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Many Question Embargo as Cubans Suffer

The island's economy is a shambles, and some place part of the blame on U.S. sanctions.

January 02, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

HAVANA — While her grandchildren eat their dinner of rice and crackers, Felicia smokes to curb her hunger pangs. Cigarettes are cheaper than food.

Eddy's trick for stretching the family rations is mixing water with the milk given only to preschool children. That way his ailing grandmother can soothe her stomach, even if it is at the expense of the baby.

Jusleta, a single mother earning $4 a month watching children at a state day-care center, hustles tourists for their free hotel soap bars. She sells them to fellow Cubans for dollars she uses to buy cooking oil and canned tomatoes.

"Look how skinny my kids are!" laments Felicia, a security guard at a government ministry taking home $7 a month. "Everyone in Cuba is living on the brink of starvation. Even beans now have to be saved for a special occasion."

Life in Cuba, once one of Latin America's most prosperous countries, has deteriorated over the past decade, putting the tropical island on a level with the region's most hopeless and destitute nations.

Abandoned by Soviet mentors and isolated by more than 40 years of U.S. embargo, Cubans wanting to put food on the table now must navigate shortages, poor distribution and a newly emerged class system that allows only those with dollars to shop at state stores that sell some goods at a 240% profit.

In what amounts to a case of cutthroat capitalism to cover communism's economic failures, the regime of President Fidel Castro -- who came to power on New Year's Day 44 years ago -- is cashing in on the U.S. sanctions imposed after the 1959 revolution in the hope that deprivation would prompt Cubans to revolt.

But those most affected by the sanctions -- the impoverished laborers beholden to the leadership for what state-subsidized sustenance they get -- insist that they are powerless to oust the aging revolutionaries, even though many seem to want to.

"I'd get 20 years in prison even for talking about this," said Eddy, huddled with his wife and baby daughter on a bare mattress that covers most of the family's one-room apartment.

Though friends and foes agree that the main reason for the economic misery is Castro's adherence to the misguided economics of communism, many -- including, by some tallies, a majority in the U.S. Congress -- increasingly see the policy aimed at isolating and impoverishing Cubans as a pointless infliction of misery and a humanitarian disgrace.

Supporters of the embargo defend the sanctions as a tool for forcing democratic change in Cuba.

At its heart, the embargo forbids Americans from spending money in Cuba. American credit cards cannot be used in this country because U.S. banks are barred from paying those charges. No airlines fly from U.S. cities to Havana and they are forbidden even to provide information about flights to Cuba from other countries. There is no U.S. Embassy here, only a heavily fortified Interests Section.

Most damaging, however, is the ban on extending credit to allow Cuba to buy more food from the bountiful U.S. farm belt.

Congress moved two years ago to allow the sale for cash of food and medicine, and that liberalization touched off the beginning of what some businesspeople in both countries hope will become a gold rush. The first U.S. agricultural fair in four decades was staged here by 288 food producers and exporters who brought their wares in October. Cuban purchases of U.S. food in 2002 exceeded $250 million, said Pedro Alvarez, head of the state-run Alimport food procurement company. He added that Cuba could be spending at least 60% of its $1 billion in foreign food purchases on U.S. products if the embargo and its credit restrictions were lifted.

The United States rose in the past two years from the least significant of the island's 228 foreign markets to No. 10 in 2002, and Cubans argue it could easily be No. 1, considering the quality and proximity of U.S. products.

"The United States is shooting itself in the foot with the embargo," said Roberto de Armas, the Foreign Ministry's U.S. desk chief.

"American people are coming here, discussing what they want, and they are seeing that there is another way of life here," he said. "We aren't afraid of this. We would welcome 2 million more."

The increased number of U.S. travelers is building pressure for reconsidering the embargo. From Castro admirers to aging emigres seeking a last look at their ravaged homeland, Americans are visiting in defiant droves. They are bringing food and moral support for Cubans caught between Castro's refusal to admit that his revolution has ruined the country and the Bush administration's demand that the omnipotent former guerrilla chief cry "uncle."

What only two years ago was a trickle of U.S. visitors urging better ties has become a flood. The U.S. Treasury Department, which issues embargo exemptions, recorded 176,000 U.S. visits here in 2001, and analysts estimate 25,000 came without permission. Those numbers are expected to double when 2002 visits are tallied.

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