CUBA: WHERE THE CUPBOARD IS BARE
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* 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.Skip to next paragraph
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* 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."