JWR Roger SimonMona CharenLinda Chavez
Jacob SullumJonathan S. Tobin
Thomas SowellWilliam PfaffRobert Scheer
Don FederCal Thomas
Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / March 9, 1998 / 11 Adar, 5758

Don Feder

Don Feder Havana will break your heart

HAVANA -- Havana is heartbreakingly beautiful. And Havana will break your heart.

Along the Malecon at sunset, the sky above the sea takes on vivid shades of pink. Fidel Castro Strolling through one of the city's lush parks, with its inevitable statues of Jose Marti, you feel like a Spanish grandee.

Then, at a sidewalk cafe, an ancient women takes your hand, calls you "Mi amor" and looks pleadingly into your eyes. You give her money.

For Cubans, the U.S. dollar is a lifeline. Necessities (cooking oil, detergent) are available only in dollar stores. Cuban workers are paid 200 pesos, about $8 a month. With what that buys, your family comes to resemble Kate Moss on Slimfast.

In Havana, monthly rationing includes six eggs and 2 pounds of fish per person. On the black market, 30 eggs cost $3. Hence the scramble for tourist bucks. The doorman at my hotel gave up a job as an electrical engineer to work for tips.

This is a country where physicians, who pedal bicycles to and from the clinic, are paid less in a month than the average American doctor will spend on lunch.

For pretty girls, there is another way to rise above bare subsistence. The Museum of the Revolution has exhibits on the social ills wrought by Yankee imperialism. Among them is an antique photograph of a prostitute in a halter. Two blocks away, young ladies in tight pants ply their trade.

These aren't the hard-bitten whores of other Third World ports. Many are gentle, even shy. Not a few are well-educated. The girls who hang out at the hotel bar will tell you that Cuban women are very passionate and they want to be your friend. And, of course, you'll want to help them in return.

Since prostitution brings male tourists here in droves, Castro does nothing to discourage it. Cops on the Malecon hassle Cuban men they see talking to foreigners, but not the ladies.

The other day, the Maximum Leader spoke for seven hours. I asked one of the senoritas in a hotel lounge, "What did El Presidente say in his grande speech?" She leaned close to me and, in an undertone, spat out a four-letter word. Then she whispered, "I would like to kill him."

Four decades of socialism have devastated the island. A man who was formerly a government economist (until he started expressing unorthodox ideas) told me that Cuba has the world's lowest productivity per acre in sugar.

In the Heritage Foundation's 1998 index of economic liberty, of 154 countries, Cuba ranks dead last (along with North Korea and Laos) in freedom to earn, possess and engage in enterprise.

Castro is driven by conflicting urges. One day, desperate for hard currency to keep his regime afloat, he'll ease the reins a bit and let Cubans make a few pesos in paladares (home restaurants) or selling handicrafts.

But when he sniffs the development of a dreaded middle class, he starts raving about "contaminating elements" shattering the "crystal vase" of the revolution and reaches for the whip.

The revolution has devised forms of exploitation undreamed of by 19th century imperialists and resurrected the more degrading aspects of colonialism. For $5 an hour, men on bicycles pull rickshaws carrying tourist sahibs.

In partnership with Fidel, Canadian mining companies and Spanish hotels reap profits in Cuba with docile workers whose wages are paid to the state. Everyone can go into business here -- except Cubans.

Near the Hotel Inglaterra, I encountered one of those "contaminating elements" -- a bright young man who speaks four languages fluently and sells postcards. At first, we joked. Did I know an American woman who will marry him?

Then the conversation turned serious. "Look, man, I know I shouldn't be talking to you this way, but I've had a lousy day and I don't care. Please, get me out of here; I can't breathe. I don't want to end up like them." He motions toward older people shuffling dejectedly along the street.

I give him the name of someone who may be able to help with a visa. Parting, I hand him a bill. He looks embarrassed and in awe. "Hey, man, this is $10. Why would you just give me this?"

I don't say it's to ease my conscience. Instead, I tell him I'm a rich gringo. "Besides, it's a loan. When you get to the States, you'll pay me back."

If he does escape, El Presidente will still be giving 7-hour speeches blaming the U.S. embargo for all of Cuba's ills and telling his (literally) captive audience how he's building the socialist new man. And socialist new man will continue to rust under the tropical sun.


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©1998, Boston Herald; distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.