A Cuba of Contradictions

Cuba's revolutionary pains: Many Cubans, from former guerrilla fighters to those living in exile, feel Castro's 40-year rule has fallen short of the paradise he promised.

By David Abel  |  The Ottawa Citizen  |  12/13/1998

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba -- Forty-two years ago, Reinaldo Gonzalez Santana learned through the peasant pipeline that a band of bearded men combing through the Sierra Maestra mountains not far from his small shack were leading a rebellion against the island's thuggish dictator.

As he heard more about the uprising and saw many of his neighbors head into the hills with rifles, the destitute farmer was swept up in the call for a return to democracy and social justice. So it wasn't long before Mr. Gonzalez himself was roving the countryside with the armed rebels and launching attacks against the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista.

When the guerrilla warriors' two-year campaign finally met success on New Years Day in 1959, the hardened rebel returned home a hero and was cheered by jubilant crowds. But the euphoria of victory quickly wore off as Mr. Gonzalez watched his revolution for democracy veer off toward one-man rule and communism.

"They lied to us to get our support," says Mr. Gonzalez, now 74, who adds he would have left if he had the money and could bring his whole family. "Now, they can put me in jail for talking like this. But what do I care? I have nothing left for them to take away. No one has anything, except the generals and Party chiefs. For 40 years we have this guy. He's worse than Stalin. It's time for a change."

As Cuba observes the 40th anniversary of Fidel Castro's ascension to power -- a reign longer than any other Latin American ruler this century -- most Cubans struggle to put enough food on the table, dwell in crumbling buildings and thousands plunge regularly into the seas hoping to join the 1.3 million Cubans already living in the United States.

Even though the island's economy remains in tatters -- devalued by as much as 40 per cent after its benefactor, the Soviet Union, dissolved in 1991 -- and 450,000 applied for U.S. visas just this year, a cadre of loyal Fidelistas remain steadfast in support of their "maximum leader's" call for "socialism or death."

One such card-carrying Communist is Jose Martinez, a 54-year-old engineer from Santiago, the island's second city on its southeast coast. The grey-haired father of two lives in the only freshly painted home on B Street. A few doors down his unpaved road, one of Mr. Martinez's neighbours, a doctor, can't practise medicine because he was caught trying to escape the island; another, a septuagenarian, won't tell a reporter his name for fear of government reprisals; and another neighbor in a ramshackle home dreams of one day joining her children in Miami.

Mr. Martinez, a gentle man who devoutly believes in the revolution, holds a minor, but significant post in the Communist Party. He is the president of his neighbourhood's Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, a 39-year-old island-wide organization often cited as playing a crucial role in perpetuating Mr. Castro's regime.

"The revolution has done a lot for the people of Cuba," says Mr. Martinez, who claims the block-by-block organization serves the purpose of helping needy neighbours, not monitoring people's attitudes and turning in dissenters, as it's known for. "Fidel has accomplished a lot, in spite of the blockade."

The U.S. embargo, frequently cited by Mr. Castro and his cohorts as the chief reason for Cuba's woes, began in 1962 after tensions crested in U.S.-Cuban relations. Mr. Castro believed his large northern neighbour planned to subvert the revolution. And, in fact, it tried.

The United States, the second country after Venezuela to recognize the revolutionary regime, quickly lost faith in Mr. Castro after his rebels executed about 200 Batista officials within three weeks (British historian Sir Hugh Thomas estimates Mr. Castro's government executed 5,000 people by 1970), expropriated almost all U.S. and foreign-owned property, and began shutting down critical media and silencing other critics.

Four decades later, the now 72-year-old Cuban leader has survived multiple invasions including the botched U.S.-planned 1961 Bay of Pigs assault, countless assassination attempts that included CIA-engineered exploding cigars, and the isolation and enmity of eight U.S. presidents.

Today, Mr. Castro is credited by loyalists like Mr. Martinez with significantly improving the island's healthcare and education systems. The defiant ruler himself often boasts of his regime's success in dramatically lowering the island's infant mortality rate to 7.2 per 1,000 births, boosting life expectancy to 75.3 years and increasing the number of doctors to one per 160 people.

Mr. Castro also touts such education advances as the island's nearly 96-per- cent literacy rate, the highest in Latin America, one teacher for every 13.7 students and one of the highest enrollment rates in the hemisphere -- 96 per cent of all students go through to the Grade 6.

But because of the government's lack of accountability, critics question the reliability of Mr. Castro's numbers. Doubts have long been raised about the quality of doctors' training and the value of an education heavily influenced by party doctrine.

"There's really no way to prove what the government publishes, and statistics are definitely distorted in a favourable way," said Diosmel Rodriguez Vega, a former government statistician forced last year into exile in Miami. "There is pressure to make the revolution appear to be succeeding."

There is also the "Animal Farm" effect, or the tendency for the Communist Party to rewrite history, when convenient, in a way similar to the pigs in George Orwell's classic allegory. Most recently, for example, the party announced that the revolution was never anti-religious, despite years of exiling priests, persecuting worshipers and banning believers from its ranks.

Another example is the long-reviled tourism industry. When Mr. Castro came to power, he denounced tourism as a symbol of Batista-era decadence and for spawning rampant prostitution. Today, however, Cuba welcomes more than twice as many tourists as it did before Mr. Castro -- with about 1.2 million visitors pumping in $1.5 billion in 1997 -- and the resurgence of prostitution has helped make the communist island popular for "sex tourism."

Other such examples abound. But the most glaring one is the widespread use of U.S. dollars, formerly the symbol of all evil in Communist Cuba. Once a crime that brought time in jail, now Cubans can barely survive without using dollars. The average monthly salary of 207 pesos -- $9.85 -- doesn't buy much in Cuba, where everything from soap to toilet paper is hard to get unless bought in stores that only accept dollars.

"It's so pathetic really after 40 years that Cuba has become what it has become," says Ninoska Perez, of the powerful anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. "It's really like Animal Farm with all the contradictions. Cubans can build hotels but they can't stay in them. Children after seven years can't get fresh milk, but tourists can have it whenever they want. Is that the paradise Castro had in mind?"

Beneath the awnings of the Maximo Gomez Domino Club off Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) in Miami's Little Havana, clumps of counterrevolutionaries -- aging men who have schemed much of their lives to end Mr. Castro's rule and still dream of returning to their tropical homeland -- slap scuffed dominoes on stone tables and mutter in Spanish.

Norberto Pino, a 70-year-old retired factory worker who fled Cuba in 1962, like the many exiles who come here to play dominoes or cards, once was a fervent supporter of the revolution. He even named his son Fidel and daughter Victoria Libertad, who was born the same day Mr. Batista escaped and the revolution triumphed. But like Mr. Gonzalez, his enthusiasm soon soured.

Now he passes his days pining for his country and playing hands of gin rummy. Behind him is a painted mural of presidents and prime ministers from the Americas. Leaders from Chile to Canada are depicted in colourful hues. But one country's head of state is missing: Cuba's Castro.

"I have four brothers and cousins who still live on the island, and they have nothing," Mr. Pino says. "It's (Castro's) fault. And my daughter and son have to live with the mark of the revolution every day. It's a shame what has happened."

Course of the revolution:

- Jan. 1, 1959: Dictator Fulgencio Batista flees and Fidel Castro's rebels take power.

- May 17, 1959: A land reform law leads to friction with United States.

- February 1960: Soviet Foreign Minister Anastas Mikoyan visits Cuba and signs sugar and oil deals. They were the first of many pacts during next 30 years.

- June 1960: Cuba nationalizes US-owned oil refineries after they refuse to process Soviet oil. Nearly all other US businesses are expropriated by October.

- July 6, 1960: President Eisenhower slashes US import quota for Cuban sugar.

- October 1960: Washington bans exports to Cuba, other than food and medicine.

- Jan. 3, 1961: The US Embassy in Havana closes.

- April 16, 1961: Castro declares Cuba a socialist state.

- April 17, 1961: Almost 1,300 Cuban exiles supported by the CIA invade at Bay of Pigs; the attack collapses two days later.

- Jan. 22, 1962: Cuba is suspended from the Organization of American States; Cuba responds with call for armed revolt across Latin America.

- Feb, 7, 1962: Washington bans all Cuban imports.

- March 19, 1962: Food rationing begins in Cuba.

- October 1962: President Kennedy blockades Cuba to force the removal of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles; Soviets agree within days and Kennedy agrees privately not to invade Cuba.

- March 1968: Castro's government takes over almost all private businesses other than small farms.

- July 1972: Cuba joins Comecon, Soviet-led economic bloc.

- November 1974: High-level US and Cuban officials open secret talks; the effort to improve ties fails.

- April 1980: A refugee crisis starts at the port of Mariel as Cuba says it will let anyone leave; about 125,000 flee by the end of September.

- December 1984: A US-Cuba immigration agreement is signed.

- December 1991: The collapse of the Soviet Union ends extensive aid to and trade with Cuba, whose economic output plunges 35 percent by 1994.

- Aug. 14, 1993: Cuba ends a ban on the use of dollars, encouraging Cubans to receive funds from abroad and from a growing tourism industry. Small-scale private businesses are legalized in September.

- October 1992: Congress tightens the US embargo of Cuba.

- August 1994: Castro declares he will not stop Cubans trying to leave; about 40,000 take to the sea heading for United States. An expanded US-Cuba migration agreement is signed in September.

- Oct. 1, 1994: Private farmers' markets are created to help solve food shortages.

- Feb. 24, 1996: Cubans shoot down planes operated by the dissident group Brothers to the Rescue.

- March 12, 1996: The US Helms-Burton Act imposes penalties on foreign companies using confiscated US property in Cuba.

- January 1998: Pope John Paul II visits Cuba.

Farmers Rebel

By David Abel  |  The San Francisco Chronicle  |  11/15/1998

LOMA DEL GATO, Cuba - The long, muddy trail down from Antonio Alonso Perez's thatched-roof shack passes stretches of abandoned state farms and leads to an emerald valley where once-friendly villagers now slam doors and turn their backs on this dissident vegetable farmer.

The 34-year-old father of four, who lives in a one-room hovel made of tree limbs and packed dirt, is among a growing group of restive farmers that the authorities have branded as subversives bent on corrupting the country.

"They say we shouldn't let them into our houses," says Nanci, 30, who lives along the trail and is afraid to give her last name. "They say they will bring problems. That they are counterrevolutionaries."

Forty years after Fidel Castro incited peasants here in Cuba's heartland to take up arms against the government, Alonso and hundreds of farmers across the island are rising up against Castro's government. This time, however, their weapons are borrowed plowshares and the labor of skinny cows.

The lanky farmer's rebellion began on May 5, 1997, when he and 10 peasant families founded a work cooperative named Transicion and declared they would no longer do business with the government.

The goal of the cooperative was to foster drastic changes in Cuba's agricultural policy of four decades. Transicion, soon joined by two more cooperatives in Guantanamo and Havana, has demanded the government allow farmers to decide what crops to plant, end fixed prices and quotas, and let farmers sell their merchandise where they want and to whom they want.

The farmers also want to sell directly to foreign markets, to hire paid labor, and to raise and slaughter cattle and other livestock at their discretion.

"Forty years have passed and we are witnessing the massive level of impoverishment to which our entire nation has fallen," Alonso said, while checking the coffee crops on his portion of Transicion's 400 acres of land.

"We have gone to meeting after meeting, and nothing has come out as a concrete accomplishment for farmers. We have been told the same tall tale that draws on history and has no future. Well, we could wait no longer," Alonso said.

In Communist's Cuba's centrally planned economy, farmers have little choice but to comply with the state's wishes. Independent farmers like Alonso, those not working on a state farm or a government-sanctioned cooperative, are obliged to sell up to 80 percent of their harvest to the state at a fixed price, well below what they would earn on the market.

Those who do not fulfill their government contracts can be slapped with stiff fines. The renegade farmers believe it's unfair the state pays them a fraction of what it charges consumers for their produce.

If they grow mangoes, for example, the farmers can expect about 7 pesos (35 cents) per 100 pounds from the state, which sells the same quantity to buyers for 50 pesos.

For milk, the government pays farmers 35 centavos (100 centavos makes one peso) per liter and then charges consumers about 25 pesos. And for a high-end product like tobacco, farmers earn about 150 pesos, or $7.50, for the equivalent of a box of 25 Cohiba cigars. The government gets as much as $300 a carton for the famous puros in hotels and other places where tourists shop.

'We want to put the products on the market that are in our interest. We want the right price for our work. We should have a say in this," says Transicion president Jorge Bejar Baltazar, 53, who wears a straw Stetson, spurs on his mud-caked boots and whose education ended at the eighth grade.

Bejar and Alonso, the cooperative's vice president, have not been timid about promoting Transicion's goals. And the government's response came swiftly.

A week after the members of Transicion declared their independence,
officials fined each family 500 pesos - about three months' worth of an average Cuban's pay - for "improperly using the land," Alonso said. Shortly after, Bejar said, he was fined 350 pesos for having the improper male-to-female ratio of cattle. Both he and Alonso said they were also expelled from a small farmers association.

Among other forms of harassment, including interrogations of cooperative members at the local police headquarters and warning villagers not to associate with these "agents of foreign influence," officials made it difficult for the farmers to operate.

The tractor that tilled many of the cooperative's fields was banned from entering their farms and the black market soon became the only means of buying seeds, fertilizers and tools, obtaining heavy machines and selling produce.

"They're doing something they shouldn't," said farmer Hieronide Plana, 73, one of Alonso's neighbors who sells the vegetables he grows to the state.
"The people are obliged to cooperate with the state to work for the benefit of everybody. Before the revolution, there was no security. Now everyone has something to live on. ... What they are doing threatens our system."

But cooperative members believe they are working within the system. They say the seeds of their rebellion were planted by Fidel Castro just before he seized power on Jan. 1, 1959. Still in his Sierra Maestra secret headquarters not far from Loma del Gato, the bearded rebel signed Revolutionary Law 1, granting tenant farmers, sharecroppers and squatters title to the land they worked.

The act, which sanctioned privately owned farms like Alonso's, tripled the island's number of rural private-property owners, leaving more than 50 percent owning plots.

Today, however, fewer than 4 percent of farmers are landowners. Over time, as Communism took a foothold in Cuba, Castro's regime pressured the new class of private farmers to give up their newly acquired land and join the Soviet-modeled state farms or pool their plots with other farmers to form government-managed production cooperatives.

While many willingly joined the socialist economy, and benefited from state-subsidized housing, schools, health facilities, day care centers and guaranteed pensions, a sizeable group refused to leave their land.

The emergence of farmers' markets in 1981 - which for the first time since the revolution allowed supply and demand to determine profits, and significantly boosted private farmer's income - increased their resolve to remain on their own.

Despite continued efforts to integrate the holdouts, the antagonism increased in 1986 when Castro closed the markets and promised to "wage a battle" against the private farmers, claiming they had become millionaires. (Alonso says he scrapes by on about $10 a month.)

Though the markets returned in 1994, after massive food shortages followed the collapse of Cuba's prime benefactor, the Soviet Union, the tension remains.

"The Transicion cooperative isn't just a piece of land and a band of farmers. It's an idea, a goal, the age-old dream of peasants which can now become a reality by directly defying those who would deny us the most basic right of all - the right to eat," says Diosmel Rodriguez Vega, who founded the cooperative movement after being released from a three-year prison sentence in1996 for "distributing enemy propaganda."

"We cannot continue waiting for government approval. To do so would condemn us to dragging the same chains that have weighed us down for so many years."

For Alonso, who has his phone calls interrupted by government monitors and often confronts scowling officials along the winding trail to his modest mountaintop home, the tension is no longer an issue.

"What else can they do to me?" he wondered. "They follow me, harass me and have taken away almost everything I have. I won't let them take away my dignity."

Copyright, The San Francisco Chronicle

Cuba’s Second Revolution

By David Abel  |  Miami New Times  |  2/15/1998

Wearing his best shirt and clasping hands with his wife and two young sons, Diosmel Rodriguez Vega entered America with a strained smile that melted into tears as supporters surrounded him at Miami International Airport. After the hugs and cheers, a throng of journalists pressed forward to interview the slight, bespectacled man. The exiled dissident didn't mince words. "I had no intention of abandoning my country," he said as he made his way through the terminal that August afternoon in 1997. "The government said I was persona non grata and that I couldn't continue living in Cuba. They told me I had to leave."

The previous month state security agents had arrested the 44-year-old Rodriguez at his home in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba and taken him to prison. But the authorities couldn't send the former army accountant and onetime government statistician off to anonymous detention, the fate of many political prisoners; Rodriguez had already made a name for himself in the foreign press.

An outspoken critic of the Castro regime, he had organized scores of followers in 1993 who handed out leaflets urging voters to boycott that year's presidential elections. For "distributing enemy propaganda," he was sent to Santiago's infamous hilltop Boniato prison, where Castro himself once served time for rising up against Fulgencio Batista. But in prison Rodriguez attracted even more media attention. From 1993 to 1996 he went on a dozen hunger strikes, one of which lasted 40 days.

So in July 1997, authorities kept him in custody for just a week before telling him he had fifteen days to pack his belongings, obtain U.S. visas for his family, say goodbye to relatives and friends, and leave Cuba forever. "They said I was a suspicious person, that I was spreading false rumors abroad that there was an outbreak of conjunctivitis in Santiago," said Rodriguez, making sure reporters took note of the inflammation in his younger son's and wife's eyes. In fact he'd written articles on the outbreak of dengue, another extremely contagious disease, for an exile-run Internet news service in Miami. Then he added: "They said nothing about the resistance, even though it's becoming the largest movement on the island."

Rodriguez held his little boys tightly. His wife, overwhelmed by the barrage of cameras and microphones, told reporters she was nervous and hoped now the family would have a little peace. But the dissident still had his mind on rebellion. One day, he said, he would return home. "What we have done is nothing less than create a tremendous resistance against the government ... and lay the foundation to create true social justice."

THAT RESISTANCE, WHICH FORCED the Rodriguez family into exile, threatens to strike at the heart of Cuba's economy: Private farmers in three provinces have organized independent collectives and are refusing to do business with the government.

How did a military man come to lose faith with communism and persuade farmers across the country to join him in nonviolent rebellion? His views began to shift in the Seventies, after he'd graduated from Santiago's Oriente University, he said in an interview late last year. Rodriguez was among the hundreds of thousands of Cubans sent to Angola in support of the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola during that country's civil war. By day, as accountant Rodriguez reviewed army expenditures, Cuban soldiers were brought back from the fields limp and bloody, he recalls; by night the generals and bureaucrats swilled Havana Club and smoked Cohibas sent from the island especially for them.

When he returned home to Santiago in 1980, Rodriguez left the army and became head statistician of the province's Ministry of Construction. But the pay, about thirteen dollars per month, was barely enough to live on. So like many accomplished Cubans, he quit his government post to take a less prestigious but better paying job. He found work as a state-licensed taxi driver, earning more in a week than he did per month in his previous position. "As a taxi driver, I was exposed to a lot of people," he recalls. "I got to learn the way they think — everyone from professionals to marginal people — and that helped me develop my political ideas." He also credits the U.S. operated Radio Martí, as well as a steady stream of anti-Communist articles in newly critical Soviet newspapers that made it to Cuba in the late Eighties. In 1989 he quit the Communist Party altogether. "I started to question the system," he explains. "There's a point when you can no longer be passive. You have to act." "We wanted to let the campesinos know it isn't wrong to sell your merchandise for the price you want, to the place you want."

Three years later he organized a small political party, the Followers of Chibás Party, named after Eduardo Chibás, the senator who in 1951 committed suicide following a national radio address to awaken Cubans to his calls for social justice. Rodriguez and fellow party members began distributing thousands of leaflets in Santiago, first before the December 1992 provincial elections and then in advance of the February 1993 presidential vote. But the government seized the pamphlets and threw Rodriguez into prison. When they released him in 1996, he was blackballed from employment and forced to rely on relatives to stay alive. Unrepentant, he resumed his political activities, reorganizing and renaming his party. He drafted a new platform, the "Popular Program of National Salvation," which called for democracy, free markets, and a return to the ideals laid out in Cuba's 1940 constitution.

Like Chibás, who once mentored Fidel Castro in politics, Rodriguez set out to galvanize grassroots support. But rather than recruiting professionals and intellectuals in Santiago, as he'd tried before, this time he left the city and ventured into the crinkled peaks and emerald valleys of the coastal Sierra Maestra mountains, where José Martí had led his uprising against Spain and where Castro armed peasants to overthrow Batista. The impoverished campesinos in the remote hills surrounding Santiago have long been known for asserting their independence. And Rodriguez believed that the region's private farmers — a small group who owned their land and who had gained much at the outset of the revolution, only to lose almost everything four decades later — might take a stand with him against the state's rigid controls.

"It's not easy to motivate people to fight," he said in his cramped apartment near Miami International Airport. "Cubans are so drowned in politics, it's the last thing they want to think about. People would prefer to get on a small boat and risk their lives rather than organize against the government.... But this was a cause people could believe in. It's about the right to live and eat."

Eventually he tracked down Antonio Alonso Perez,
a former Chibás Party member who'd fled Santiago after the government crackdown. He found the 33-year-old engineer living in squalor with his wife and four boys atop a lush hill in Loma del Gato, an almost inaccessible section of the Sierras crisscrossed by hundreds of acres of state farmland abandoned in the post-Soviet "special period." A poorly thatched roof covered the family's one-room home; the walls were built of branches and caked mud; there was no electricity. They had to walk at least a mile to fetch water from a local stream, and even farther to the nearest village, Songo-La Maya. Their prize possession: an old Soviet-made, battery-powered radio.

Alonso, whose family has owned a 40-acre farm since 1926, was living quietly, growing corn, coffee, and other crops. Extreme destitution and bitterness, however, made him receptive to Rodriguez's plans for an agrarian revolt. The two men fanned out in Loma del Gato to try to persuade Alonso's neighbors to join them. They avoided speaking in political terms. "All we want, we explained, was to let the campesinos know that it isn't wrong to want to sell your merchandise — the products of your choosing — for the price you want, to the place you want," Rodriguez recounts. Eventually ten farmers of Loma del Gato agreed to join Alonso and refused to turn over their harvests or otherwise do business with the state. It was a risky stance, as the government is the sole supplier of seeds, fertilizers, and equipment. Their only weapons would be borrowed plowshares and the labor of underfed cattle.

Over the next few months the united peasants, who controlled about 400 acres, began calling for changes in local and state agricultural policies. They rose before local workers' councils to demand growers be allowed to decide what crops to plant. They argued for an end to quotas and price fixing. And they pleaded for the right to be able to sell their crops to whomever they chose. "This system is slavery. [Farmers] work for the state like slaves. They put you in jail if you lose a cow. It's my cow!"

The following year, in May 1997, the ten families of Loma del Gato took a bolder step. They formed a collective, calling it La Cooperativa Transición, and began to share equipment, labor, and long-term plans. Transición called for the right to sell directly to foreign markets, to hire paid labor, and raise and slaughter cattle and other livestock at their discretion. (The unauthorized killing of a cow carries a penalty of up to twenty years in prison. If someone steals a campesino's cow, a common offense in the countryside, the farmer who loses the animal must pay a 500-peso fine.)

Rodriguez and Alonso also took their message beyond Santiago, and in September 1997, campesinos in Bejuquera de Filipinas, in Guantánamo province, banded together to create their own independent cooperative, Progreso I. By then, of course, Rodriguez was in exile in Miami. The next month, Transición and Progreso I united under an umbrella organization, La Alianza Nacional de Agricultores Independientes de Cuba (the National Alliance of Independent Farmers). In February 1998 farmers in San José de las Lajas, in Havana province, formed a third group, Progreso II, and joined the alliance. From Florida Rodriguez can do little more than send about a hundred dollars each month to support expenses for items such as seed and fertilizer.

"We want to put the products on the market that are in our interest," says 53-year-old Jorge Bejar Baltazar,
president of Transición, while checking the coffee crop on a portion of the cooperative's 400 acres this past summer. "We want the right price for our work. We should have a say in this. Now the state tells us what we get.... We're working barefoot, poorly dressed, and without food. We want liberty."

Bejar and Alonso, the cooperative's vice president, were not timid about promoting Transición's goals. They sent letters to party officials; to the president of the National Assembly (the island's congress); and to the president of the National Association of Small Farmers, which regulates private farms like Alonso's. In retaliation they have been summoned for questioning at police headquarters in Songo-La Maya, in the valley below Loma del Gato, and subjected to harassment.

"This system is slavery," Bejar says. "[Farmers] work for the state like slaves. They put you in jail if you lose a cow. It's my cow! Is that not an abuse of power? Here you're the boss of nothing. If tourists want to buy something from me, I should be able to sell it for the price I want."

EACH FARM MUST SELL UP TO 80 percent of its harvest to the state at a fixed price. The remaining 20 percent may be divided between what the family needs and what it can sell at government-controlled farmers' markets, known as mercados agropecuarios. The markets, which had been shut down for nearly a decade, reopened in 1994 as an emergency measure to motivate farmers to make more food available during the shortages after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Like many growers throughout Cuba, members of the independent cooperatives say they want to sell a greater percentage of their harvests at the mercados. (Since 1997 they've been barred from selling at the farmers' markets altogether.)

The farmers complain, too, about the significant disparity between what the government pays farmers and what it later charges its own consumers. A farmer who grows mangoes can expect to get 7 pesos (about 35 cents) per 100 pounds from the state, which then sells the same quantity to consumers for 50 pesos. For milk, a scarce commodity in Cuba, the government pays farmers less than two cents per liter but charges consumers more than a dollar, almost three days' worth of the average monthly salary of less than ten dollars. For a valuable product such as tobacco,
the margin widens even further between wholesale and retail prices, especially when the target market is tourists, who number more than a million per year and who in 1997 pumped more than one billion dollars into the island's economy. Tobacco farmers earn about 150 pesos, or $7.50, for the equivalent of a box of 25 Cohibas. Tourists spend around $300 per box for the famous puros. More than half of the nation's farmers took title to the land they worked. It created one of communist Cuba's nagging aberrations.

Forced compliance is another issue. At the beginning of the growing season, an official visits each farm to draw up a contract for the coming harvest. The farmer is told not only what to grow, but how much the state expects. The farmer who doesn't meet his quota faces a fine (barring a natural disaster, such as a hurricane.) If a coffee farmer, for example, must deliver 100 cans of coffee beans at the end of the month but only delivers 80, he is fined the price the government would have paid for each, multiplied by ten pesos.

Central planning, bureaucratic management, and little room for individual initiative, Bejar says, have stalled the agricultural economy. "Some have managed to carve out a little autonomy in the system and produce farm products at subsistence levels while secretly selling whatever they can in an underground economy to survive," he explains. "But this is no way to live, and no way for an economy to produce enough food for its people."

Once Transición has acquired enough profits, members hope to build new homes and modern irrigation systems, electrify their farms, and purchase tractors and trucks. But that goal is distant at best. The problem, of course, is money. The Cuban constitution doesn't specifically ban the farmers' actions, Bejar and other cooperative members insist, but faced with official opposition and harassment, and only a trickle of cash from Miami, the farmers have made do with what they can buy and sell on the black market. People often walk long distances and climb steep hills to buy their yuca, corn, taro roots, or avocados. But the trips are worthwhile; the farmers' prices undercut the government's, even those at the mercados.

Since he joined the cooperative, Alonso has scraped by, earning a monthly average of about ten dollars, roughly the same as he brought in while working for the state. With the added incentive of cooperatives selling as much as they can produce, he believes they could become profitable and ultimately surpass production of state cooperatives. "Almost 40 years have passed, and we're witnessing the massive level of impoverishment to which our entire nation has fallen," he said while leading a tour of his farm this past year. "We've gone to meeting after meeting, and nothing has come out as a solid accomplishment for farmers. We've been told the same tall tale that draws on history and has no future. Well, we could wait no longer."

THE SEEDS FOR THE CURRENT UPRISING, ironically, were sown by Fidel Castro shortly before he seized power in 1959. Still leading the battle against Batista from his Sierra Maestra mountain hideout, he acted on a promise he'd made five years earlier, during a speech to the judges who condemned him for his bloody attack on Santiago's Moncada army barracks. At the time he denounced Cuba's prerevolutionary agricultural system, which left many peasants undernourished, unemployed, and under constant threat of eviction.

So he signed into law a radical reform granting tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and squatters titles to the land they worked. The decree tripled the number of the island's rural private-property owners, with more than 50 percent of the nation's farmers finally owning their own plots. It also created one of communist Cuba's nagging aberrations.

Since then the government has whittled away the peasants' holdings. In 1963 Castro announced a second agrarian reform, which limited private farms to 165 acres. Those that exceeded the limit were simply expropriated and eventually incorporated into Soviet-inspired massive state farms. He introduced restrictions on farm operations as well. Farm owners could only sell their land to the government; they could not decide what crops to plant, nor could they buy seeds, fertilizers, or tools from anyone but the state. They had to sell the major portion of their harvests to the state at fixed prices. Later regulations included fines for not honoring government contracts, limits on the amount buyers could purchase, sales taxes, and an annual tax on gross income.

As Soviet influence neared its peak in the mid-Seventies, the state pressured all private farmers to sell their land to state farms, which by then accounted for more than 80 percent of Cuba's arable land. (The Alonso family remains among the approximately four percent of the island's farmers who have refused the state's repeated prodding and are still private landowners.) But after food-production shortages and a worsening general economy that culminated in the Mariel boatlift in 1980, the Castro regime reversed its policy. The few remaining independent farmers were encouraged not to sell their land to the state after all, but to combine their assets by pooling their farms' resources and forming government-run cooperatives. In exchange they were promised modern housing, schools and health facilities, low-interest loans, and priority access to machines and construction materials. After Transición declared it would no longer sell its harvest to the state, each family was fined 500 pesos.

Today there are three types of government-sanctioned farms that make up the island's agricultural sector. The state farms, once predominant, are run by the Ministry of Agriculture. Now, however, the state farm system comprises less than 30 percent of Cuba's arable land. Years of overworking the land and the allure of city life have left tracts of land, like those near Alonso's farm, lying fallow.

The second, and most prevalent agricultural organizations are the government-run cooperatives. There are two basic kinds: those whose members lease the land they farm, and those whose members own their land. Together they control approximately 51 percent of the island's arable land.

Unlike Diosmel Rodriguez's independent cooperatives, the state-run cooperatives sell most of their production to the government, harvest what they are told to plant, and remain part of a looser, but still centrally planned, economy.

The third allowable agricultural sector includes the private farms, which account for about fifteen percent of the land. But most of those belong to Credit and Service Cooperatives, formed in 1961 for those who wanted to take advantage of government resources but didn't want to give up their land to the state farms. The remaining landowners, like Alonso, have had little association with the state other than production contracts and the myriad rules and regulations.

Despite the incentives and promises offered by the government in the early Eighties, the independent farmers refused to relinquish control of their land. And according to a University of Havana study from 1990, they complained about the cooperatives' low profitability and insufficient autonomy. Besides, the creation of the mercados agropecuarios in 1981 — which for the first time since the revolution allowed supply and demand to determine profits, and where they could earn extra income — added to their resolve. But five years later the government closed the mercados in a further effort to coerce farmers into joining the state cooperatives.

"The day is not too far off ... when we can say that 100 percent of [private] farmers are in cooperatives," said Castro in a 1988 speech. "We are waging a battle against them."

Food shortages that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's primary benefactor, would bring back the mercados agropecuarios in 1994. But there were differences. Cooperative members could sell surplus produce, but now they needed state certificates proving they had met their established quotas, and a fifteen percent tax was added to their market sales. Although the government has admitted the failure of central planning by replacing the state farms with government cooperatives and bringing back the mercados, the independent farmers believe the reforms were too little too late.

A week after Transición declared it would no longer sell its harvest to the government
in a letter sent to Cuba's National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón, in May 1997, each family was fined 500 pesos (nearly three months' salary) for "improperly using the land," Alonso says. Bejar was fined an additional 350 pesos for having the improper ratio of male-to-female cattle. Then officials banned the operator of the village's lone tractor from entering Transición farms. And word began to spread, as often happens when dissidents become too vocal in Cuba, that the cooperative members were "enemies of the state," "agents of foreign influence," even "terrorists."

"They're doing something they shouldn't," said Hieronide Plana this past summer. The 73-year-old lives with his wife in a tiny house without a roof a few miles from Alonso, where he still works as a private farmer and operates within the system, selling his produce to the state. "The people are obliged to cooperate with the state to work for the benefit of everybody," he added. "Before the revolution there was no security. Now everyone has something to live on.... I have a doctor, a pension, and two educated daughters who are high school teachers. That wouldn't have been true before the revolution. People have to work together, not for themselves. What they're doing threatens our system."

THAT AUGUST, AFTER RODRIGUEZ was forced into exile, officials summoned Bejar and Alonso to Songo-La Maya and expelled them from the island's small-farmers association. "They mounted a show trial of sorts, where all they did was insult me and present all sorts of lies about me," Alonso said. "They were set on expelling me because they said if they didn't, our views could infect the others." The two Transición leaders and their neighbors were later interrogated at the village's police headquarters. Province officials later undertook what amounted to an internal economic blockade. It became impossible for the independent cooperatives to buy seeds, fertilizers, and tools, or to use heavy machines. And unable to get the proper certificates, the cooperative members could no longer sell their produce at the mercados. Officials forced Hernandez to uproot a tobacco crop; he was, they said, using improper seeds.

But the farmers were not discouraged, even as they struggled to survive. Alonso prepared to celebrate
the first anniversary of Transición last year at his farm in Loma del Gato. He planned to invite members from the other independent cooperatives and independent journalists as well, but the festivities never took place. Reynaldo Hernandez Perez, president of the cooperative's umbrella organization and leader of Progreso I in Guantánamo, was arrested in Havana while delivering invitations. Two days before the party Hernandez was arrested again. The government also arrested Bejar and summoned Alonso and a half-dozen cooperative leaders to police headquarters. Police even barricaded the path up to Loma del Gato.

This past October the authorities again called Alonso and two other Transición members to Songo-La Maya, where security agents warned them they could be tried for "illegal" activities. A month later in Las Tunas, police interrogated and threatened a member of the National Alliance of Independent Farmers; in Guantánamo, officials forced Hernandez to uproot a recently planted tobacco crop after they said he was using improper seeds. While the government has yet to shut down the farmers' experiment, the atmosphere in the Sierras remains tense.

But Rodriguez is committed to expanding his movement and believes his path is the future. "The government has condemned us to dragging the same chains that have weighed us down for so many years," he maintains. "The only answer is to organize and to stay committed to our goals of a Cuba where the people control the government, and the government ... does not control the people."

Copyright, NewTimes, Inc.

Lobster is Too Rich for Regime

Cuba Puts Squeeze on Private Enterprise

By David Abel

The Houston Chronicle

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba -- The swarm of houseflies still buzz about Mireya Galan's small dining room, but there's no longer any food to nibble or patrons to pester. Cuba's government, once tepid to the rise of small, private businesses, has turned frigid again.

The 53-year-old former hairdresser watched four years of work cultivating a clientele and investing in home improvements go to waste as nearly a dozen police officers recently trooped into her house, slapped her with a stiff fine and declared her private restaurant closed.

Galan, whose 12-seat home restaurant, known as a paladar, was shut down in the first week of July for illegally selling seafood, is just one more victim of the communist government's campaign to rein in its nascent experiment with capitalism.

"We are part of a new class that has been able to earn money," Galan said. "The government doesn't like that. So they're putting us out of business." The government crackdown isn't personal or local.

The day before police compelled Galan remove the Paladar Mireya sign hanging in front of her narrow house on Padre Pico Street, the official government weekly newspaper Trabajadores outlined tougher rules for self-employed workers, whose numbers have dropped to around 154,000 from more than 200,000 three years ago.

The squeeze on private enterprise, which was legalized in 1993 as part of a response to the economic devastation caused by the collapse of Cuba's benefactor, the Soviet Union, has steadily tightened in the past couple of years: Inspections are more frequent, monthly license fees have increased and strict rules are more regularly enforced.

Government demanding dollars

When Galan first received authorization to open her restaurant in 1994, she had to pay the government 1,000 pesos (about $50) every month and abide by regulations that included limiting seating to 12, not serving expensive foods such as steak or seafood and purchasing cans of soda and beer from stores that only accept dollars.

Large bottles, which can have their contents divided, are banned because the way the drinks are sold can't be controlled.
A couple of years later, her two monthly payments were up to 1,600 pesos plus $600.

The rules issued in August force paladars and all other private businesses that accept hard currency to pay the government completely in dollars, making it more difficult to serve peso-paying Cubans.

Previously, paladars and other dollar-collecting businesses had to pay 75 percent of their monthly quota in dollars.

One measure of the crackdown on self-employed workers is the dwindling number of paladars here in Santiago, Cuba's second city.

Former paladar owners in downtown Santiago such as Hilda Ballesta, whose restaurant was closed in April because she couldn't provide inspectors with receipts for four sodas in her refrigerator, said there were as many as 16 paladars in the city's center. Now there are three.

"They think we're millionaires," said Ballesta, 47, who once peddled caramel candies on Santiago's closest beach. "But with all the taxes, we were lucky to still make a profit."

While state inspectors frequently drop in on paladars and other private enterprises to check the books and make sure business isn't too brisk, they do little to oversee the conditions of those in whose name the revolution was fought - the workers.

Workers get little help

State regulations usually prohibit self-employed workers from hiring help. In the case of paladars, which have to pay the government an additional monthly fee of $75 per worker, proprietors can hire family members as employees.
But the rules are routinely violated, and non-family members often work under the table.

That allows for shoddy working conditions. There is no union for employees of private enterprises nor is there much enforcement of labor laws to ensure that employers do not exploit their workers.

Caridad, 40, a former librarian who has worked for the past few months as a housekeeper in one of Santiago's remaining paladars, was dusting a shelf in tears one afternoon.

The single mother, who travels more than two hours on a packed, rickety bus every morning to arrive at the paladar by 7:30, said her employer has repeatedly threatened to fire her if she arrives late.

"I would quit if I could, but there's no other option," said Caridad, who makes 250 pesos ($12.50) a month at the paladar. She said she would make 100 pesos a month doing the same job for the state. "Sometimes I have to stay extra hours and my pay is the same. But there's nothing I can do. I have to accept what they tell me to do."

The government squeeze affects more than home restaurants. There are 157 categories of trades, crafts and services in which the government allows people to operate independently.

And the new regulations go beyond converting pesos into dollars. Government labor officials will now question aspiring self-employed workers about how they intend to obtain the raw materials to practice their trade, and where they will get the tools and equipment to do so.

'The enemy of private business'

Inspectors will also refuse self-employment licenses to jobless, able workers if state employment is available for them in their region.

The rules also specifically prohibit self-employed workers, such as carpenters, upholsterers and mattress makers, from forming associations for "production and commercialization."

Emilio de Los Angeles Hinojosa, 31, a former laboratory administrator now working on his own repairing shoes, wasn't sure how the new regulations would affect him. But he was certain the government was moving to hamper the new independent sector.

"Socialism is the enemy of private business," he said. "But the government's actions are filled with contradictions. If we disappear, the people have nowhere else to go."

The trade union newspaper, which is run by the Communist Party, said the new regulations were a correction to revise previous errors. The government defends the new guidelines by arguing that a socialist state must be vigilant against private enterprise so that state-resources are not illegally diverted.

Officials also claim that taxes on self-employed workers are justified to offset the greater income they have compared with state employees.

For Mireya Galan, who returned to independently cutting and setting hair to make a living, running a private restaurant was profitable. After costs, she said she earned about $500 a month, more than 50 times the average Cuban monthly income.

Several years ago the soft-spoken former maitre d' converted her bedroom into the paladar's cramped dining room. Now, hunching over one of the eatery's empty tables, Galan says she knows why the government is curtailing its previous opening.
"People with money have a voice," Galan said. "The government won't permit that."

Copyright, The Houston Chronicle

Golfing in Cuba

Cuba's First New 18-Hole Course Under Castro

By David Abel


VARADERO, Cuba -- First came the flood of dollar bills, nearly forcing the peso into extinction as a national currency. Then the T-shirts, key chains and other trinkets merchandising the notorious revolutionary martyr, Ernesto (Che) Guevara.

The Marxist state's most recent bow to bourgeois capitalism, however, required a long-term government investment: a $5 million seaside golf course.

"This was a logical extension of the tourist industry in Cuba," said Roberto Garcia, the golf course's director. "Tourists on vacation want amenities. That's what we're providing."

The Varadero Golf Club, which opened in April, is the first 18-hole golf course to be built in Cuba since the revolution triumphed in 1959. At least six more golf courses are being planned throughout the island, Garcia said.

Rigoberto Montero, 31, a caddy who spent several years learning to manage textile factories in East Germany and who at one point gave tours of the Comandancia de la Plata, the revolution's headquarters in the Sierra Maestra mountains, winced when he first learned about the new golf course.

Then he heard about the money. Although his salary as a caddy is about $8 a month, near average for Cuban workers, he says he makes the equivalent of between $5 and $15 in tips per 18 holes.

"Sure, this is a little different," said Montero, who recently took a crash course in golf and can now casually instruct tourists on everything from a 'V' grip to the proper swing plane.

"We're not used to these things. But this is an advance for the revolution. It took a lot to build this."

The par 72 course is flanked by the Straits of Florida and a stream of Soviet Lada cars and limping 1950s Chevys and Fords. It was enlarged from an existing nine-hole course on the expropriated estate of Irenee Dupont Nemours. The chemical tycoon's renovated mansion now serves as the clubhouse, featuring a pro shop and French restaurant.

The Varadero club was designed by Golf Design Service of Toronto and is managed by Turquoise Overseas, a company based in the British Virgin Islands.

It was built, however, solely with Cuban money, Garcia said.

Cuba earned more than $1 billion last year in tourist revenue, the government reported. At least 1.2 million tourists, mainly from Europe and Canada, visited in 1997, mostly flocking to Varadero's well-known beaches. Americans are generally barred because of the U.S. embargo.

The course's manicured greens now weave between a network of saltwater lakes, 84 sand traps and three Spanish-built hotels. And golfers need not be worried by dress codes, sand rakes or slow parties.

Players can march from driving to putting in anything from cut-off jeans to tank top shirts. But golfers should avoid wearing sandals, as prickly plants speckle the ungroomed sand traps. And the long, skinny course still sports fewer than a score of players on any given day, Garcia said.

In early June, when the tropical sun makes about anything more desirable than the prospect of spending several hours unshaded, the greens were tied up, but the players were instructors and practicing caddies. Course officials have directed the staff to improve their games before the winter season, said Montero, who after four to five hours of daily practice still swings and misses the ball.

Cubans, often banned from entering hotels or nightclubs designated for tourists, are allowed to play the course - if they have the money, Montero said.

Playing 18 holes runs $60 per person, plus $10 to rent a bag of new Spalding or Tracer clubs and $10 for one of the course's 70 Yamaha golf carts. Caddies are included. For novices, there are six newly trained instructors.

Those prices were right for Goddfrey Clifton, 50, visiting from England. Ripping holes into the fresh sod with three fellow Englishmen, he said it was a pleasure to play golf in one of the world's last remaining communist countries.

"Who would have thought Cuba would have a golf course?" Clifton said. "Such an elitist sport in such a poor country that rebelled against these sort of things. The world changes."

Copyright, Newsday

A Philharmonic for Psychiatric Patients

Orchestra plays at the expense of cash-strapped regime

By David Abel

The Montreal Gazette

HAVANA -- The glassy-eyed man listlessly clanging the cymbals sounded the beat as Havana Psychiatric Hospital's 115-member symphonic orchestra recently played the "Spanish Military March" to four of the asylum's gardeners.

The sparse showing was nothing new to the fully stocked professional philharmonic. The crew of mostly elderly men has been booming and squeaking everything from war marches to American show tunes since it began performing soon after Fidel Castro's bearded rebels seized power here in 1959.

Once a proud symbol of the revolution's progressive idealism and quixotic defiance of "bourgeois" norms, the orchestra's lagging cadences and the outdoor square's empty benches now seem to mirror this socialist society's current stupor.

Beneath a specially built portico, where the sallow paint has seen brighter days, the half-absent orchestra churns out tinny tunes on old, dented instruments and follows brittle handwritten music sheets. Some doze off during the three-hour performances' frequent intermissions.

"Even if they don't come to watch, the patients pass by all the time," said Rolando Valdes, a psychologist and hospital administrator. "This is part of their therapy. It's a way for them to feel good, and it also cultures them."

The unconventional treatment also comes at the expense of the severely cash-strapped communist-run government, whose scant resources prevent it from supplying sufficient medicine to the island's 280 hospitals and other necessities to the government-dependant population of 11 million.

The full-time orchestra, with its own administrator, conductor and team of technicians to support the more than 25 clarinets, 15 trumpets, 12 saxophones, eight trombones, four tubas and two bassoons, pays its players above-average salaries. New recruits earn 211 pesos (about $10.50) a month. Soloists, the top earners, make 295 pesos a month.

"Yes, the money could go elsewhere," said Juan Morell, 61, a baritone saxophonist who has been playing with the band since it began shortly after the revolution. "But I think it's a good thing. The patients like it, and it helps the time go by."

The guayabera-clad musician acknowledged, however, that he was not always enthusiastic about playing only to passers-by and chance stragglers.

The psychiatric hospital's private symphony was launched four months after the rebels took power at the behest of its new director, Eduardo Bernabe Ordaz.

The physician-guerrilla warrior, who helped foot his medical-school tuition by busking in bars before joining the revolution, introduced the orchestra as part of a plan to revamp the island nation's largest sanatorium.

The overcrowded, run-down asylum would become "a model hospital" to showcase the new regime's health-care system.

So the bearded doctor, who still runs the hospital, commissioned a ragtag group of mostly retired military-band players and, among other new rewards for the patients that included a well-manicured baseball diamond, declared that music would be "a factor in the mental rehabilitation of the patients."

Over the years, the all-male ensemble allowed women to enter its ranks. Today, there are six women out of the 115 musicians, said Florencio Figueroa, the orchestra's administrator. It has also received prominent praise, including national music awards and, most recently, the delivery of a rosary from Pope John Paul II during his January visit.

"This hospital used to be a fiery hell, and he (Ordaz) converted it into a garden of hope," said Figueroa, while leading a tour of a museum that promotes the sprawling hospital's advances. "We think the music has helped accomplish that. ... It's not a waste of money."

A few hundred feet from the clattering symphony, a gaggle of the hospital's 3,700 patients are roosted on a shady patio in a row of rocking chairs.

In the distance, over the noise of jets taking off from the nearby Jose Marti International Airport, the conductor could be heard clamoring at the orchestra.

"Watch me. It doesn't say piano there, does it?" he jeered. As the ensemble picked up, he barked, "Now, fortissimo!"

Alejandro Gonzalez, 32, who has been a patient at the psychiatric hospital for the past year, said he rarely gets the chance to listen to the morning melodies. But, when he does, he appreciates whatever is being played.

"The music makes me feel at ease," Gonzalez said. "It helps me forget everything else. It's like a tranquilizer."

Copyright, The Montreal Gazette

Cuba's Other Big Man

Marxist Austerity Doesn't Deter 580-Pound Man

David Abel


CONTRAMAESTRA, Cuba -- Food shortages and inadequate monthly rations force most Cubans to keep a Spartan diet.

But then, Papio Castro is not like most people.

The 63-year-old illiterate private truck driver, weighing in at 580 pounds, is said to be the Marxist state's most well-fed man.

"Many people think we're rich," says Castro, whose extra-wide pants are unbuttoned at the waist and split at the seams.

"But we live for food. We don't bother about the house, or our clothes. Nothing, really, except for food."

The former guerrilla warrior's eating regimen would be impossible on the average Cuban salary of about $8 a month. So several years ago Castro rigged his 1952 Dodge truck to ferry passengers around town, one of the country's few legal private businesses. A network of black marketeers, who sell him a range of foodstuffs from steak to illegal shellfish, further ease the financial burden.

At Castro's small pink house here in the foothills of the island's rugged Sierra Maestra mountains, there are no quickie eat-and-run meals. Breakfasts and late lunches for the gray-haired father of four take time to prepare - and to consume. He snacks on a few well-stacked sandwiches for supper.

A typical breakfast consists of eight or nine scrambled eggs, a half pound of homemade cheese, 40 mangos, two or three pineapples or up to 12 bananas, a half pound of ham, and a liter of sugary milk or fresh-squeezed orange juice, he says.

His mid-afternoon snack usually
involves 12 to 15 scoops of strawberry ice cream. And a filling lunch is often a full five-pound red snapper over two pounds of rice and a side dish of three pounds of extra-greasy French fries.

"He is very demanding," said Castro's portly but less plump wife, Margot, who prepares all his food, boxing it when he goes on the road. "He calls me for everything. If he wants a steak, I make it for him. If he tells me to kill a pig, I kill it."

No official records certify Castro as the island's heaviest man, but state radio and television broadcasts have unabashedly dubbed him "Cuba's fattest man."

The son of overweight parents, Castro weighed about 180 pounds until 1970. That's when he got a job driving a truck for a sugar refinery.

Odd hours and waiting around for deliveries left him spare time to chow on the factory's free food. By the end of the year, he ballooned to 300 pounds.

"I didn't realize I was gaining weight until it was too late," Castro said. "I already had a routine. I couldn't stop eating. It was an addiction."

The large, cheerful man has since steadily widened his perimeter. Last month, he gained 40 pounds. But, still, he and his family insist that he is healthy.

Carmelia, Castro's 33-year-old daughter, is an electrocardiogram technician. She checks his heart every three months and says he has never had high blood pressure or other heart problems. She also rules out a crash diet, saying his enlarged organs might not similarly contract.

"We're not blind about the risks of a heart attack," she said. "It's scary. We love him. But he's happy, and that's what's important."

The greater danger is falling. Stepping out of his truck in late July, Castro lost his footing and crashed on the pavement. His already grapefruit-sized ankle swelled to the size of a pineapple, cooping him up in the house for more than a week.

Though Castro couldn't make the trip to a nearby river to swim, his favorite pastime, the injury left him time to concentrate on his other hobbies: listening to radio broadcasts from the United States, rocking on his specially made oversized chair and, of course, eating.

"I like to eat," he says.

Stretched out on his king-sized bed, which is braced by metal slats underneath two thick mattresses, Castro crunches on several sucking candies recently brought by visitors. He reflects on his life, and says he has few regrets.

"When I die, I have one request: The pallbearers cannot use a car. They have to carry me to my grave," Castro says, chuckling. "I want them to know who I was."

Copyright, Newsday

Gitmo: Cuba's 'Dagger in the Heart'

By David Abel |  The Sun-Sentinel  |   3/14/1999

GUANTANAMO, Cuba -- Like any capitalist, Pedro Hope knows how to hawk his services and lure the mighty dollar.

The English-speaking guide leads tourists to a lookout point above what's perhaps this country's most despised relic of American influence, the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay.

"It's like no where else in the world; it's very impressive," Hope goads a prospective dollar-paying client. "On one side is the American flag, and on the other is the Cuban flag. It's very striking."

As the 20th century draws to a close, the nation's oldest overseas military base has become an oddity rather than a strategic necessity. Guantanamo Naval Station is carved from the eastern end of the last Communist country in the hemisphere, a country that has had no formal relations with the United States for nearly 40 years. Once viewed as the last foothold of democracy against Communist hegemony, the base guarded the eastern approach to the Panama Canal.

But with the demise of the Cold War and the return of the Canal Zone to the Panamanian government by year's end, Guantanamo's purpose is less clear. Most recently it has been used to detain immigrants from Haiti and Cuba that have tried to cross the Straits of Florida on rickety rafts and boats to Florida's shores. Still, the $30 million a year and 3,500 people support what many Cubans view as a painful symbol of US imperialism.

On a good week, more than 100 tourists -- mainly European -- pay tour guides like Hope for a tour that lasts nearly an hour. His $5 fee equals two weeks' wages for the average Cuban. For a few dollars more a government taxi driver will clear three heavily armed Cuban checkpoints to Mt. Malones, a 900-foot hill that overlooks the base and the sprawling port city of Guantanamo.

There, the Cold War hasn't ended.

On the U.S. side of the decades-old trenches, lookout towers and scattered land mines that make up the no-man's-land separating the base from the city, helicopters ferry uniformed men from one side of bay to the other, rising above manicured lawns and gleaming, white-and-blue buildings. On the other side, horse-drawn carriages scurry through dank streets and past dilapidated buildings whose last paint job predates Fidel Castro's ascension to power in 1959.

The stark contrast is nothing new to George Harris. The 74-year-old son of Jamaican immigrants has worked at the Guantanamo base since 1939. The cigar-chewing career employee, who worked his way up from busboy in the Bachelor Officer's Quarters to base vehicle inspector, is one of 19 Cubans who started making the daily trek from Cuban to U.S. territory before the revolution.

"I stay here because I'm Cuban and my family lives here," says Harris, who like other civilian employees has the option of retiring in the U.S. "Many have moved. But, for us, we have the best of both worlds. We can live in our country and still have some of the advantages of the U.S."

Harris still follows a daily routine that once involved several thousand Cuban base employees. He wakes in the dark, walks a few blocks down a dirt road and waits for the 5 a.m. bus to the base. About an hour later, after picking up the others, the Cuban bus passes two checkpoints and drops the employees off on a paved road. Then the group walks 1,100 meters (about a half-mile) to catch a white school bus waiting on the U.S. side.

"You don't see the guns after a while; it becomes a job like any other job," Harris says. "About the only difference now is that we can take dollars off the base. We can't take anything else."

Cuban base employees can dine in base restaurants, shop in its well-stocked supermarket and watch the latest Hollywood flicks at the base movie theater. But the Cuban government forbids the civilian employees from bringing any products off the base.

Tensions over Guantanamo began long before US-Cuba relations soured and then snapped. Despite employing thousands of Cubans at one time and infusing needed cash into the local economy, the base has symbolized U.S. imperialism.

The naval station is a legacy of the US victory in the Spanish-American War. In 1903, the U.S. government signed an unlimited $2,000-a-year lease agreement for the 45-acre base with a fledgling Cuban government. Since then, the rent has risen to $4,085, although in 1934, the Cuban government negotiated a 99-year limit on the lease.

Immeditely after the revolution, Cuba cut off water and electricity to the station, and banned U.S. troops from entering its territory. Castro has called the base a dagger plunged into the heart of Cuban soil.

Most recently, the naval station has served as a refugee camp for more than 50,000 Haitians and Cubans intercepted on their way to Florida during the summer of 1994. A small number have been there for several years, awaiting clearance to enter a third country. Some of those waiting went on hunger strike more than a year ago, to protest the delay.

Capt. Larry Larson, Guantanamo's commanding officer, said the base also supports drug interdiction efforts and maintains the Navy's Caribbean presence.

But a senior State Department official acknowledged the base serves little purpose today other than acting as a thorn in communist Cuba's side. The official said it's possible that Guantanamo may one day serve as a bargaining chip in a rapprochement between the two countries.

That makes Santiago Teofilo nervous. The 82-year-old retired office clerk fears the base will close and he will no longer be able to collect his pension.

"I'm an honest person and never got mixed up in politics," Teofilo says. "I just want to know that I won't lose my income." The one-time toilet scrubber began working in 1943 for 32 cents an hour. He lives on his pension of more than $1,000 a month.

Most of the base's visitors come through the Villa Gaviota, a hotel in Santiago de Cuba about 50 miles west of Guantanamo. There, tourist officials furnish those interested with a glossy brochure called, "Cuba: The Natural Way." Inside the brochure, smiling tourists hold hands over beers in a recently built restaurant on Mt. Malones.

In the hazy distance, over a rare, cactus-speckled desert that hugs the hillsides is the network of roads that make up the 96-year-old naval base.

"It's a very weird view," says Hope, the tour guide, referring to the base. "At least now, you can sit at a restaurant, in comfort, and see a relic of the Cold War."

Copyright, The Sun-Sentinel

Americans Take Refuge in Cuba

By David Abel  |  The Baltimore Sun  |  10/01/1998

HAVANA -- Some came for love. Others to flee the reach of U.S. justice. And some were seeking Utopia.

Susan Hurlich's pilgrimage blended the three. The Boston native, 53, a devout communist, fled her home in Berkeley, Calif., in 1969 to help a boyfriend escape the Vietnam War draft. Her havens included a home in Canada and development missions throughout southern Africa. She worked for a time with the Ernesto "Che" Guevara brigade, building hospitals in Angola, a Marxist ally of Cuba.

Along the way she married a Cuban, and she settled here permanently in 1992, when other communist states were collapsing.

She has promised never again to live in the United States. "I was embarrassed to be an American," Hurlich says. "I knew there had to be a more human, equal and just system." Today the gray-haired "anthropological journalist," as she describes herself, navigates Cuba's pot-holed streets on a Chinese Flying Pigeon bicycle.

According to officials at the U.S. Interests Section, the Havana office that acts in place of an embassy, 2,000 to 3,000 Americans live in Cuba -- a mere handful in a nation of 11 million, considering that only 90 miles separate the countries.

Most U.S. citizens here are the children of Cuban parents who were living in the United States when they were born. Americans born to American parents, such as Hurlich, are much fewer. Officials at the Interests Section, which ironically has the island's largest foreign diplomatic staff with 290 personnel, say they don't see much of the U.S. expatriates, who unlike American expatriates elsewhere, tend to steer clear of their country's representatives.

While the law does not explicitly prohibit Americans from living in Cuba, the Trading with the Enemy Act bans U.S. citizens from spending money in Cuba. A select few, including journalists, academics, religious persons and Cuban Americans, are permitted to visit the island.

Before it fizzled out in the 1980s, there was an organized group of Americans here. Some were members of the U.S. Communist Party, others leftist writers or English teachers. They numbered about 30, and they called themselves the Union of North American Residents. On May 1 -- International Workers Day, a holiday in communist countries -- they would march under the Stars and Stripes in Havana parades.

"The one thing we all had in common was our respect and unbridled admiration for Fidel Castro," wrote William Lee Brent in his autobiography "Long Time Gone." Brent, a former member of the Black Panther Party, came to Cuba from Oakland, Calif., in a TWA airliner that he hijacked in 1969.

"The union [of American expatriates] supported the Cuban revolution with words and deeds," Brent wrote. It "held solidarity meetings with other unions, organized Marxist-Leninist study groups and sent messages of support to political prisoners in the States."

Like many of the U.S. citizens still living in Cuba, Brent, who is wanted in the United States on charges stemming from a shootout with San Francisco police, is reluctant to be interviewed. But unlike many of the others, he is not eager to see the 30-year-old U.S. embargo lifted. The former air pirate is one of about 90 U.S. fugitives living under the diplomatic aegis of Cuba.

Other prominent outlaws wanted in the United States include Robert Vesco, a wealthy U.S. financier indicted for illegal cash contributions of $250,000 to Richard M. Nixon's 1972 presidential re-election campaign, and Joanne Chesimard, a former member of the Black Liberation Army who escaped from a New Jersey jail in 1984 after being convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973.

Brent, 67, lives quietly in the capital with his American wife. For years he cut sugar cane, hauled cement at a pig farm, labored at a soap factory and taught English. He understands that his future and that of other fugitives hinges on the conflict between Fidel Castro's communist government and the United States. A reconciliation between the two countries, which have no extradition treaties, could allow a federal marshal to escort him to a U.S. prison.

"Politics are politics," he says. "If he [Castro] thinks he can get some advantage out of peddling us to the Americans, he'll do it."

Some expatriates will never go back. Lorna Burdsall, a white-haired grandmother who has lived in Cuba since before the revolution, has too much invested in the tropical island.

The 70-year-old daughter of a wealthy Connecticut doctor, whose family's roots trace to the American Revolution, Burdsall quit a fellowship as a dance student at New York's Juilliard School in 1955 and boarded a plane with her new husband, a Columbia business student, to an island she had never visited.

Soon she was pregnant and her husband, Manuel Pineiro, had gone to the eastern end of the island to fight in the Sierra Maestra with Castro's guerrillas. He later was Cuba's top spy for more 30 years. Though Burdsall and Pineiro were divorced more than 20 years ago, she continued to raise her children on the tropical island, and eventually became the director of Cuba's Modern Dance Company.

"Cuba is my home," she says. "This is where my life is."

Hurlich says she too is likely settled here for good, but she frequently returns to the United States for visits. "I have a lot of friends that I miss, and that makes it hard," she says. "There are also not enough good bookstores. I miss bookstores."

But she has "human" reasons to value Cuba. "I have never found a stronger sense of collectivism -- people helping people," she says. "There's no price for that. I don't think you can find the same sort of community feeling in the United States.

In her second-floor apartment in the capital's once-exclusive Miramar district, paint peels off the walls and an old Soviet television flickers with an afternoon soap opera. Issues of Granma, the Communist Party's official newspaper, and Bohemia, a venerable magazine long ago taken over by Castro's government, are stacked neatly on a glass table.

Living in an economically devastated country, Hurlich acknowledges, is a daily struggle. But Cuba, she says, has less violence, free medical care and a strong community of caring people.

"This is not the United States," she says. "Things are done differently. You can't think of what you lack by being here; you always gain something living abroad."

Copyright, The Baltimore Sun

Studying in Cuba, With Minders

By David Abel  |  The Christian Science Monitor  |  7/7/1998

HAVANA - An entourage of sleek government cars rolled into the University of Havana. Swarms of beefy men wearing ear pieces and dark glasses trooped through campus. Then, someone shouted, "Fidel! Fidel!"

Moments later, Cat Linenberger,
a 20-year-old American college student studying in Havana, watched as Cuba's long-time leader, Fidel Castro, emerged from his black Mercedes Benz. Linenberger, on just her second Day in a country the United States considers a pariah state, was floored.

"I was so close I could have dropped my text book on his head," said Linenberger, a Latin American studies major at Tulane University in New Orleans. "People were going nuts for him. I couldn't believe it. This definitely wasn't in our syllabus."

A few years ago, Linenberger, who is writing her thesis on Castro, would have had to settle for history books and phone interviews to complete her research. The 36-year-old U.S. embargo, which prohibits Americans from traveling to Cuba without a license, long made studying in Cuba difficult.

But since U.S. law was amended in 1995 to allow for foreign exchange programs between the two countries, more than a dozen American universities have arranged for students to study in Cuba, according to the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. This year, about 100 Americans are studying on the island; Cuban students as of yet have not come to the United States.

For Americans, studying in Cuba affords an opportunity to live and learn in a communist country whose policies have long been at odds with Washington's. Some students find the government tries to shelter them from the country's grim realities or shape their view. Still, they're often thankful for the opportunity to see the good and the bad for themselves, instead of relying on the politically charged rhetoric in the United States.

Meredith Gaffney, a Tulane graduate student in public health who comes from New Jersey, found that "everything seemed coordinated for us" when a group of students were given a tour of the Havana Psychiatric Hospital. As soon as the students would approach a room, she recalled, patients and hospital personnel seemed to spring to action.

"It was kind of surreal," said Gaffney, 27, of Middletown. "They sugarcoated everything and overlooked all the problems. It would be interesting to do a surprise visit to see everything we weren't shown." But like other students, Gaffney said talking to ordinary Cubans helped complete the picture of life in Cuba.

"Being here is what it's all about," Gaffney said. "The people are very friendly and open up. You just have to talk to them. They tell you how it is."

Not everyone, though, is pleased about Americans studying in Cuba.

"These programs are not designed, in my view, to promote freedom and democracy in Cuba," said Remberto Perez, head of the New Jersey branch of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation. "They're designed to legitimize the Castro regime and undermine U.S. policy in Cuba."
Nick Robins, director of the Tulane program, acknowledged that "by nature, this kind of program is controversial."

"But this gives students a first-hand account," said Robins, whose program at Tulane was first offered in 1996 to five students and has grown to 33 students. "By being here they can make their own impressions and get beyond the rhetoric on both sides of the Florida Straits."

This summer, at least half a dozen universities are running study abroad programs in Cuba. They include the State University of New York at Buffalo, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas. Other U.S. schools with programs in Cuba include Harvard University, whose students helped design the botanical gardens in the southern port city of Cienfuegos, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, one of the few schools permitted to send students before the law was changed.

This year, Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx became the first medical school since 1960 to have a formal relationship in Cuba when several students arrived to attend seminars and tag along with Cuban doctors.

"We saw patients with them (primary care physicians). We got to go on house call visits. We basically did everything with them," said one of the students, Rajeev Bais, 26, of South Brunswick, who recently returned from Cuba after six weeks. "I took it pretty seriously, all of us took it pretty seriously, because we were representing the United States."

In New Jersey, no major university has a study abroad program in Cuba. But this year, two students from Princeton University have been studying in Cuba through the SUNY Buffalo program.

At Rutgers University, Luis Martinez-Fernandez, an expert on Cuba, said he would like Rutgers students to one day have the opportunity to study in Cuba. For the time being, though, Rutgers maintains a relationship with Cuban academia by inviting Cuban professors to the Puerto Rican and Hispanic Caribbean Studies Department in New Brunswick, said Martinez-Fernandez, chairman of the department.

"Even though the U.S. and Cuban governments have had strained relations over the last 40 years, scholars from both societies have interacted, collaborated, have met in congresses in various parts of the world," said Martinez-Fernandez, who has traveled to Cuba numerous times to do research. "So over the years these kinds of relations and friendships really have developed."

For American students, living and studying in Cuba is not always easy. In the case of Diane Steffan, 25, a graduate student in bilingual education at SUNY Buffalo, her Cuban heritage almost prevented her from going. Steffan's Cuban-born mother was dead set against her daughter spending dollars in a country that forced her out 30 years ago.

"She was like, 'No way,'" said Steffan, while touring a one-time aristocratic street adorned with rows of unpainted columns for a class called "Havana: City, Space and Culture." "Then she eased up. And eventually she got excited for me to bring back memories."

Once here, students have run across a variety of obstacles. Rassaan Parris, 23, a recent SUNY Buffalo graduate, said the police Kept stopping him; he's black and authorities mistook him for a Cuban harassing foreigners. Mike Milch, 20, a politics major at New York University, had his bike stolen on his second day in Havana.

Buffalo students say they are often accompanied around the capital and joined in class by a man who calls himself Doug. They call him "the spy." The chummy Interior Ministry official keeps tabs on what students ask and what the professor says.

"It's just a way for them to keep an eye on us," said Jose Buscaglia, the Buffalo professor teaching classes on architecture and history to 33 students. "I guess they think some of the students might be working for the CIA."

Buscaglia said the U.S. government counters the Cubans by strongly suggesting, if not obliging, the students to attend a lecture at the U.S Interests Section, the Havana office that acts in place of an embassy since diplomatic relations were broken in 1961.

Despite all the political wrangling, American students in Cuba were overall pleased by the experience.

"At home everyone has a programmed reaction," said Nicolle Ugarriza, 26, a first-generation Cuban-American from Miami Beach. "But underneath that there is a tremendous curiosity. I've heard about Cuba forever. So it was time for me to experience it myself."

Copyright, The Christian Science Monitor

Santa's Return

David Abel  |  12/27/1998  |  Newsday

HAVANA - Until last year, the public display of a Christmas tree here was taboo.

Now, after the Communist Party declared Christmas a national holiday, everything from modest bushes to regal pines can be found throughout the island's capital, in small government offices, in hotel lobbies and in the street-side windows of private homes.

At the home of Paco Gonzalez, a 71-year-old former guerrilla warrior who long ago drifted from Catholicism, a four-foot plastic tree features a tangle of flashing lights and a dozen shiny Santa Claus ornaments, with swatches of cotton imitating snow.

Christmas at Gonzalez once-stately five-bedroom home in Havana's upscale Vedado district is little different from Christmas in a typical American home. There is one exception, however. Beneath the faux tree Gonzalez son bought 15 years ago while studying in the former Soviet Union, there are no conspicuous boxes, no mysterious objects cloaked in wrapping paper nor anything his young granddaughters might construe as a Christmas gift. There's only an old, musty doormat with faded letters reading "Feliz Navidad," Merry Christmas in Spanish.

"This year there just isn't enough money," says the aging rebel's son, Carlos, whose salary of less than $20 a month as a physics professor at the University of Havana barely covers expenses for food and repairs to their timeworn home. "We don't like this. But the girls have to understand. It's the way things are here."

Still, the family of five spent La Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve, with cousins and friends feasting on the traditional dinner of chuleta de cerdo, slices of roasted pork; arroz con gris, rice, black beans and bits of pork; and lots of rum.

"Most people here celebrate Christmas by drinking rum, not going to church," says Gonzalez, tipping back a shot of Havana Club. "People know they don't have to work the next day. That makes it more of a party."

While clergymen such as Cardinal Jaime Ortega admit few of the 4.5 million Catholics in this once avowedly atheist country of 11 million people are regular churchgoers, the Communist government's newfound yuletide spirit represents a significant step away from its history of religious repression, he says.

Christmas was banned from the island in 1969, when Fidel Castro called on the masses to forget the holiday and spend the day harvesting sugar cane. After three decades of jailing and exiling Catholic priests, persecuting Jehovah's Witnesses and ejecting believers from the Communist Party, Castro changed course. In 1991, the Communist Party dropped its ban on allowing religious believers to hold party membership.

Last year, as a goodwill gesture before Pope John Paul II visited the island in January, Castro decreed Christmas a public holiday. But he said it was an "exceptional measure" that would not be repeated. Last month, however, the Communist Party said new machines had replaced the need for human labor to harvest the sugar cane and established Christmas as a permanent public holiday.

Still, the government has not completely abandoned its suspicion of religion. There are no Christmas trees to be found on the capital's central Revolution Plaza or other public spaces, and official newspapers even warn readers to be wary of Santa Claus.

A columnist for the weekly labor union newspaper Trabajadores recently described the white-bearded bearer of gifts as a potentially threatening symbol of "American consumerism," "cultural hegemony" and "mental colonization."

Even Ortega took a jab at Santa. In a special 15-minute broadcast on a small state radio station that plays classical music, the cardinal said Friday the return of Christmas "is a great joy for the Church and for the Cuban people."

"Now let us hope," he went on, "that it won't be the commercial tinkling of an imported Santa Claus that announces Christmas in Cuba."

The rhetoric didn't register with the Gonzalez family. The girls, Tadika, 7, and Melinda, 9, painted a rosy-cheeked Santa among red and green snowflakes on a set of their windows facing Havana's potholed Fourth Street. They also planned to build a gingerbread house brought by a friend visiting from the United States, the source of many presents here on Christmas.

Indeed, throngs of Cubans living abroad and other visitors arriving into Jose Marti International Airport last week carried suitcases stuffed with video games, dolls, Tonka trucks and the many luxuries and necessities such as medicine and diapers lacking throughout the island. Many also haggled and offered bribes in hopes that local officials would overlook the 66-pound limit on incoming baggage.

At midnight on Christmas Eve in Havana, church bells pealed in small neighborhoods and hundreds packed the pews of the recently restored San Cristobal cathedral in Old Havana. But most didn't come out to sing the melodious hymns or partake in the Eucharist - only about a half-million Catholics here practice their faith openly.

Like most Cubans on Christmas, the Gonzalezes stayed home, emptying cupboards of whatever sweets and liquor they had.

Looking out from a rear terrace onto the scattered Christmas lights dressing many Havana windows, Paco Gonzalez asked his granddaughters if they knew the meaning of Christmas.

Together, they said, "Gifts, no?"

Gonzalez took another swig of rum and smiled.

"Christmas doesn't have to be about going to church or believing in God," he said. "It's about the family getting together, and giving when they can."

Copyright, Newsday