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NEWS ANALYSIS : ' Viva Castro!' Fading Into ' Adios, Cuba'

August 25, 1994|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAVANA — She brought high birth, wit, idealism, beauty and firebrand energy to a revolution that she believed would build a better Cuba.

Now, near 60, she is a senior official in a government ministry. Watching the plight of her country, and the sea flight of its people that continued unabated Wednesday, is more than depressing. She feels violated.

"I am lost. I gave my youth, my life. What is there to show for it? To what should I aspire now? To be able to one day shop again in a store?" she asked amid the faded splendor of a once-elegant living room.

With a new exodus adding insult to the injury of decades of political stagnation and economic failure, illusion and commitment are ebbing fast in the country that proudly proclaimed social revolution as the cardinal national ethic for 35 years.

"Nobody believes anything anymore; people don't see any future," the official said, staring vacantly at an armchair two generations overdue for reupholstering.

Makeshift rafts floating off to sea on a keel and a prayer with each new tide harden the winter of a patriarch. Even for Cubans who have long supported the revolution, there is an empty ring now to Fidel Castro's claim to a moral high ground over empty materialism and Yanqui imperialism.

One by one, hallmark gains of Castro's revolution are unraveling in hardship and disappointment.

The Cuban love of laughter and the absurd lives on: This week as thousands of rafters were plucked from the sea, the movie at the landmark Cine Yara in downtown Havana was "Night of the Sharks."

But if there is a line between principled poverty and squalor, time-warp Havana has crossed it. The empty shops, empty streets and general dilapidation of the Cuban capital are well-known, however shocking their Bronx-like desolation. What is newer are the empty faces, the defeated eyes, the crowds of young men and women with nothing to do, the apparent absence of productive activity except around tourist areas, where there is an unseemly scramble for dollars.

"After so many years, I feel betrayed. We believed, we worked, we volunteered. For nothing. These are evil times," an old man said. Call him Eugenio: Twenty years ago, as a teacher proclaimed as a heroic worker, he was allowed to buy a car. Today, unable to live on his pension, Eugenio spends his days around tourist hotels, hoping a visitor will hire him and his rattletrap for dollars to tour the city.

Castro came to power with a clean broom he wielded fiercely against social ills that flourished under the dictatorship he toppled. Vowing to build a just, moral society, he righteously warred on crime and corruption, and virtually wiped out prostitution.

Thirty-five years later, in the umpteenth period of economic emergency, they have all returned to Havana with a vengeance. Residents habitually warn visitors against muggers and pickpockets. Beggars come in dazzling variety, from whining grandmothers--"One little dollar, my child"--to street kids who curse with polish, in English, once their requests are denied.

The casinos of dictator Fulgencio Batista's day remain closed, and parents say drugs are not a problem, but naughty Havana is back. There are not many traffic lights on the dark road from the airport to town, but prostitutes troll for dollars at every one of them.

There are images seemingly reborn from another time: a teen-age cop fondling an even younger prostitute on a downtown street. It is like the old days but with modern conveniences: A tourist jetting in for a few days, no questions asked, finds the air conditioning pumping in his hotel room and the TV showing a preseason football game between the Broncos and the Cowboys. At the hotel bar a friendly senorita in brown lipstick and a gamin haircut arrives simultaneously with a cold imported beer.

In practical terms, Cuban pesos are worthless, so everybody cheats to earn dollars. Waiters at state-run restaurants are no longer surly; they live for dollar tips. Official receipts are hard things to find in tourist Havana; not everything that crosses the bar reaches the till.

One rafter waiting to leave this week said he had supported himself for months as a middleman for a friend who sold cigars from a state factory and the street people who sold them to tourists. A $15 taxi ride to the airport will buy as many pesos as the driver earns legally in a year. The next step is not hard to figure out.

The disconnection of government and people is, by now, notorious. Amid an exodus that represents for Cuba a mortifying hemorrhage of its young people, government press organs natter on about increased electric production, high-yield cows and important new trade ties with Namibia. On Wednesday, the Communist Party newspaper lauded 244 selfless women who were given medals for their contribution to the revolution.

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