In Cuba, milk and shoes mean more than Elian

Images of Cubans jammed into the esplanade along Havana's Malecon sea wall, angrily demanding the return of Elian Gonzalez, have been a staple of world television for months. Waving "bring home el nio" banners, their fervor and numbers have implied that the fate of the young shipwreck victim has been the most pressing issue in their national life.

But when the cameras turn off, Havana's weary residents let their slogans sag. In a city where a packet of soy milk substitute is a prize possession, almost everyone has more pressing worries than Elian's future.

They are tired of what they judge their domestic media's shrill propaganda, tired of pressure from a government many feel rules through deprivation and fear, and tired of the US economic embargo. Elian? Who cares?

"The Elian story is [Fidel's] way to get our minds off everything else.... No one here can stand it any more," says Mario, an engineer whose name, like all those in this story, has been changed.

The return of Elian to his homeland, in fact, appears to have roused the average American more than the Cuban person in the street.

Only hours before his arrival in the evening hours of June 28, many Habaeros ignored what the rest of the world saw as breaking news.

Waiters at a restaurant on the Malecon had no clue the boy was about to return. The state-owned eatery, housed in a 16th-century Spanish fort, featured a large and listless staff that for the most part was performing no task discernable to the naked eye. But if a dish of spaghetti bolognese takes 45 minutes to produce, despite the fact that the restaurant is virtually devoid of customers, at least there is time to talk. "Elian will be here tomorrow? Really? I haven't heard anything about it," says one woman, dutifully.

An older waiter and four young men chatting in the kitchen area are oblivious of Elian's return, even though the restaurant is within a mile of the very esplanade where the protest marches are staged in front of the American Interests section.

While many Cubans were honestly moved by the father's desire to be reunited with his son, lassitude and distrust of Cuba's two strident TV channels caused others to tune out.

"Fidel made a big propaganda out of it, busing in children 'pioneers' from all over country," says Loli, a young artist, with a derisive smile.

Nor was the propaganda subtle.

It is true that domestic TV occasionally displayed bits of CNN's Spanish-language Elian coverage. But rather than expose Cubans to US-based commentators, the government chose to dub the tape with Cuban voices.

"How dumb do they think we are?" says Julio, a technician, as he turns on his TV. "See? They only show bits of it anyway, it's a montage. Nothing gets through."

For many, the Elian crisis simply brought months of government pressure, they say. Take the marches. They did not exactly develop spontaneously. At the University of Havana, officials kept a list of which students and professors joined Elian protests. Missing more than one march meant risking unemployment, says Fernando, a professor. "Students who [didn't] go to the marchas will be failed for the next semester," he says.

For Fernando, compulsory attendance at protests was just one stone added to the burden of his daily life. In Cuba today, living can mean scrabbling for survival. Often, that means a scrabble for dollars.

Castro's revolution has provided a basic safety net of food, education, and healthcare for millions of Cubans and retains a core of dedicated supporters. But the nation's economy has deteriorated considerably since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of massive Soviet subsidies. The result: an environment where politics is far from most people's highest priority.

Havana's Hotel Nacional remains a glamorous and gleaming monument from an era when such currency was more easily available. Built in the 1930s, it retains its vast cigar vault and photos of guests from Winston Churchill to Kate Moss.

Accompanied by a foreigner, Fernando nervously enters the lobby. He enviously indicates the presence of a waiter, who, with his access to tourists and dollars, now has more status than any academic.

"In the new Cuba, I am nothing," says the biologist.

The new dollar elite still live in almost squalid circumstances by American standards. One venerable singer returning from performances in Europe and the US, was recently held up by Cuban officials over a suitcase full of shoes for relatives.

"But you can't find this stuff here, even with dollars. Nothing in this country is for us, you only sell stuff tourists want," he claims to have yelled at them.

Castro has long blamed his nation's poverty on the US economic embargo. Average Cubans do not necessarily agree with that, but many favor lifting the embargo. If nothing else, Castro's government would then be shorn of a convenient excuse.

"If the embargo should end, at least we'll see if the government will begin to meet the population's needs, not just the tourists," says the singer's manager.

In the once genteel Vedado, a neighborhood of handsome town houses seemingly lifted from Belle Epoque Paris, Elena also hopes the US policy will change.

She points out that many people attended the Elian protests to get free "Save Elian" T-shirts.

"If the embargo ends, we can maybe stop ... pretending to support [Fidel] to get the basic necessities," Elena says.

She quit her office job to work at renting out two rooms of the house to foreigners at $25 per night. She and her husband pay $250 per room, per month, to the state, renters or not.

They also lack milk for their daughter. Soy milk powder, which Elena keeps in a plastic bag, is all that is available in a country where sparse cattle graze to feed tourists.

"Our lives might improve if more goods are available some day," she said.

"Life here is terrible" agrees Gustavo, a former bus driver who somehow retains a Cuban panache despite his cracked shoes and worn shirt and jacket.

"It's the US's fault. I think Clinton and Castro are in cahoots," says Gustavo. "[Elian] would have a better life in the US, because Castro has ruined this country."

Amelia, a history professor at the university, seems distracted from her own worries by talk of Elian's expected return.

"Look, the father [Juan Miguel Gonzalez] is a very simple man; I know people who know them. And I know the house they have reserved for him, in Miramar ... with air conditioning and a pool. He thinks he will be one of the important people here now," she says, lifting both eyebrows as if to prompt you to read between the lines.

Amelia's son is a doctor who has been granted a US visa. But Cuban authorities have retaliated by switching him to lesser jobs and remaining vague about when they will allow him to travel, she says.

" 'Maybe in five years?' they say. There are many young people in his case, they too only get back rumors and evasiveness. I am worried to death he will try to get on a boat," says Amelia.

She has few illusions of more freedom if the embargo is eased. "History has shown that any bonanza, any influx of wealth only reinforces his power."

Rather than pronounce Castro's name, she resorts to the familiar hand gesture of stroking a beard.

"Ending the bloquo would indeed make life easier for all of us, but what they give you they take away in another form. I have seen too often how they just move the chains around."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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