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U.S. Policy a Barrier to Change in Cuba : Castro has embarked on a course to dismantle the Communist system. But embargo impedes the process.

April 21, 1996|JULIAN NAVA | Julian Nava, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, is a professor of Latin American history at Cal State Northridge and a TV documentarian

My crew left for Cuba to film a documentary on everyday life there in the midst of turmoil caused by the shooting down Feb. 24 of two unarmed civilian planes flying close to Cuban territorial waters.

Our anxiety reminded me of the first time I went to Cuba, in the summer of 1960, as a young assistant professor of history at San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State Northridge). The revolutionaries had just stormed into Havana months before to almost universal acclaim there and in the United States as well.

I returned critical of the revolution in the middle of this acclaim, and said so publicly and in my classes. I assailed the unjustified expropriations and government takeover of the press, radio and television media, especially.

Conditions 35 years later reveal much about a political regime and a socialist system that has outlived hostile administrations of nine U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton. Clearly Fidel Castro is not simply the demon that exiles and our media have described him to be.

As I stood in front of Havana's Capri Hotel late one night in March, a beautiful girl boldly asked me to buy her a Coca-Cola. Before the revolution, this hotel was the property of Lucky Luciano, the powerful Mafia godfather of organized crime in Cuba. His operation controlled gambling, prostitution and graft in most major Cuban ventures. The Cuban Revolution in 1959-60 rid the nation of all these people in one sweep of expropriations, jailings and executions.

Carmela was charming by any measure. When we sat down to the understanding glance of the waiter, she gulped down the Coke. She quickly accepted my offer of a grilled submarine sandwich of ham and cheese. It was her first meal of the day. She was surprised that I politely turned down her offer of feminine services. What I wanted was conversation about social change and the rise of hundreds of "jineteras," or jockeys, who mount tourists for a living or a simple meal.

Carmela confessed, "I don't like what I'm doing." Carmela and I conversed at length, and it turned out that after high school graduation and plenty of ambition, she could not find work in her country town. Her ration book was not valid in Havana, so she was on her own for food and lodging. She planned to return home with a bundle of dollars, or if lucky, marry a foreigner.

Pablo drove the filming crew around for $25 a day, which he split with the owner of the ancient Russian Lada sedan. Because the average wage in Cuba is the equivalent of $8 per month, he was in the big money. He was unlicensed, but Cuban cops look the other way about this new form of private enterprise.

Like thousands of young Cubans, Pablo had studied in the Soviet Union. He returned after five years as a skilled bilingual civil engineer with no affection for Communism.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989, his work in Cuba ground to a halt, but not before he helped build a network of tunnels in Havana and other island locations. Cubans playfully call these subways, but they are stocked with Russian arms and supplies to use in the event that our Marines invade again. Every city block in Havana and Cuban cities is organized by defense committees, with prescribed duties for men and women, in the event of emergencies. Because food ration books and medical attention are linked to place of residence, government oversight is complete.

Pablo supports the social gains of the revolution because it ended the corrupt Batista regime, as well as U.S. domination since 1898. He plans a marriage of convenience with a Venezuelan woman whose air fare to Cuba he will provide. Then they will emigrate to Venezuela together.

A groundbreaking medical researcher we met explained the system of universal, free medical care for all Cubans. The government also gives high priority to his work. Indeed, several medical breakthroughs in Cuba are denied to the American public although these are eagerly sought by Latin Americans and Europeans.

For Cubans, the U.S. embargo makes it very difficult to obtain most medicines, as well as food, from abroad, and so medical attention for Cubans has suffered greatly since 1989.

Abel Prieto is a member of the Communist Party Politburo, whose decisions guide even Castro, run the party and the government. Cuba is in transition, he said, and there is no turning back despite the great risks for the system. There is now an expanding, legal and open dollar economy as well as private enterprise. Prieto, only 40, is a voluminous writer and creative thinker known throughout the Hispanic world. He embodies the transition underway in which younger men and women in equal numbers are being placed in important positions. Castro's secretary (chief of staff) is in his mid-30s.

The U.S. embargo weakens steadily as more nations flaunt U.S. policy and invest in Cuba. General conditions are improving gradually as the world scoffs at the clumsiness of U.S. policy. Indeed in the United Nations, only Israel supports us.

We cannot expect Castro to confess to the bankruptcy of the Communist regime, but he has charted a course that will surely dismantle the system. It is ironic that U.S. policy hostile to Cuba for so long may make it harder for him to change the system.

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