Revolutionary fervour turns sour in Cuba

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ANA SUAREZ was 37 on January 6, 1959, when she stood in a crowd for eight hours to see Fidel Castro arrive in the city in triumph. She was a self-confessed bourgeoise, the daughter of wealthy parents who were about to lose most of their material possessions, but it was, she says, the greatest moment of her life.

Mrs Suarez is 72 now, a widow and retired teacher, an intellectual and avid reader. She and her children remain unshakeable believers in Mr Castro's revolution, though by no means in its current course. She would not leave Cuba if you paid her.

In a week in which the world has seen thousands of Cubans rowing from their country's northern shores on home-made rafts, it is worth remembering that the vast majority of Cuban's 11 million people have stayed behind. Up to 20,000 may have left this month alone since Mr Castro ordered his security forces to turn a blind eye, but it is still a tiny minority. Why do most stay behind?

In many cases, the simple answer is fear. Locura (madness) was how many onlookers decribed the scene yesterday as lorries carrying rafts arrived along the northern shoreline and groups of men and women struggled to row against a strong wind for hours before even getting out of sight.

The Cuban media ignore the phenomenon, but Mrs Suarez and her friends are well aware of what is going on from Radio Marti, the Miami-based station run by anti- Castro exiles, or Radio Bemba (Radio thick lips), local slang for the grapevine or bush telegraph.

'We're heartbroken, seeing all these young people going off to an uncertain destiny, even death,' she said. I took Mrs Suarez, her 50- year-old son David and his wife Gloria, both scientists employed by the state, to dinner in a dollars- only restaurant this week.

It was the first time they had eaten out in four years. The meal cost the equivalent of two years' salary for David and necessity overrode embarrassment as they produced plastic pouches to take home the leftovers - fish, salad, chips, bread rolls and even the butter. I agreed to their request not to use their real names - although all three had worked all their lives 'for the revolution,' talking to foreigners, indeed anyone, remained dangerous.

David had had his university career cut short almost 30 years ago after criticising some of Mr Castro's policies to a group of friends. Somebody reported him. He now earns 400 pesos (less than pounds 3) a month as a scientist, his wife 300 pesos. My intention was to hear the pro-Castro side of the story. After all, the great man claims the vast majority of Cubans support him. What I heard, however, was a story of revolutionary fervour turned sour.

The family is a typical one of middle-class professionals, their opinions probably representative of a large sector of urban Cubans. Mrs Suarez, in perfect English, explained to me why she and her friends stayed on in Cuba despite growing disillusionment with Mr Castro's performance.

'One: love of my country,' she said. 'I was taught to love my country when I was small. You love a mother no matter whether she goes wrong. Two: love of family, which is concrete. Three: a feeling of belonging. Cuba is my country. Havana is my city. When I walk through the streets, the city talks to me. Four: historical reasons. I lived through dictatorships, I saw political gangsters gun people down in the streets.

'I was well-off before the revolution. My dad had a tobacco farm confiscated, because he did not farm it personally, and a business. But seeing everyone become equal, schools for everybody, seeing everyone treated as equal human beings was the best thing I had ever felt. The revolution was not made for me. It was made for those who needed it. Five: I travelled widely before the revolution. Look how chaotic the United States is - drugs, prostitution, crime.'

Like probably a majority of Cubans, Mrs Suarez is disdainful of what they call la gente de enfrente (the folks across the street), a reference to the exiled Cuban community in the US, mostly in Miami. The idea that the Miami Cubans would be likely to return and buy up the entire island with their dollars were Mr Castro to fall is one that helps the Cuban leader retain support.

'Fidel has lost touch with the masses. He's lost touch with me,' Mrs Suarez said. He's very self- centred, a megalomaniac. I think he's beyond retrieval. I don't want anything bad to happen to him. I just wish he'd wake up one morning and say, okay, I'm leaving.

'Marxism is change, concrete analysis of concrete situations, not stubbornness. When people can't say what they want to say, the whole thing falls apart. I'd say the US blockade is responsible for half our problems, mismanagement the rest. So where do we go from here? I'm hopeful, but irrationally so. I'm an optimist but I don't see how things can be straightened out.'