HAVANA — THERE is a joke making the rounds in Havana.
A primary school teacher holds up a photo of President George Bush and tells the class, "Because of this man, we have no meat, no clothes, no spare parts, no oil." A puzzled voice from the back queries, "But teacher, what happened to Fidel's beard?"
Despite increasing hardship, however, dissent in Cuba seldom goes beyond disparaging wisecracks. President Fidel Castro Ruz, diplomats here say, remains firmly in control.
When the few small dissident and human rights groups raise their profile, plainclothes police and the recently formed "rapid action brigades" of civilian "volunteers" quash them.
The latest crackdown occurred Nov. 19 when prize-winning Cuban poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela was dragged from her home and beaten by a pro-Castro mob. She was then arrested and jailed along with six other members of the opposition group Criterio Alternativo. The dissidents - who advocate free, multiparty elections - were found guilty of defaming state institutions, holding illegal meetings, and printing clandestine documents. Pattern of violence
Americas Watch, a New York-based international human rights organization, sees this incident - and several others during the same week - fitting a pattern of greater violence over the last six months. "Before, there were government-organized demonstrations outside activists' homes and quiet arrests. Now they're going into homes and relying more on physical force," says Mary Jane Camejo of Americas Watch.
The crackdown came despite recent messages from several Latin American nations that they were willing to provide Cuba with economic help if there were signs of democratic progress.
"Castro was livid over Maria Elena's meeting with Juan Luis Rodriguez-Vigil [the president of the autonomous Asturias region of Spain]," says a European diplomat. "After meeting with Castro and other Cuban officials, he had the gall to meet with several opposition members." It was the first official meeting here between a Spanish official and Cuban dissidents.
The beatings and arrests drew criticism from several European governments and, for the first time, the Roman Catholic Church here. Following the Cuban Episcopal Conference, Catholic bishops warned "if such incidents are repeated, the fear is that they will also produce violent reactions."
At the same time the bishops issued a statement rebuffing the Fourth Communist Party Congress offer, made in October, inviting "religious believers" to join the party. The bishops concluded that if atheism and materialism continued to be tenets of the Communist Party, "it is morally impossible to be a member of this party without losing your Christian identity." Members of the Catholic hierarchy declined to be interviewed individually, but a Spanish diplomat says: "This willingness to speak out shows qui te a strong change of orientation by the church." 'Period of survival'
Perhaps the mounting hardship being felt by parishioners is fueling the change. In a town in the province of Villa Clara, where a traditional New Year's festival has been canceled due to "lack of materials," a Catholic monk reports: "People are losing their fear of entering the church. The economic crisis has more people looking to God."
The "special period in time of peace more than a year old - is now being dubbed "a special period of survival." Almost all items are rationed, and many goods are simply unavailable. Havana was without soap for two months. The state-run hatcheries recently gave away their stock - five chicks per family - when they ran out of grain to feed the poultry.
But people are not starving. Compared with the countries that overthrew communist dictators in Eastern Europe, Cuba is less industrialized and not subject to cold winters. In dozens of interviews in the Cuban countryside, dissatisfaction with the shortages was less evident than in Havana.
"Hunger? Hunger is two weeks without food. There's no hunger here," shouts farmer Antonio Izquierdo over the din of a rice-threshing machine. "It's true, I've got nothing in my house at the moment. But I can go out in the fields, pick some fruit, some beans, or kill a pig."
Cubans speculate that the monthly quota of about a tankful of gasoline for private cars will be cut to zero this month. And Mr. Izquierdo admits that if there isn't enough fuel bring in the sugar harvest starting soon, "We're going to have big problems." Resolute Castro
But Mr. Castro is resolute. He notes that the path chosen by the Soviet Union has so far produced only political and economic chaos. "It could take 20, 30, 40, or 50 years before capitalism functions there with any efficiency," said Castro in a Dec. 6 speech. "If we weren't the people we are, we would have lost our independence, lost the revolution, and lost socialism.... They would have converted us into a Puerto Rico, converted us into a Miami, which they say is one of the major centers of crime, prost itution, and drugs in the world."
Nelson, a Cubana Airline employee troweling cement at an apartment building under construction in Havana, voices a common opinion: "The next two or three years will be the test for us. Perhaps the greatest test of the revolution. If we can survive, then we will resume our growth."
Street crime is rising and the black market is spreading to such an extent that Romanian diplomats here are incredulous at what Cubans will endure. "So far," says one official, "the regime has been relatively successful in making sacrifice seem patriotic."