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Cubans Look for Some Material Changes in Socialismo

August 05, 1990|Murray Fromson | Murray Fromson is director of the Center for International Journalism at the University of Southern California

HAVANA — Cuban officials suffer no illusions about TV-Marti. The U.S. government will continue to broadcast and the Cubans will continue to jam.

Because it doesn't require sophisticated equipment to block a broadcast, the Cubans are said to be spending a fraction of the $40 million it costs the Bush Administration to keep TV-Marti afloat--$1 for every $1,000 spent by the United States.

The Administration is now offering Congress a fanciful interpretation of TV-Marti's effectiveness. And because the nation's legislators are unlikely to verify this effectiveness independently, they will probably continue to fund the project.

It means that while hints of movement are everywhere in Cuba, politicians on Capitol Hill carry on as if this island is beyond redemption. It could mean an opportunity lost.

The talk in the Cuban capital these days is increasingly about change and the need to discard some of the worst aspects of socialismo. Even at the offices of Gramma, the government newspaper, a deputy editor says the Fourth Party Congress, scheduled for next year, will encourage a multitude of Cuban voices to be heard freely without fear of having the thought-police knock on doors the following morning. If this were to happen, it would represent a startling reversal of what has been official policy almost from the time Fidel Castro came out of the Sierra Maestra to take control of Cuba in 1959.

What kind of changes do most Cubans seem to want? Mostly material, not ideological. Young Cubans, who constitute 60% of the population and who do not share the revolutionary ardor of their parents, want blue jeans, music and movies; certainly more spice in their lives, more freedom of choice, which is code for the opportunity to travel, especially to the United States.

Rationing has been a fixture for years: three-quarters of a pound of meat every six weeks; a chicken every nine to 14 days; severe limitations on sugar, beans and rice; fresh milk only for children under the age of 6.

The inevitable consequences of shortages have been rising corruption and petty theft. Two robbers recently broke into a Havana market and stole coffee, meat, vegetables and flour, prompting one Cuban to say, "If there is going to be another revolution in this country. it's not going to be over democracy or Castro, but over chicken breasts."

This does not necessarily mean the end of Fidel Castro. People on the streets of the capital, at Havana University and in private homes, express no desire to overthrow him. They are more likely to blame the United States for its economic blockade of Cuba.

That is not the impression you would get in Washington or Miami, where Cuban exiles have managed to shape the dialogue about U.S.-Cuba relations almost from the time they fled their homeland three decades ago. They want nothing less than Castro's head. Moreover, they harbor the illusion that their former countrymen will be waiting for them on the beaches to welcome them back to run the country.

But as one Western diplomat put it: "Whenever change comes, this country will be run by Cubans who live here, not by those who are 90 miles away."

Unlike the embittered exiles, the Cubans at home seem somewhat more charitable toward Castro. Many were dirt-poor before the Revolution. Like the system or abhor it, working-class Cubans have been allowed some dignity in their lives and they seem grateful to Castro for that. Whether they would be as charitable toward him if they had complete freedom to speak out is unknown.

Bored though they may be by his long, tedious speeches, Cubans talk not of being rid of El Commandante, but of hoping he will change. Some people want to believe Castro can be persuaded to realize that after 30 years, the revolutionary flame is flickering; that only he can save it by reversing Cuba's downward slide. They say he is out of touch, that much of what goes on here is the fault of faceless bureaucrats who act in his name.

In Havana, admirers say, you are unlikely to see a child suffering from malnutrition, or a beggar on the streets the way you would in Mexico City, Lima or Sao Paulo. That is true; just as it is that Cuba has one of the most modern health-care systems in the hemisphere and has all but eliminated illiteracy.

The Cuban exile communities are loud, rich and influential in the Republican Party. No one in the GOP is prepared to jeopardize that support. And the Democrats are equally gun-shy on doing anything that would allow the Republicans to portray them as being "soft on Castro."

So the policy toward this island of 10 million remains frozen in a kind of Cold War time warp. Neither the Administration nor the Congress seems inclined to explore ways of ending American hostility and Cuban paranoia when the time for such an initiative seems to be approaching.

Washington could be promoting greater contacts. But it would rather broadcast TV-Marti.

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