Carter to find malaise in Cuba
But despite problems, Castro remains firmly at the helm

As former U.S. president Jimmy Carter proceeds on his historic five-day trip to Cuba, he will vist a country beset by fear, class division and economic under-performance.

Despite this, strongman Fidel Castro, remains solidly at the helm, with high personal popularity that has somehow enabled him to distance himself from the considerable problems Cuba faces.

Although Carter's visit is a private one, it is the highest level trip by a U.S. figure since the 1959 revolution, and is a sign of growing pressure among many Americans for a loosening of economic barriers between the two countries.

Canada has a big stake in any possible Cuban/ American rapprochement. Cuba was a key low-cost vacation destination for 350,000 Canadians last year according to Cuban government statistics, a 243 per cent increase in just six years.

A relaxation of U.S. travel restrictions would result in an explosion in the number of Americans visiting Cuba, and would drive the price of hotel rooms and other tourist facilities through the roof.

Cuba needs those new tourists badly. Despite the good life travelers experience in the protected enclaves of vacation resorts, the country remains an economic basket case.

Cuban government figures put 2001 growth at 3.6 per cent. Government statistics are notoriously unreliable, but even if true, the Cuban economy is currently running far below the 35 per cent drop it experienced after Soviet aid was cut off in the early 1990s.

Tourism, massively underdeveloped, is Cuba's biggest industry and key source of foreign cash. In part to camouflage the tough conditions, the government has cut off much contact between ordinary Cubans and tourists.

But the effect of these moves, which are coupled with considerable racial discrimination, has been to create what can only be called an apartheid economy with increasingly rigid class barriers that belie Cuba's socialist rhetoric.

The 1993 legalization of the U.S. dollar has had particularly disastrous effects, because most Cubans are paid in increasingly worthless pesos, which many vendors now refuse to accept.

Basic items such as meat and milk are now available only in dollar stores. But with typical Cuban salaries ranging from 200 to 600 Pesos per month, and the exchange rate at about 26 Pesos to the dollar, these items are for all intents and purposes unavailable to ordinary Cubans.

Stark evidence of the peso/ dollar disparity can be found on Havana's "La Rampa," where two stores selling prized Copellia ice-cream sit side by side. The one pricing its products in peso's has huge lineups of ordinary Cubans that can last from 30 minutes to an hour. Dollar customers get served immediately.

The introduction of the dollar has also had the effect of banning ordinary Cubans from most tourist resorts, since pesos are not accepted there. At the entrance to the lush beaches of the Varadero peninsula is a two-dollar tollbooth, a fee most tourist casually pay and drive by. But two dollars is a week's salary to many Cubans.

Most Cubans are also effectively banned from travel to Havana where tourists tend to congregate, by the government's decree 217. Much poverty is thus concealed in the countryside.

A massive police presence enforces this restriction. Cubans walking the streets are regularly asked for their identification papers. Those caught in Havana without permission are departed back to their provinces and fined between 300 and 1,000 pesos, or between one and three months salary.

The increasingly worthlessness of the Cuban peso has made jobs that give Cubans contact with foreigners and thus access to U.S. dollar tips, highly prized. Cubans working in the tourist trade are thus extremely well off compared to their co-citizens.

We met one hotel employee - a highly skilled scientist --who supports his wife, two daughters, their husbands and a grandchild on the tips from his salary, which dwarf the $10 a month that his veterinarian wife is paid. Patronage is rampant as bureaucrats vie to get friends and family members assignment to these positions.

Race, is another troubling source of the class division in Cuban society. Cuba's 37 per cent white population hold many of the key power positions, and the country's 51 per cent mulattos, and particularly the 11 per cent blacks, are relegated to secondary status. Cuban mobility restrictions are particularly harmful to blacks, since many of these live in poorer regions of the country.

Much of the racism is subtle, but nevertheless present. For example in the entrance of Varadero's Sol Club Las Sirenas hotel is a picture of two dozen executives, and not one of them is black, though many of the staff are.

Despite the country's problems, Castro by all visible signs remains firmly in command. Close to a million people showed up to hear him speak at the May Day festivities earlier this month. Although many of those present were marched out by the neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) organizers, it was an impressive total.

Castro's grip on power is reinforced by a strong military presence throughout the country and effective secret police.

"The pressure is not visible, but it is very, very powerful," said Rámon, at a meeting of dissident leaders Western Pinar del Rio province, a hotbed of Castro opposition. "You don't see them now, but the secret police will soon know you were here, and tomorrow we will all get a knock on our doors."

A clear sign of the secret police presence is the fact that few Cubans will openly criticize the régime, even on background. Those that do such as Rámon often ask to have their names withheld.

But surprisingly, Rámon acknowledges that Castro remains a revered figure in Cuba, even among blacks who suffer most from the regime's discriminatory legislation. "People like him, and sense that he cares about them," said Rámon. "If Castro held free elections, he would win in a landslide."

Cuban government reaction to criticisms about race, economic under performance, and inequality is mild acknowledgement. But officials add that these kinds of problems exist everywhere, and that the revolution - at 43 years old -- is still young and needs more time.



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