Cuba creaks, but doesn't crack: Amid riots and rationing, Havana's ordinary people just wish they had more US dollars, reports Ole Hansen

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The Independent Online
'The riot was against the government - and the dollar economy.' That was what a young man told me, a few hours after he had witnessed Havana's first anti-government demonstration since 1959. He was sitting with thousands of other Havanans in the shadows of scanty street lights on the waterfront, the Malecon. On the other side of the road, police officers were watching workmen boarding up the smashed windows of the Hotel Deauville. A lorry convoy of police, blue lights flashing, raced past.

As a bottle of rum went around, another member of the group assured me that although the Deauville, a tourist hotel, was the only building to suffer physical damage, the demonstration had not been against foreign tourists. The authorities, however, had taken the precaution of closing the famed Floridita and Bodeguita restaurants (immortalised by Hemingway's graffito in the latter: 'My daiquiri in the Floridita and my mojito in the Bodeguita'), both frequented by visitors to Old Havana.

The riot, two and a half weeks ago, came at a time of rising tension over ferry hijackings. On the previous two days, hijackers desperate to reach Miami had seized boats, and thousands of people ran to the port to see them sail away. Soldiers with bayonets fixed on their Kalashnikovs ringed the harbour office, and officers with binoculars watched from a tower on the building, but the authorities made no attempt to stop the ferries leaving. Excitement mounted when the hijacked boats - still carrying passengers who had involuntarily been taken to Miami and back - were due to return to Havana harbour. Squads of Brigada Especial police stood by in the port area, using loudspeakers to urge the crowds to move on.

But Cuba does not feel like a repressive state on full alert. The police are relaxed; many Cubans are well educated, well informed and eager to engage foreigners in discussion, often including criticism of the Government. Away from the trouble spots, they do not appear worried about expressing their views in front of the police. 'I want to leave, too,' a newspaper seller told me in earshot of uniformed Ministry of Interior policeman.

And the response to the boat hijackings was not that of a regime in crisis. The Cubans have not erected watchtowers, built walls or laid minefields to stop escapers. According to the official media, none of the hijackers has been injured by Government action, although a police officer and a naval lieutenant have been killed.

Times are hard for Cubans: food is rationed, shops are empty and public tranport is scarce because of the lack of oil. Travel outside Havana is a major undertaking for ordinary people; at every crossroads they crowd together in huge queues, marshalled by officials who flag down lorries, buses and even tractors to requisition lifts. That was why the young men watching the boarding up of the Deauville - black and white; unemployed or underemployed - wanted to leave if they could. In that sense they were no different from youths in other Latin American countries.

However, they were not typical of the ordinary Cubans I met. Like those who jumped overboard from hijacked boats rather than go to Florida, most people did not want to leave. One junior public employee said: 'It is difficult to get enough food. We eat a main meal every day at home, and we do not get enough of what we want. But I don't want to leave Cuba - I don't believe life is that easy in the US.'

Life is better in Cuba for those with US dollars - they can buy extra rations of meat and other essentials such as soap. But the dollar trade has created social tensions which appear to have contributed to the riot. As another public employee said: 'Cuba is now a capitalist economy. People employed in the tourist trade have access to dollars, but not people like me who get paid in pesos.'

Prostitutes, who seem to operate with official encouragement, are among those with access to dollars. Young, flashily dressed and heavily made-up Cuban women can be seen with middle-aged European men at restaurants and nightspots, and waiting expectantly in the lobbies of major hotels.

Yet, despite complaints of shortages, Third World images of hungry children and women worn out by child-bearing do not fit Cuba. Most Cubans appear unusually healthy, and the young people look like a nation of athletes.

Housing is poor, particularly in the cities, where 80 per cent of the population lives. However, it does not compare unfavourably with East Harlem, where the bulk of New York's Latin American community lives.

The reason behind the shortages of essentials is not hard to find. Since 1989 Cuba has not been able to rely on bulk supplies from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and has had to buy on the open market with hard currency - in the face of the US economic blockade. The official media stress these facts continually, yet many Cubans blame their Government.

Similarly, the media report that the US refuses visas to Cubans who legally apply for them, while granting free admission and residence rights to hijackers - and using its Guantanamo naval base on the island to warehouse thousands of Haitian refugees.

Cubans know they are not told everything and, as a result, often distrust the information they do receive - for instance, the hijacking in which the lieutenant was killed was not reported in the official media for three days. In such circumstances rumours flourish. By the time they spread beyond Havana, they are likely to be exaggerated: a collective farm worker from Aduana de Pasajeros, 150 miles from Havana, heard that on the night of the Malecon riot, 25,000 people had gathered to be taken away in boats sent by Cuban exiles in Miami.

Cuba is creaking, but it is not about to crack like Eastern Europe. The role of Fidel Castro in holding things together appears to be crucial. After the riot, he appeared on the Malecon to calm the people. Reporting of the hijacking had been delayed until his return from abroad; then the news was announced to the Cuban people by means of a two-hour television appearance in which Castro was interviewed by a panel of four tame journalists, followed by a news special.

Equally crucial, however, is the popular support which the current social and political system in Cuba still appears to enjoy. Even those who complain are aware of the advantages that the revolution has brought in terms of health, education and welfare. They also know that while the regime has its repressive aspects, it compares favourably with some other Latin American countries. No one to whom I spoke expressed any support for the Miami exiles or any desire that they, or any other US- backed group, should take over the government.

In this, perhaps, lies the greatest difference from the former Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. They were not only inefficient and brutally repressive, but also regarded as the puppets of an imperialist power. In Cuba, the reverse is true. The building of the revolution has been the assertion of a national identity against an imperial power as much as an attempt to create a socialist society. The slogan seen everywhere is: 'Patria o Muerte - Venceremos' (The fatherland or death - we will win). The Cuban exiles, overwhelmingly dependent as they are on US backing, are unlikely to better that.

The writer has just returned from Cuba.

(Photograph omitted)