CUBA: WHERE THE CUPBOARD IS BARE

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor; Peter Johnson , who works at an international bank and holds his degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, recently returned from a one-week visit to Cuba

A man tacks up a sign on a Havana street offering to trade a grand piano for a small refrigerator. * A woman orders four glasses of yogurt in a restaurant. She surreptitiously pours them into a bottle and takes it home to supplement family food rations.

* A teen-ager asks a foreigner to buy him a radio in a foreigners-only tourist shop, deftly slipping the man a wad of bills.

These people are trying to beat the economic system in Cuba -- particularly the rationing program that sparingly allocates many food and consumer items. Unavailability of goods, rationing, poor quality, and high prices are the complaints most frequently heard from Cubans who are brave enough to speak out to visitors.

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They try to beat the system in whatever ways they can.

Many Cubans try to get around the limited purchasing power of their ration coupons by swapping goods with friends and neighbors, eating out more (though most can hardly afford it), and trading on the sly with visiting foreigners.

Others are so fed up they are leaving the country altogether. Ten thousand Cubans flooded onto the grounds of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana in early April seeking asylum abroad. Hundreds of thousands may leave in small boats and planes, clandestinely and illegally, before the year is out, many Cuba-watchers suggest.

Though rationing of consumer goods has been a practice throughout Fidel Castro's rule in Cuba, its effects have never been felt so keenly as they are now.

One reason for the shortage is President Castro's twin goals of cutting imports and boosting exports.

On top of this, economic planning was seriously undermined last year by poor sugar and coffee crops. Disease struck both Cuba's cane fields and coffee plantations.

Military ventures, too, are putting the squeeze on consumers. Cuba's export earnings -- along with massive Soviet aid and credit from foreign lenders -- are spent largely on industrial equipment, tractors, and military hardware. They also finance President Castro's expensive ventures in Africa and the Middle East , involving thousands of Cuban troops.

Consumers must use government-issued ration coupons to buy poultry, dairy products, rice, coffee, sugar, soap, and household items.

Chicken is available only occasionally. Beef almost never. And, in this cofee-exporting country, Cubans are restricted to a mere one ounce of coffee a month.

The monthly ration of five pounds of rice per person (an enormous amount by North American standards) indicates how little variety the economy allows in the Cuban diet.

Besides food, goods in short supply include:

* Household appliances. Refrigerators, for example, are highly coveted even though the only kind a available is a four-foot high Soviet model costing about eight months salary (about $1,600). Demand so exceeds supply that a would-be purchaser must wait about a year and even then has to be granted permission from his workplace.

* Clothing. There is a limited supply of merchandise in stores, and many articles of clothing must be bought on the rationing system. Shoes, for example , are available in only eight styles.

* Automobiles. Most cars in Cuba are pre-1962 US vehicles. Many are held together ingeniously with baling wire (a local product). It is almost impossible for the average citizen to buy a new car, though in recent years a growing number have been imported (mostly from the Soviet Union, Poland, and Italy) for use by government officials and military officers.

* Other items. Glass and paint are simply unavailable to ordinary people. Almost every residential building in Havana is missing window panes and its paint is peeling badly. New buildings are constructed of drab poured concrete (a local product) -- a sharp contrast to Cuba's lovely older buildings, with their beautiful carvings, moldings, and intricate grillwork.

People are grateful for what items they can acquire, though they often denigrate East-bloc and their own Cuban-made goods, calling them "bola," or junk. West European products, however, and goods from Canada and Japan are called "yuma," implying they are of good quality. American goods made before President Kennedy imposed a trade embargo against Cuba in 1961 also are called "yuma."

By and large, Cubans have a "grin and bear it" attitude to their life with shortages. they accept hardships as necessary -- or at least inevitable -- sacrifices while Cuba remains a developing country dependent mainly upon sugar and coffee, whose prices fluctuate dramatically on the international market. Fidel Castro has explained to them many times that this is how it must be.

So they live with it, and ingeniously and craftily work around it. But the ultimate way to beat the Cuban system, of course, is to leave Cuba.

Even before 10,000 sought asylum at the Peruvian Embassy, an increasing number had chosen to emigrate. Last year was one of the most active since the 1960s for clandestine escapes to Florida. Thousands of others have managed to obtain "salidas," or exit permits, from the government, and are waiting for another country -- primarily the United States -- to accept them.

In view of these economic hardships, is Cuba's strictly socialist, centrally planned economy a success?

Despite its limitations, some economists give a qualified "yes." Rationing is often considered to be the kind of firm action that benefits third-world countries in the long run. In fact, as a condition for providing aid, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) often requires developing countries to institute rationing or price increases.

Few countries, however, have bitten the bullet of austerity as deeply as Cuba.

President sadat of Egypt decided to refuse IMF funds in 1979 rather than institute rationing, when riots broke out over the issue. Bankrupt Turkey and Zaire have regularly refused -- for domestic political reasons -- to introduce similar measures.

President Castro has been able to demand significant austerity from the Cuban people for two major reasons: the strictly authoritarian nature of his government and his own personal popularity.

Will the next 20 years see the Cuban people suffer the same economic hardships as during the last 20? Fidel Castro readily admits the answer is "yes."

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