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Thursday, 27 April, 2000, 21:20 GMT 22:20 UK
What's life really like in Cuba?
Elian Gonzales: All-American kid?
Elian Gonzalez: All-American kid?
By Tom Gibb in Havana

Ever since his arrival in the US, Elian Gonzalez - the six-year old Cuban boy at the centre of an international custody battle - has been stuck in a war of words over whether it is better to live in Florida or Cuba.

So what does await him on the island?

In Cuba, the island's defenders say, Elian will have free education and healthcare.

Fidel Castro
Now 73, Fidel Castro may not be in charge when Elian grows up

He is highly unlikely to get attacked, abducted or shot on his way home from school, although rising crime rates mean that it is now quite likely that his house would get burgled or his bicycle would get stolen.

Almost all Cuban teenagers go to boarding schools in the countryside where they have to do some farm work.

The education system does not encourage free thought outside the framework of Cuba's Communist system.

US influence

However, in practice the influence of the latest US fashions from peers is as strong as revolutionary politics.

Nike trainers and the Back Street Boys dominate many teenagers' tastes.

Boarding school can only be avoided by getting into a local arts school.

Many parents push their children to learn music so they will not have to go away.

Two economies

The difficulties start when it comes to earning a living.

Elian and Juan Miguel Gonzalez
Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, works in Cuba's lucrative tourism industry

Since circulation of the dollar was legalised in 1994, Cuba has had two economies.

A minimum food ration, gas, electricity, water and housing are massively subsidised in Cuban pesos.

However, many other basic products like cooking oil and soap are offered at US prices and charged in dollars.

The average Cuban peso salary converts to less than $10 a month, which buys very little.

So Cubans spend a great deal of their time trying to "resolve" their shortages.

Many Cubans get dollars sent by family abroad, usually Florida. The division in Elian's family is the exception, not the rule.

Careers in tourism

The state is finding it harder to attract Cuban students to become doctors, teachers or other professionals with peso salaries.

Instead many want to work in jobs with access to dollars - especially tourism. Elian's father worked in a tourist resort.

  • A day's tips for a waiter can be many times a doctor's monthly salary.
  • Only a limited number of self-employed trades are allowed.
  • No private businesses are permitted where one Cuban employs another.
  • There are strict controls against Cubans moving from one province to another.

    Many looking for work in tourist areas marry a local for convenience, to get around the rules.

    If Elian were to decide one day that he wants to change Cuba's politics, his options are limited.

    Opposition parties are banned and organising public protest is illegal.

    Fidel Castro is, of course, now 73-years-old. His opponents hope that by the time Elian grows up, there will be a new, more open, leadership.

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    See also:

    27 Apr 00 | Americas
    Cuban support group joins Elian
    26 Apr 00 | Americas
    In pictures: Elian strike
    22 Apr 00 | Americas
    Analysis: Elian divides America
    23 Apr 00 | Americas
    Elian sparks heated emails
    04 Feb 00 | Americas
    Elian: View from Cuba
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