Cubans Try to Recall 'Lights as Bright as Rio'

Once a vibrant commerical avenue, Calle Monte testifies to broken dreams and potential for change

ON a sultry Sunday afternoon, a woman sits at a TV-tray-sized table on Calle Monte and does her best to make a few extra pesos selling three-bite slices of watermelon.

Hers is the only "business" in sight on the 20-block avenue of perfectly intact but vacant storefronts that 40 years ago formed the commercial backbone of this once-thriving Caribbean capital.

"Ah, Calle Monte," says Elizardo Sanchez, a onetime fighter for the Cuban revolution who is now among Cuba's prominent dissidents. Before the Communist regime outlawed private ownership and entrepreneurship, Calle Monte "was as alive and prosperous as any street in Latin America. Its lights were once as bright as anything Buenos Aires or Rio [de Janeiro] offered," he adds wistfully. "Now its darkness and emptiness are a sad testimony to where the absence of freedom has brought us."

In her small way, the melon-slice vendor protests on a street of broken dreams for economic freedom. Although the regime legalized limited self-employment in 1993, Fidel Castro Ruz would consider her efforts a selfish desire for personal enrichment.

Helms's gift to Castro

For more than 30 years, the United States has imposed a trade embargo on Cuba in response to Mr. Castro's embrace of Soviet-style communism. The Cuba of 1995 has ceased to be a cold-war menace, but the same embargo is maintained as leverage to push Cuba's lonely Communist regime toward political reform.

Yet some Cubans with no love for the island's Communist regime say the US should consider how to help Cubans achieve economic freedom - especially when such freedom might also prompt political change.

Few Cubans appear to support the embargo as a way to push Castro to loosen his political reins. "I think it ... gives the government a scapegoat and a convenient excuse" for the country's economic problems, says a former radio journalist, who says she lost her job last October over a report she did on the "true" nature of Cuba's economic woes.

Legislation authored by US Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina would further tighten the embargo by punishing foreign companies that do business with Cuba, and promote property rights of US citizens who held property in Cuba before the revolution. But in Cuba, the Helms bill looks like a godsend to Castro. "If this Helms law is adopted, there is no future for Cuban youth," says a Cuban university student.

Disagreement on embargo

Opinion on the embargo is split. Some Cubans would end it, others would phase it out gradually, and others support its reinforcement. The embargo does cut off Cuba's access to international development loans. But it can hardly be blamed for the inefficiency, low productivity, and lack of incentive to work that are Cuba's economic nemeses.

The embargo has killed US trade and other forms of interchange with Cuba. The US was once the island's most important interlocutor and still, even officials emphasize, its natural principal trading partner. It was then substituted by the Soviet Union, and now increasingly by Canada, Spain, and Mexico.

A minority of Cuba's political dissidents say the embargo should be reinforced as a way to hasten communism's fall.

"There was an international embargo against South Africa, and now there is democracy," says Elizardo San Pedro, president of the illegal Solidarity Party.

But others, including Mr. Sanchez, say US policy toward Cuba cuts off forces for change - US investment, US tourists, US students and products - in short, the US example that could bring economic and political reforms.

Interviews on the street indicate that most Cubans want better relations with the US - often because they have family there, sometimes because they believe an end to a hostile relationship would lead to an improved economy or political opening.

Fresh US involvement with Cuba might also give Cubans, like the melon vendor, the determination to demand more.

One day, that woman could have a shop on Calle Monte from which to sell all the fruits of her island's bounty.

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