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Documentary : 4 Years Later: a Cuba of Peddlers and Pedalers : With few Communist allies left, tourism blooms but almost everything else has wilted since 1989, a visitor finds.

August 10, 1993|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAVANA — The first time I saw Havana's streets, they were a mobile car museum of glistening fins and running boards. When I rode through those streets again last month, the U.S.-made Fords and Chevies from the 1950s were mostly gone, replaced by Chinese-made bicycles.

Acute gasoline shortages have turned even the ancient automobiles--kept running with wits and clothes hangers--into luxuries saved for the most special occasions. So, an estimated 700,000 bicycles--mostly the heavy, old-fashioned type--have headed the shrinking list of Cuban imports in recent years.

They have taken over the right lanes of the city's broad boulevards, a symbol of the post-Cold War economic and political reality in Cuba.

On the ride in from the airport, the bicycles pass under a banner that reads, "Cuba and Vietnam Together Will Triumph." The Vietnamese Embassy recently moved from a small building behind the U.S. interests section--which substitutes for a diplomatic mission here--to one of the old mansions on once-fashionable 8th Street, in recognition of Vietnam's increasing importance in Cuban foreign relations.

Cuba clings to Vietnam, China and North Korea as its few remaining allies in a world where Communist dictatorships are rapidly disappearing. The former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe accounted for $7 billion a year in Cuban imports--85% of the island's trade--before 1990. Last year, Cuba bought fewer than $1 billion worth of goods from those onetime allies, less than half its imports.

A radio reporter eagerly practicing English shifts to Spanish when she introduces a colleague, explaining that he studied Russian as his second language. "For all the good it does me now," he comments gruffly.

Western European languages are what Cubans looking toward the future are learning these days, as French oil companies start drilling offshore this month and the British invest in chemical plants.

Ironically, new foreign investment born of economic desperation has banished the ghosts of pre-Communist Cuba in ways that three decades of ideology could not. Not only are the old U.S. cars off the streets, but the city is outgrowing the skyline that U.S. hoteliers created in the 1940s.

A Spanish-owned hotel under construction already overshadows the old Riviera at the harbor entrance. The new building is controversial, with postmodern architecture that looks odd in a city where no landmarks have risen in more than 30 years.

A Spanish company has also taken over the old National Hotel, replacing the worn, clunky 1950s furniture with more contemporary designs.

As a result, on my first walk through Havana in four years, the city--despite its economic crisis--actually felt less than it had before like a fading "Twilight Zone" set, a place waiting nostalgically for Papa Hemingway's return.

The Havana of 1989, with its old cars, peeling paint and long lines, could not have been considered prosperous, at least not by any standards except those of Cuba today. The economy had stagnated during the previous four years. Stores routinely ran out of many items in ration books. Pens and paper were scarce.

Against all odds, Cubans in 1989 were already getting ready to host the 1991 Pan American Games. As a foreign student on a study tour of the island, I was amazed to see workers shoveling cement out of wheelbarrows to lay stadium foundations and could not imagine that the buildings would be ready on time. Later, I learned that the stadiums started to crumble almost immediately. But they were done on time.

Today, I remember my skepticism about the sports arenas when I hear people debating how much longer President Fidel Castro and communism can last.

"What is remarkable is the extent to which Cuba has maintained its economic stability," said economist Andrew Zimbalist. "Austerity has been shared equally. Starvation has been avoided."

But other problems have not been. As the economy has shrunk by half over the past four years, some industries have ground to a halt while others, notably tourism, have grown 30% or more. The uneven way the economy has contracted creates the same kinds of distortions that boom towns suffer.

Prostitution, the black market and the split between dollar haves and have-nots are more blatant today than they were four years ago. Then, police routinely questioned students who stood outside hotels talking to tourists, especially if they wore makeup or nylon stockings--evidence of fraternization with foreigners.

Now, young women in red tube dresses walk down 5th Street, the city's main drag, in midafternoon, hailing cars that only tourists can afford to drive. No one stops them. In a city where most youths are out of work, they have found a way to earn a living in dollars.

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