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Last Updated: Sunday, 8 June, 2003, 11:40 GMT 12:40 UK
Cuba's hardships fuel discontent
By Becky Branford
BBC News Online

Old car passes revolutionary slogan in Havana
For young people, the 1959 Revolution is ancient history
When Cuba jailed 75 dissidents - including journalists, economists, and political activists - in April, the world expressed outrage.

Governments and human rights groups denounced the move. Former friends of Cuba declared their sympathy exhausted.

The Cuba Policy Foundation, an American group which campaigned for the easing of US sanctions on the island, disbanded.

The jailings were seen by many external commentators as evidence that the foundations of four decades of rule by Fidel Castro were being slowly eroded by dissent.

What dissidents?

In Cuba itself, the story is different.

On the streets of Havana, Cubans go about their business to a tempo slowed by the sultry weather.

Here most appear simply unaware of the existence of the dissidents. Others - in public at least - accept the government's assertion that they were provocateurs, financed by US organisations in an attempt to stir unrest.

Even Gabriel Calaforra, a self-described member of Cuba's political opposition, admits "there is very little awareness" of opposition groups.

But inside Cuba, a greater threat to the government may be lurking - not in organised opposition, but in the hardships of everyday life.

Monthly rations in Cuba
Cuban ration book
8 eggs
2.3kg (5lb) sugar
2.7kg rice
200 ml (0.4 pints) cooking oil
450g-700g meat (sometimes mixed with soy protein)
One bar body soap (every two months)
One bar soap for housework (every two months)
One bread roll daily at reduced price of 5 centavos (0.2 US cents)
One litre of milk daily (for children up to seven)
1 yoghurt daily (for children between seven and 14)
10 packs of cigarettes

The country was left bankrupt and isolated by the disintegration from 1989 of the Soviet bloc.

Almost overnight, 85% of its markets disappeared - and with them, the subsidies and favourable long-term trade agreements that kept the economy afloat.

The situation hit rock-bottom in 1994, when Cubans found daily life a desperate struggle - many walking miles to work as petrol shortages forced almost all traffic off the road, enduring extended electricity and water cuts, and scrabbling for food as state food stocks dwindled.

The island's economy, which had survived over 30 years of tough sanctions by the US, teetered on the brink.

Since then, economic indicators have improved, but to many ordinary Cubans the effect is marginal. Power and water outages continue. Monthly food rations last only two weeks, one housewife said.

The US dollar became legal tender in 1993, and now many goods are only available in dollars.

Many Cubans, paid in the local currency (the peso) have to find ways to supplement their incomes, preferably in dollars. The wages paid to them by the state simply do not go far enough.

'Lobsters for dollars'

With the boom in tourism - now Cuba's biggest industry - new opportunities for making a little extra on the side have increased.

Domestic cars magically transform into taxis if a tourist is hovering expectantly by the side of the road; men appear at your side in the street, making hushed offers of lobsters for dollars; prostitution has increased.

Cuban economy
Economy now operating at 89% of 1989 levels (Source: Cuban Government)
Estimated GDP per capita in 2002: $2,539
Main exports: Sugar, nickel, tobacco products (cigars) - worth $1.8bn
Main imports: Machinery, fuel, food - worth $4.9bn
External debt: $11.9bn

Source: Economist Intelligence Unit

This kind of semi-illegal activity - which ironically many Cubans describe using a word once reserved for revolutionary activity, the lucha or struggle - is for many now a daily necessity.

It has not gone unnoticed by Cuba's political masters - even Fidel Castro once wryly admitted: "Here, we are all illegals" - and they recognise the risks.

"I think a situation in which many people have to violate the legal regulations is no good," said Rafael Hernandez, an academic and friend of Fidel.

"It is dangerous... This is an issue about which there is great awareness in the government."

But even more worrying is the generation of young Cubans who have experienced only hard times, for whom the 1959 Revolution is ancient history, and who may have ambitions the depressed economy cannot sustain.

'I'm no saint'

"Juan", 27, trained as a doctor. He is one of few people prepared to be interviewed. Even so, he looks fearful and sad, and will only talk on condition that I do not reveal his real name.

"The life of a doctor is really difficult," he says.

"The average pay is only about $20 a month. The only way is to accept that you are going to live very badly.

"After I'd graduated they sent me off to a poor part of the country. The conditions were dreadful. Only a saint could have put up with it. And I don't want to be a saint."

Many other young people, away from the microphone, echo his dissatisfaction.

Hal Klepak, a military historian from Canada who visits Cuba regularly, says the government is well aware of the threat.

Residents of Havana talk about the trials and pleasures of daily life in Cuba

This discontent, he says, "is very serious, I think it's the Cuban Government's number one concern.

"The generations that saw the revolution, that saw the regimes that preceded this one, tend to be thankful, and are still mesmerised by the personality of Fidel.

"But young people, particularly in Havana, are deeply dissatisfied."

Mr Klepak says any armed response to unrest is unlikely.

"The Cuban military retain a very strong revolutionary tradition of being on the side of the people. They have never fired on the people since this government came to power - a record which is unusual in Latin America, to say the least, and of which the armed forces are ferociously proud."

He says the government is aware that the only other answer is reform and opening up the economy.

But, for all the hardships of life, Cuba's young have not decided a purely capitalist solution is the only way, insists Rafael Hernandez.

"Only a very small minority of young people are embracing capitalist values, as opposed to social justice, independence, sovereignty, national development.

"I don't think most youngsters have renounced having a better society. This is about having a better society."

US expels Cuban diplomats
13 May 03  |  Americas
Cuba's phoney war
25 Apr 03  |  Americas
Intellectuals rally behind Cuba
02 May 03  |  Americas
US group ends Cuba campaign
24 Apr 03  |  Americas
Cuba jailings draw anger
09 Apr 03  |  Americas
Country profile: Cuba
04 Jun 03  |  Country profiles

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