Global Economics

Inside Castro's Cuba


Slide Show >>

Will Fidel Castro live forever? Many Cubans—Castro included—seem to think so.

Plenty of stories and jokes play on the septuagenarian leader's longevity. The best one I heard during an 11-day visit to Cuba in July goes like this: Castro is on a state visit to China, where his hosts present him with a rare elephant. It makes the perfect pet, they say. It's a vegetarian, is extremely intelligent, and will live to be at least 100. "Ah, it is such a beautiful gift, but regrettably I cannot accept it," Castro laments. "I would be heartbroken when it dies."

Castro claims to have survived dozens of attempts on his life, including many a botched CIA plot. But with the leader now in the hospital and his brother Raul at least temporarily in charge, many observers are wondering whether he is finally about to exit. Truth be told, neither Fidel nor Raul was much in evidence during my visit. Both were featured at the Revolutionary Museum, and one exhibit displayed a double-breasted jacket with padded shoulders that Raul wore in 1940.

STUCK IN TIME. In fact, the Cubans seem to soft-pedal their propaganda, at least compared to China and Vietnam, two other communist nations I have reported from extensively. Sure, the museum had plenty of photos of Fidel, but there were also other oddball exhibits such as an old Esso (XOM) logo, gear made by General Electric (GE), and a bronze plate from a Westinghouse steam turbine engine.

I was not in Cuba on assignment. I was vacationing (as a Canadian I'm permitted to do so) and only told a few people about my day job as a correspondent for BusinessWeek in Hong Kong. Make no mistake. Although you don't see a lot of cops and those that you do see are unfailingly polite, Cuba is still a police state and people are afraid to speak their minds, especially to foreigners. For that reason, nearly everyone I spoke with requested anonymity.

Although I left Cuba before Fidel fell ill, I saw little evidence that the country is poised for any significant change. Cuba appears to be frozen in time, with nearly empty storefronts, dramatic if crumbling Colonial-era buildings, and ubiquitous 1950s Chevys and Buicks (GM). Shortly after Castro took over in 1959, the U.S. slapped its trade embargo on Cuba, which has hobbled the economy. And it has meant virtually no imports of cars over the past four decades. But ever-resourceful Cubans have managed to keep the same vehicles on the streets since the 1950s, making the country the world's biggest open-air car museum. Private automobile ownership, however, is forbidden for all but a handful of Cubans, so these antique jalopies operate mainly as taxis, often carrying 10 passengers at a time.

EXTREME SCARCITY. But even taxis are a luxury to most Cubans. Indeed, since bicycles are also difficult to come by—you need to wait for years to get one, and then you need a permit—the most common mode of transport is the bus. And these are notoriously unreliable, with waits of an hour or more common. And once it arrives, don't expect luxury, or even air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat. Many buses are converted 18-wheelers crammed with hundreds of passengers.

This is a country of extreme scarcity. Even basic items such as shampoo and bath soap are untold luxuries that are sold only in special shops requiring hard currency or a local scrip called CUC. That's why enterprising Cubans park themselves outside five-star hotels panhandling for toiletries that can be resold on the black market. Others supplement their official salaries of perhaps $15 per month selling whatever they can.

In Trindidad—five hours from Havana via an air-conditioned tourist bus that set me back $25—the cobbled streets are too narrow to allow much roadside commerce, so many families keep their front doors open, hawking everything from second-hand shoes to spare parts for various machines to old English-language magazines. I passed one fellow selling pork cutlets in his living room and another family offering chilies and squash from a window ledge.

LONG LIVE CHE. Others are tapping into the tourist trade. Though Americans are forbidden from visiting, citizens of most other countries are welcome to do so, and last year 2.3 million tourists visited. That has created opportunities for people such as the couple I stayed with in Havana. Both former lawyers, they quit their $15-a-month jobs and converted their two-bedroom apartment into a casa particular, or guest house, charging $25 per night. Even after paying a sizeable chunk of their income to the government, they are extremely affluent by Cuban standards.

To be sure, Cuba boasts excellent social services. Cuba's free education and health care are the envy of other Caribbean and Latin American countries. Castro has sent hundreds of doctors and educators to Venezuela, which in turn has helped keep the Cuban economy afloat with cheap oil. And of the dozens of developing countries I've visited, nowhere does the divide between the haves and the have-nots appear to be so narrow.

One thing that few Cubans have is cigars. A standard Cohiba—coveted by investment bankers, lawyers, and stockbrokers worldwide—sells for $2.50 a pop in Havana and far more in Paris, London, or Hong Kong. That puts them far out of reach of locals, and I only saw a handful of Cubans actually puffing on them. At the Cohiba factory in old Havana, which makes 10 million cigars a year, employees are allowed to smoke two per day on the premises, my guide told me, though he was a bit vague when I asked if they could take them home instead. The most dexterous workers can roll as many as 110 stogies daily, which can mean earnings of up to $90 monthly. He assured me that each of the 700 workers is carefully searched before leaving work.

GIVE PEACE A CHANCE. Cuba may be the one place where the iconic Argentine Che Guevara is even more popular than he is in U.S. college dorms. His portrait is a fixture both in Havana and in the provinces, not to mention on T-shirts flogged to tourists. A two-dimensional sculpture of his face even adorns most of a multi-story building overlooking the Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel Castro often gives his multihour speeches. But Tiananmen Square or Red Square the plaza is not. It resembles nothing more than an abandoned parking lot, with tufts of grass growing among cracks in the asphalt.

As with all Communist countries, Cuba gets great ideological mileage out of its commitment to peace, and has adopted John Lennon as one of its symbols. The same artist who did the giant Che sculpture was also commissioned to do a life-size bronze of the former Beatle in a pocket park in Vedado, an affluent Havana neighborhood that is home to foreign embassies, five-star hotels, and nightclubs. When I showed up with my camera, an elderly Cuban sitting on the bench next to Lennon dutifully took a pair of battered granny glasses from his pocket and placed them on Lennon's nose for me.

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