YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

In Cuba, Life Under Castro Is Dissolving : Economy: Even being government loyalists isn't enough for family to have level of existence they seek.


HAVANA — Ena Santamaria's home is a theater showing the daily life of Cuba, a microcosm of a land that combines sadness and joy, promise and disillusion, dreams and reality.

It is a tiny room, formerly the entry to what had been a three-bedroom house in Miramar, which was the neighborhood of Cuba's elite before Fidel Castro officially ended social distinctions.

Ena, a clerk in a store catering to foreigners and Cubans with dollars, is lucky to live in lovely, embassy-dotted Miramar, even in overcrowded conditions in a house that looks abandoned, so overgrown is its yard, so shabby is the exterior.

Ena's parents, Marta and Pablo, her two sisters, a brother, two uncles and an assortment of cousins and friends occupy the same house. One day this month Ena, Marta, Pablo and a guest sat side by side on the single piece of furniture in the room, a couch-bed.

"We sleep in shifts," Ena said. She shares the couch with a sister at night; a brother and his wife use it in the early morning.

In the dimness of a fading afternoon sun, no lights came on. Electricity is severely rationed, with most neighborhoods receiving no more than eight hours a day, two to four hours at a time. During the long summers, the allotment is less.

Candles were lighted, and a bottle of rum appeared.

Ena and her family are Castro supporters and argue that much of what is wrong in Cuba is the fault of the United States and more than three decades of the trade embargo put in place when Castro established a Communist government.

As blacks they said they felt less discrimination than what they read about in the United States, and they spoke proudly about one of Ena's brothers who works as "an official" in the Finance Ministry.

And the family seemed well-educated and well-informed. All said they could read and write--Marta and Pablo attended adult literacy classes in 1962--and the level of discussion was sophisticated.

Yet it was clear from their lifestyle and what they said they needed--especially food, clothing and transportation--that being Castro supporters wasn't enough to maintain the level of existence they felt they needed.

In reality, all of Cuba seems to be living a life that is dissolving.

A tour of the Havana of March, 1994, is a trip of visual despair. Gracious old homes and office buildings stand in near-derelict condition with window glass missing and shutters hanging as if from incomplete amputations.

What paint there is droops in strips or clings in patches, the uncovered wood and mortar cracked, rotting and covered with oily grime. Only those structures reserved for tourists, diplomats and a handful of foreign business people are maintained.

As Ena's home shows, Cuba suffers from a major housing deficit. Houses once inhabited by a single family now are crammed with five families, and often more. Three- and four-member families live in 45 square feet of space.

Only diplomats, foreigners and privileged Cubans, especially government and Communist Party officials, enjoy space and privacy.

So little gasoline and spare auto parts are available that traffic jams are unknown. It is safe to walk down the middle of the most important streets without fear of being run down by anything but Chinese-made "Flying Pigeon" bicycles.

Water from a system that has not been upgraded or repaired since the pre-revolutionary days of the 1950s is undrinkable, by government admission.

Most restaurants used by ordinary Cubans are closed (other restaurants exist clandestinely or are open only to tourists). Grocery stores stand empty. Theaters function only on weekends, and only when there is electricity.

Cuba is out of almost everything. Meat has long disappeared from the market, as has most vegetables and fruits, baked goods, milk, eggs, cooking oil and fuel. A pound of potatoes, if it can be found, costs twice what a minimum-wage worker earns in a day.

And what is available is severely rationed. According to a government proclamation covering March, each person will get a quarter pound of cooking oil, six pounds of rice, 30 ounces of beans, three pounds of sugar and three pounds of evaporated milk for the month. The ration for milk and beans, however, includes portions not delivered in February.

Small shares of fresh milk and meat are allotted specially to children and expectant mothers.

Even the so-called dollar stores, which serve only foreigners and the relatively few Cubans who can acquire dollars, are facing shortages.

One recent Saturday, the baked-goods store serving the wealthy foreign residents of Miramar was out of bread. The cheese department also was empty. Neither had received any products from the central distributing agency.

People line up for nearly everything--to use phones, enter clothing stores, buy food at the infrequently open street stands and, most of all, catch a bus.

Los Angeles Times Articles