Tags: Cuba | After | Castro: | End | Communism?

Cuba After Castro: End of Communism?

Friday, 28 September 2001 12:00 AM

"That's the feeling I got, especially from the younger ones -- that once he goes, that's it," said Alfred Echerri, controller of United Press International, who came to the United States alone as a 13-year-old boy in January 1962.

With his 79-year-old father, Echerri took a fresh look at the Caribbean island nation after 40 years. Rumor has it that the communist apparatchiks have all kinds of money and other assets outside of Cuba, he said. These functionaries will not fight to preserve the revolution, goes the belief, but will go peacefully to their chalets and villas abroad.

But Echerri believes this is wishful thinking. Fidel Castro's younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, is still very strong with the military, he said. "The streets are patrolled - you still have a policeman on practically every corner of Havana."

Instead, Echerri predicts a period of upheaval, when wealthy and energetic Cuban-Americans "will try to get in and do whatever they can to get back."

People who used to be poor feel secure and somewhat protected by the socialist regime, he said. What will happen when Cuban-Americans start pouring in millions of dollars? "They have the know-how, and they have the connections" in the United States to get things done.

Echerri did not recognize the house he used to live in. His old neighborhood, formerly residential, looked "like a jungle." The empty lots of his childhood were full of trees and bananas.

"I guess everybody tries to grow whatever they can."

Houses were not well maintained.

In the 1950s, when the corrupt U.S.-backed strongman Fulgencio Batista held power, poverty in Cuba was rife. Communist dictator Fidel Castro led the revolution that seized control of the island in January 1959 and has ruled longer than anyone in modern times.

Today the brutal poverty of the 1950s is a memory, but so is prosperity.

"Almost everybody is about the same," said Echerri, explaining that his cousin, a dentist and a professor at the University of Havana, makes about 615 Cuban pesos a month - about $28. With this the family can buy food, but not much more. Rent is almost free, but clothing is very expensive.

Many Cubans depend on their U.S. relatives to help them out.

"The economy is run on U.S. dollars," Echerri said.

European tourists change their money into dollars rather than pesos.

People "die for" jobs in the tourist industry, because they can get tips. The average person makes the equivalent of only a dollar or two a day, he said.

During his 10-day visit, Echerri observed that the merchandize in the small stores that charge pesos is very limited, and everything is rationed. But those with U.S. currency have access to anything they want in special stores that accept only dollars.

The communist regime allows some limited private enterprise, he said. People may set up little stands where they can sell their produce. "Of course, they have to be licensed by the government, and they pay taxes."

In Cuba, as it was in the Soviet bloc, Communist Party members live much better than ordinary people and have access to luxury goods, Echerri said. "They have their own neighborhoods; they get better jobs."

Echerri considers the 40-year-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba to be a failure and favors ending it. Cuban-Americans who support the embargo are really its greatest violators, he said.

"If we send money to our relatives in Cuba, if we go visit Cuba, we are breaking the embargo all the way through." This is Castro's greatest source of hard currency, he said.

Cuban-born Americans who left the island before 1970 must obtain a visa, which costs about $115. Those who left after 1970 need not only visas, but also a valid Cuban passport, said Echerri, because Castro considers them holders of dual citizenship. "He charges them something like $225 just to get a Cuban passport."

When Cuban-Americans visit, they take along as much clothing for their relatives as they can. The same applies to hard cash.

"If friends know you are going to Cuba, they give you envelopes with phone numbers and names. You call them up (upon arrival at the hotel), and sure enough, they come and get it," Echerri said.

More than 300,000 free-spending Cuban-Americans visited last year, he said, giving many islanders access to U.S. dollars.

In Cuba, "They always try to get something out of you," he said, recalling being overcharged on a bill. Upon checkout, the hotel tried to shake him down for two "missing" towels.

Cuban hotels are strictly for the tourists. Local people are not allowed to stay even if they can pay in U.S. dollars. Echerri could entertain his island relatives in the bar, but could not bring them up to his room.

His impression is that most of the Cuban people don't like the socialist system, but put up with it. "They're all unhappy and complain that they have to work for little money, and they hardly have enough for food."

But, unlike other parts of Latin America he has visited, "nobody seems to be really hungry." And although no one is denied medical attention, medicines are very scarce "so they suffer a lot like that," Echerri said. School is also free.

At El Morro Castle, a 16th-century fortress that guarded the harbor at Old Havana, he bought sugar cane juice from two engineers who told him that they made more selling the drink to tourists for U.S. dollars than they could make by working for pesos in their profession.

Salaries, of course, are heavily taxed. "With U.S. dollars, you can go to restaurants - anywhere," Echerri said.

Despite Castro's denunciations of Cuban expatriates as "the Miami mafia," he did not encounter any anti-American feeling.

Anticipating the demise of communism, the financial officer likened Cuban-Americans with West Germans and island Cubans with East Germans.

"After living under that regime for 40 years, you have to change the culture all over again."

The heady predictions of German cultural reunification made in 1989 proved false. Many East Germans found capitalism, a system in which the individual has the chance to fail as well as to succeed, to be harsh and unforgiving.

In Cuba, everybody has a job, even if they have little to do, Echerri said. Five or six people do the work of one. "They work for three hours, then they have a headache and they go."

He bought two cakes at a bakery, but the clerk had only one box. "And she disappears for five minutes," Echerri said.

Upon her return, she said the bakery had ran out of boxes and that someone had to go to the warehouse to get some more.

That took 20 minutes. A long line of other customers grew during this time, "and she did not take care of anybody else until she got the boxes. Everyone waited very patiently," he said. "It's quite amazing."

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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That's the feeling I got, especially from the younger ones -- that once he goes, that's it, said Alfred Echerri, controller of United Press International, who came to the United States alone as a 13-year-old boy in January 1962. With his 79-year-old father, Echerri took a...
Friday, 28 September 2001 12:00 AM
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