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Cuba: 'a strange new hybrid' feeling for its roots.

HAVANA, Cuba -- The breakwaters that line the Malecon, or the shoreline road embracing the northeastern side of Havana, are spotless; no trash mars the Caribbean waves as they splash playfully onto the pavement.

A line of pastel, cream and stone-colored, three-story homes shoulders the other side of the road, whispering stories of the colonial grandeur of the turn of the century. The paint is peeling and the houses beg for repair. But delicate swirls and sculptures, architectural jewels, still border the windows through which humble families now enjoy the ocean view.

Rambunctious children -- Afro-Cuban, mulatto and white -- spill from the doors of these homes to toss and bat baseballs across the streets that run perpendicular to the Malecon and the sea. Baseball is Cuba's most beloved sport. And the game goes on even though sticks must frequently be used as makeshift bats, and mitts are wearing thin.

It is a Sunday morning heading east on the Malecon. People have begun to make their way through the downtown. Most ride Chinese-made bicycles; others trek deliberately on foot through the breezy streets. A handful of Russian compact cars, late model Ladas, ramble squarely beside occasional 1940s and 1950s Fords and Chevys.

Cubans are proud their mechanical prowess still makes the old U.S. models purr, although spare parts disappeared from the market when Cuba was embargoed by the United States 30 years ago. These relics would spark the envy of U.S. collectors only 94 miles across the water.

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Drawing closer to the cluster of museums, plazas, cathedrals and convents that are Old Havana's historic pride, a rickety red Hungarian bus, jammed with local passengers, chugs by its modern, streamlined counterpart, a Habanatours vehicle used to transport Canadian, European and well-off Latin American tourists.

Gas is hard to get, the government says, because of limits on trade to Cuba as a result of the blockade. Available petrol preferentially fills the tanks of tourist vehicles, in exchange for precious dollars. Many Cuban people, meanwhile, must seek other forms of transportation. In countryside towns, people have resorted to horses and buggies.

A small boy and girl walk hand in hand. Brother and sister, they are heading to the city's 18th century Spanish cathedral to "play." We chat, and I soon uncover the hidden agenda behind their jaunt to the historic tourist zone. "Do you have any Chiclets to give us?" the girl inquires. "Or how about a pen for school?"

I tell them I am a journalist, not a tourist, and that I have no chewing gum. I remember a middle-aged Cuban friend who proudly pointed out a few days earlier that children in Cuba, despite severe food rationing, still do not beg for bread. They ask for gum and pens, sometimes bars of soap.

This is a sign, she insisted, that no one is going to bed with an empty stomach even in this so-called "special period" -- President Fidel Castro's euphemism for the economic crisis that swamped the island after a once paternalist Eastern Europe exploded in 1989. Economic problems further intensified earlier this year when the United States banned its foreign subsidiaries from doing business with Cuba.

A 10-year-old cousin joins the two children. They are asked about their parents -- one is a translator, another a middle-level technician, the cousin's mother a teacher. What do the children want to be when they grow up?

"I want to be a tourist," the 8-year-old responds, automatically, her eyes wide. "Me too," her older brother echoes. The cousin smirks: "Well, I want to be a teacher."

The 8-year-old gently corrects herself. "No, I mean I want to work on a tourist wawa." She uses the local word for bus.

Like this child, Cuba, an island of 10.4 million inhabitants, is trying to envision a new position in the world, a new era. But the country is not ready to jump adventurously on the same wawa towards change taken by its Soviet and Eastern European godparents.

"We know that the kind of capitalism that awaits us is not the capitalism of the developed world," people repeated to me many times. "It is the capitalism of poverty and inequality of the Third World."

Homebred hybrid

The breakwaters of Cuba's socialist revolution are still in place, although they are under great stress. Behind these structures, a strange new hybrid is trying to find its roots -- not in the Soviet Union, not in Bulgaria, but culturally, economically and politically as part of a changing Latin America.

For Cubans, these are times of uncertainty, confusion and anticipation. "It is as if we had been painting the Empire State Building on the 100th floor, and someone came and yanked the ladder out from underneath us," said Frank Gonzalez, assistant editor at a Cuban monthly magazine that aims to attract foreign business investors.

Upwards of 70 percent of imports of foreign materials and goods to Cuba, including petroleum, were cut off in 1990, following the fall of the socialist bloc. Foodstuffs accounted for a large percentage of these imports. From one day to the next, the country -- in reality a small, poor Caribbean island of sugarcane and tobacco farms -- realized it had to live from what it produced on its own.

Preferential swaps with the Soviet Union that propped up a fictitious economy -- like exchanges of oil for sugar -- dried up on the spot. And the U.S. blockade continues to complicate trade between Cuba and almost every other nation in the world.

"One of the biggest errors of the revolution was the terrible dependence we developed on the Soviet Union," said Rosa, a staunch Castro supporter. Rosa works at a food distribution shop run by the government in Havana's Vedado sector.

"If we had worried a long time ago about our food production capacity, we would not be feeling the pinch we are feeling now," said Candy Villar, a single Cuban woman.

People tell of past times of plenty, when potted hams and canned vegetables flowed in from Hungary and Bulgaria, when oil for industry and therefore feed for livestock was in high supply, and Cuban tables were moderately graced with the island favorite -- fried pork. Basic consumption rations, including things like a quart of milk per day per child and Camembert cheese, were a given. Extra goods were readily available on free and parallel markets at prices heavily subsidized by the government and Eastern Europe's political interests in the Caribbean.

Let them eat ice cream

"Cubans like to eat -- a lot," said economist and agronomist Mavis Alvarez, a 57-year-old grandmother of four who works with peasants who form private sector cooperatives. "The government used to have to wage campaigns against obesity. I think in some countries, people's bodies get used to putting up with hunger. Not here. We were always used to full diets and excellent health conditions. Our systems are not used to feeling even the kind of want we are experiencing now."

High cholesterol constituted one of Cuba's most serious health problems: Heart attack rates, compounded by widespread cigarette smoking, rivaled those of the developed world.

Now, milk is only a sure thing for kids under seven. Beef, fish and pork are scarcities in the ration books, and extra goods are frequently reserved for pregnant women, children and the elderly. Chicken is a luxury: Protein comes in scant portions of beans or a mix of soya and ground beef called picadillo. Eggs are limited to four per person every week.

Soap, deodorant, cooking oil and toilet paper, as well as additional food, must frequently be finagled through clandestine markets. For example, people who work close to tourists get dollar tips, and they ask foreigners to buy supplies in the well-stocked stores reserved for diplomats, foreign technicians, members of the churches and tourists.

Others pinch goods -- spare parts, for example -- from their workplaces. These products are all resold clandestinely at outrageous prices by bisneros -- small-time entrepreneurs -- creating a parallel system of commerce that may prove to be one of the government's biggest headaches in the future.

"The food situation is bordering on precarious, but people are still eating, although not well. Those who suffer most are the elderly who may not have anyone to help them supplement their food rations," explained Cuban Jesuit priest Jorge Machin.

"But at the same time, the overall standards of diet here are still above those in other Latin American countries," added Machin, who worked for several years in the Dominican Republic with Haitian workers living along the border.

Visitors, before welcomed into homes to share meals and a heavy dose of Bucanero or Havana Club rum, are now considered uncouth if they arrive at mealtime. And a couple thousand Cubans have come down with a disease called optic neuritis, apparently caused by a B complex vitamin deficiency. The government quickly included vitamin capsules in the daily rations in April to confront the problem.

Says Alvarez: "Internationally, people think that with all these shortages, the Cuban people are going to explode and turn against the government. But Cubans know that this is the same government that gave them abundance for years; therefore, most people believe the leaders do not want things to be this way."

And the government still makes ice cream. Very good ice cream, in fact. At Coppelia, an open air, garden ice cream parlor, 25-year-old Angel Arroyo is waiting for his mother to get off work. He says long lines at Coppelia are a sign of people's need.

Ice cream is sold cheaply -- and it supplies a milk supplement, he explains. Cubans lack everything, he says. He eschews a litany of complaints echoed time and time again by others. "Then this system of government is not working?" he is asked.

"No, no, no," Arroyo's eyes light up. "You have misunderstood me. We need changes. Big changes. But we do not need to change our system of government. We have made many mistakes over the years. But the experiences of yesterday must serve as our basis for the future. We must correct the errors."

Is this happening?

"Yes." His soft brown eyes light up again. "You see, Cuba is like a small child in the process of growing. This is a country that is really only 33 years old." He equates birth with the revolutionary process.

"Cuba is a country that is still in diapers when it comes to its real development," Arroyo continues. "We have been too dependent for too many years. And now this child must learn to walk on its own."

What does he think of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, the heroes of a revolution that took place 10 years before he and half of the Cuban population, in fact, were even born?

"A crazy, daring crew!" he says, with affection, admiration.

A man in his 50s strolls by. I remember Arroyo's comment about ice cream and need. The man is carrying a plastic container. "Times are hard, no? I mean, you have to look to ice cream as a supplement to feed your family?"

"I am looking for butter cream flavor to take home to my wife. She loves butter cream," the man laughs. "She won't eat chocolate, like me, you know." He trails off in search of his wife's mantecado.

Tourism: 'a necessary pain'

To kick-start the economy, Cuba's revolutionary government is attracting around 500,000 tourists -- and their foreign currency -- each year. While many Cubans consider the influx of beach-hungry visitors as a "necessary pain" to draw revenues to distribute among everyone, the appearance of luxurious new hotels beside paralyzed housing projects confuses others, especially the young.

Cubans used to have cheap access to hotels: A relaxing weekend meant renting a room and basking in the hotel Jacuzzi. Now, many of these locales are reserved for tourism.

Miguel Angel Inclan is a 15-year-old Cuban secondary school student of naval engineering who also plans to study English. He loves his country, especially the sea, and would live nowhere else. He also loves pizza and U.S. tennis shoes.

Inclan thinks Castro is "a real brain." And he adores the historic Camilo Cienfuegos, who was, before he died in a plane crash shortly after the revolution triumphed, "a real jokester," according to Inclan.

Like most Cubans, Inclan is well-read, even at 15. (Literacy in this tiny Latin American country is 97 percent, and everyone has access to higher education -- technical or academic -- if they want it.) He perceptively discusses economics and ethics. "My friends and I know we need changes here, but not capitalism," he says, amazingly self-assured.

"Friendship is what people should care about, not self-interests," he lectures.

But strolling through the "Museum of the Revolution," this adolescent struggles to put the theories he has heard about tourism and foreign currency into practice. He stops to stare at a photograph from the dictatorship era of Fulgencio Batista. It portrays a hungry street child gazing through the window of a store filled with luxury items.

"That's the way it is now. All those things in the tourist stores, and we Cubans cannot buy them, only the tourists can," he shrugs. "I don't need a lot. But I do want to be able to have a few good things again."

Later that day, we joined a law student and an elderly jazz fan for a free baseball game. (Movies, sports events, most cultural events and health services are all free in Cuba). Inclan was rooting for the home Havana team, and after a favorite player whacked a grand slam into the bleachers of the small stadium, he effusively explained how you say home run in Cuban Spanish. "It's honrron." He wrote the derivative in my notebook.

We cheered another Havana team star who stole second base as we sipped syrupy espresso coffee from inch-high origami cups. Coffee was the only refreshment sold in the stadium that afternoon. And cheap -- 10 Cuban centavos a slurp.

As the opposing Oriente team filed up to bat, the world of tourism seemed very, very far away.

The law student Carlos Lubin was asked if it bothered him that baseball is also the favorite sport in the United States, a country that has been hostile to Cuba in its foreign policy.

His response summed up an attitude that might provide the basis for a different future between the two nations.

"Come on," Lubin smiled. "Baseball is not to blame for the way your presidents have behaved."
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Author:Wirpsa, Leslie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 4, 1993
Words:2408
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