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Cubans happy, proud despite poor economy

EDITOR’S NOTE: DAILY LEADER Editor and Publisher Bill Jacobsrecently visited Cuba as part of a delegation of Americanjournalists. The following is a continuation in a series of columnson his impressions of the communist country.

HAVANA, CUBA — A walk through the streets of this beautifulcity is a step back in time. A time-warp you might say — back tothe 1950s where vintage Chevys and Fords travel up and down thestreets amongst the bicycles and pedestrians; where the insides ofthe few retail stores are dated and dirty with a very limitedsupply of merchandise.

In contrast, just down the street a more modern store hasshelves packed with TVs and VCRs, washers and dryers as well asother modern products. Scattered among the 57 Chevys cruising thestreets are new Hondas, Fiats and a few Mercedes and other Europeanimports. Like any big city, tourist traps are at work hoping toattract a few dollars. U.S. dollars by the way, are the official(but not officially official) currency of Cuba.

In Parque Central, a historic plaza in the center of old Havana,stands a brand new 5-star hotel owned by a Dutch Company. Two otherrenovated 4-star hotels also look over the plaza

Directly across the street is a majestic colonial building inneed of repair. What appear to be pock marks, apparently fromgunfire which one would assume happened during the early days ofCastro, dot the stone facade.

On the other side of the plaza, a new motel is underconstruction. Further down the street a new museum is beingconstructed and a government building is getting a facelift.

Throughout Havana one sees scaffolding, giving the impressionthat renovation and new construction is going on everywhere.However, to the repeat visitors in our group, the same scaffoldinghas been in place for years. Hardly anything it seems ever getsfinished in Cuba due to the lack of money.

Back to the time-warp. In the next block decaying buildings andsubstandard living conditions are everywhere. Since there are fewjobs, people stand in lines. ‘Hurry up and wait’ is the policy ofCuba. Cubans stand in long lines waiting for everything from busesto their monthly rations.

Under the socialist system of Cuba, the basic needs of everycitizen are taken care of by the government — food, housing,medical care and education. Each month Cubans receive their rationof six pounds of sugar, rice, beans and six eggs per person.Children under the age of seven receive six pounds of milk.Additional food can be purchased if money is available.

While health care is free and Cuba lays claim to the highestdoctor to patient ratio in the world, one has to wonder about thequality of the care and the speed of the treatment based on thepoor condition of the outside of the hospitals we drove past butdid not visit.

Despite the obvious economic woes, the Cuban people we met werehappy and proud. They believe in their country, their socialistsystem and in Fidel Castro.

With the poor living conditions and the daily control ofpersonal lives, we all wondered how Castro continues to succeed.One way he does is by complete control of information. No outsidenewspapers or magazines are allowed. With the exception of thetourist hotels were CNN is available, TV content is strictlycontrolled for the average Cuban.

Cuba has newspapers, TV and radio stations; however, they areunder the watchful eye of the communist party. The editor of theJUVENTUD REBELDE, the communist youth newspaper, was adamant to usthat he has the same freedom of speech as we do in the UnitedStates. But, he later admitted that all printing presses in Cubaare owned by government, the newsprint is supplied by thegovernment and the distribution of the newspaper is controlled bythe government. Anti-goverment reporting is simply controlled byshutting down the press, limiting newsprint or refusing todistribute the newspaper.

The discovery of tourism by Castro has become an economic saviorto the country that was mired deep in economic depression after thecollapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Castro’s toe-tip into thewaters of capitalism has brought new wealth to the country, butwith that wealth comes a dilemma for socialist society that putsthe common good ahead of the individual good.

One has to wonder how long Castro will survive or what willhappen when he is no longer able to govern.