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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 22:51 GMT 23:51 UK
Carter brings Cubans hope
Children in Havana
Pre-revolution cars remain a fixture
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By Daniel Schweimler
BBC correspondent in Havana
line

While Jimmy Carter is dining with President Fidel Castro and touring hospitals and schools, ordinary Cubans look on with interest.

The country has seen nothing quite like this visit since Pope John Paul II came to Cuba four-and-a-half years ago.

The state-run Cuban media is giving the visit extensive coverage and people can be seen on the streets scouring the pages for the latest information in the eight-page governing party newspaper, Granma.

They will find much the same information on the two state-run television channels.

Former US President Jimmy Carter
Carter: Highest profile visitor since the Pope visited four years ago
But Mr Carter's visit is, for most Cubans, merely a distraction.

They will hope it brings a thawing in relations with the United States since that, many feel, would help improve the country's economy.

As the state-run media constantly reminds us, there is no hunger in Cuba. All have a ration book providing the bare essentials and all have access to health care and education.

But the Cuban economy is under great strain.

Search for dollars

Most workers earn in Cuban pesos, an average of about $30 a month. They will pay household bills and buy fruit and vegetables.


If the Americans tried a little harder to understand us relations between the two countries wouldn't be as bad as they are now

Mercedes
Almost everything else is sold in US dollars, which have been legal in Cuba since 1993.

Therefore life for many Cubans has become a search for the elusive greenback.

The most coveted jobs are those in the country's burgeoning tourist industry, since this is where most of the dollars circulate.

Every tourist has a tale about the scientist or doctor who found they could not make ends meet and became a taxi driver or hotel porter, since they pick up more in one day in tips than in a month working for the state.

Others live on the dollars sent to them by relatives living in the United States.

'Not easy'

More than a million Cubans have left the island since President Castro came to power in 1959 - some to escape political persecution, but increasing numbers for economic reasons.

Most Cubans are not allowed to buy a car. Those enormous pre-revolution Buicks and Chevrolets, the subject of so many Cuban postcards, are kept on the roads because there is no choice, not because the owners enjoy spending hours every week somehow keeping the ageing vehicles going.


Cubans compare themselves favourably with the rest of Latin America where they see poverty, crime and corruption

There is a popular saying in Cuba: "No es facil - It's not easy." And providing a family with the bare essentials can be hard work.

But millions turn out at rallies to support President Castro and his communist government. Some feel obliged to go by their employers, but others attend out of a genuine affection for their president and their country.

Cubans compare themselves favourably with the rest of Latin America where they see poverty, crime and corruption.

Things may be bad, Cubans will constantly remind foreign visitors, but at least it is safe to walk the streets and children grow up in an environment of peace and tranquillity.

They are a fiercely nationalistic people.

"We just want to be left to solve our problems in our own way," said Mercedes, a worker in the tourist industry who has travelled widely.

"If the Americans tried a little harder to understand us, relations between the two countries wouldn't be as bad as they are now."

Economic motivation

Much of the anti-American rhetoric spouted by Cuban politicians has little to do with communism versus capitalism.

It comes from a pride and a determination that little Cuba has for so long and against the odds stood up to pressure from the superpower that lies just 140 kilometres away.

It is a battle that has, in general, kept the Cuban people united.

But it is the economic hardship that drives some of them away in the end.

And while most Cubans will listen carefully to what Mr Carter says about human rights and relations with Washington when he addresses the nation on national television, they will also be concerned about what is for supper the following day.

See also:

09 May 02 | Americas
US and Cuba's complex relations
25 Apr 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Cuba
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