feet tall and
weighing at least 7 tons each were knocked over, according to Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage.

Radio and television towers also were wrecked. Thousands of phone and electrical cables were
dragged to the ground. Vast tracts of sugar cane and banana crops were flattened.

The hurricane traveled the width of the island, sweeping across 45 percent of the country's territory
where nearly 6 million of Cuba's 11 million inhabitants live.

"The damage will be repaired in record time," Mr. Castro assured Cubans soon afterward.

The country has the resources from bags of cement to corrugated roofing material to rebuild, said
the Cuban president, seen on state-run television leading the recovery effort.

In hard-hit Jaguey Grande, a farm and citrus town 92 miles southeast of Havana, residents say they
have faith that their government will make things right.

Mr. Castro visited the town after the storm, said Juana Seguin, 52, whose roof was destroyed.

"There's no one in the entire world like Fidel, and there won't be for thousands of years," she said.

Almost half the town's homes suffered some damage during the hurricane, which packed gusts of up
to 155 mph.

Maria Alonso and her husband, Emiliano, lost their home of 30 years. Now they live in a ramshackle,
one-room wooden building that somehow survived the storm.

"I've cried more than I can tell you," she said.

The old woman turned and dug out a piece of paper, read the words and began to sing in a soft, lilting
voice.

"Oh, stop that," her husband said gently, and she put the paper away.

On it was a 10-verse Cuban-style country song she wrote for Orlando Gomez, 33, a neighbor from
down the block.

"Orlandito," as she called him, was killed in the storm.

"It's too bad," said Emiliano, taking a sip of strong, sweet coffee. "But we're OK. We'll get through
this. And I think the government will help us rebuild."