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CUBA: ‘It’s Not Easy’ – a Common Refrain

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Aug 4 2005 (IPS) - "It’s not easy" is a commonly heard refrain in Cuba, where people frequently complain that public transportation is "getting worse every day," their wages just don’t stretch far enough, or it’s impossible to sleep at night because of the suffocating heat made absolutely unbearable by the frequent power outages.

But while some Cubans call for changes, others keep quiet and patiently or impatiently await the better times that have been promised.

In the meantime, the socialist government of Fidel Castro continues to appeal to the patriotism of Cubans and urges them to have confidence in the Revolution.

Day-to-day life is not easy in this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million people, 70 percent of whom were born after 1953, when Castro launched the armed struggle that led him to power in 1959.

But it is rare to run across anyone who goes to bed hungry, is illiterate, or dies because of a lack of medical care.

Real poverty began to appear in Cuba in the 1990s, during the severe economic crisis unleashed by the breakup of the Soviet Union, on which the Cuban economy was heavily dependent.

High-tech health care and education all the way up through university are available to anyone in Cuba free of charge. "These are social gains that no one would want to lose," said an academic researcher who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity because he is willing to consider the possibility that a free market economy could be a solution for his country.

In addition, utility rates and many basic food items are subsidised.

However, for most Cubans, the daily grind is marked by an overcrowded, unreliable public transport system, a shortage of housing, low wages and a severe electricity crisis.

The scenario has been further aggravated by the impact of a lengthy ongoing drought and frequent tropical storms and hurricanes.

Nevertheless, there has been some relief. According to the government, gross domestic product grew 7.3 percent in the first half of this year, and revenue brought in by measures like the revaluation of the local currency made it possible for the government to raise pensions, the minimum wage, and the salaries of health sector workers and teachers.

Social assistance allotments were also increased, after the government admitted that 43,000 families were "extremely vulnerable."

All told, the raises and increases have benefited 4.4 million people, or 30.9 percent of the population, at an annual cost of some 2.78 billion pesos (around 115 million dollars).

But most salaries and pensions remain sadly insufficient, given the rising cost of living.

"My husband and I together bring in about 900 pesos (slightly over 37 dollars) a month in wages. We spend between 35 and 40 pesos a month for the telephone, power, water and cooking gas. The rest runs out in less than 15 days," said schoolteacher Marta Hernández.

According to an academic study, the prices of basic farm products rose 8.5 percent in the first four months of the year, with respect to the same period in 2004.

At the same time, sales fell in the free farmers’ markets, where prices are set in accordance with supply and demand and which offer products that are not available in the government-run ration stores, where a few staple foods are sold at highly subsidised prices but in limited quantities.

The study estimates that a typical family of four needs between 1,200 and 1,500 pesos (50 to 63 dollars, at the current rate in the government exchange bureaux) to cover its basic needs.

Quality of life has also been hurt by the constant threat of blackouts, which have diminished in the past two weeks, however, thanks to repairs to thermoelectric power plants.

The frequent power cuts that have plagued Cubans since last year reportedly served as the catalyst for isolated expressions of discontent in Havana, described as acts of vandalism by the police, such as the stoning of a public bus or the breaking of windows in state-run businesses.

Against this backdrop of tempers made shorter by the summer heat, radical dissident groups have become more visibly active in recent months, holding small street protests and demanding the release of political prisoners.

In late July, Castro promised "zero tolerance" for any further demonstrations, which he called "provocations by traitors and mercenaries" financed by the United States.

He also called for "patience" from those who are feeling desperate about the electricity crisis, which officials said should be overcome by investments in the energy industry scheduled for completion by the second half of 2006.

It is important for the government to keep the tension at a manageable level throughout the rest of the summer – when electric fans are a basic necessity, not a luxury item, and food spoils quickly when the refrigerator goes off.

Castro has expressed confidence in his strategy of forging closer political and economic ties with China and oil-rich Venezuela.

These alliances, along with measures that brought about a 20 percent revaluation of the Cuban convertible peso, seem to have strengthened the country’s capacity to face up to the tightened U.S. economic embargo.

Trade with Venezuela – a key ally for Cuba, which is a net oil importer – will climb this year to three billion dollars. Venezuela provides Cuba with the oil it needs, on soft terms, although some concern has been raised here over this new foreign dependence.

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