Hard Times in Cuba

The Caribbean's isolated communist pariah is short on oil and enough work to go around

SURVIVING as a blockaded communist island in a capitalist world isn't easy. Mostly it means making do with less - of everything.

And that is changing life in Cuba in a thousand big and little ways. For example, this nation of baseball fans now must forgo night games to save energy.

It's probably just as well, since attendance would have dropped anyway when public transport was cut by 50 percent. To compensate, a half a million Chinese bicycles, known as chivos (goats), have been imported. Of course, the upside is that Cubans now have time to ride their bikes to afternoon baseball since factory work hours are shorter due to lack of materials or parts for broken machines.

Adrienne, a television repairman, for example, works a 12-hour shift, then gets two days off. But he actually does less work now because there are fewer hours of television programming. With more leisure time, Cubans could catch up on their reading. But the government newspapers still being published are slimmer due to a paper shortage.

"Instead of going forward, we're going backward," moans Jorge Antonio, a young Army private. And no one predicts the situation will improve soon.

Recently, Carlos Lage, an adviser to President Fidel Castro, said this year Cuba could expect delivery of 6 million metric tons of oil or less. That means a cut of more than 50 percent since 1989. Cuba is now angling for an oil deal with two other Western pariahs, Iraq and Iran.

Meanwhile, the sugar harvest, Cuba's crucial cash crop, has fallen significantly short of last year. Even with a good crop, the former Soviet Union is offering no more sweetheart deals.

Indeed, deliveries of all goods from Cuba's ex-benefactor are irregular at best. Maritime shipping companies of the Confederation of Independent States are looking for hard cash, not Cuban oranges or sugar. Between 1990 and 1991, Cuba's exports to the former Soviet Union have dropped by 70 percent, according to Trabajadores, a weekly unionist paper.

But Cubans seem to cope. Thanks to rationing, they get the basics, if only in small quantities: one bread roll per day, five eggs a week. When the banana or mandarin or tomato harvest comes in, large quantities of these items can be bought on the open or black markets.

No one appears to be starving. In the streets, one finds hustlers wanting to change money or sell records or tapes. But one doesn't find homeless beggars. In terms of poverty and health, Cuba still ranks above most Latin American nations.

But for how long?

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