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Havana November 10, 1992 - Tropicana Is Vegas Show With Cuban Flavor

By Bob Van Leer

  Dancer(HAVANA, CUBA, November 10, 1992) - Finally today a Cuban government official admitted that lifting of the U.S. embargo against Cuba would not solve all of this island nation's problems. Mario A. Travieso Garcia, vice president of the Economic Collaboration Committee, said, " Lifting the embargo would not solve Cuba's problems".

  He said it would be easier for Cuba but is not a solution. "The final effort depends on us".

  Cuba is starved for cash. Something like half of Cuba's imports were subsidized by the former Communist Eastern Bloc. 

  The bloc collapsed and left Cuba high and dry. Travieso said a number of projects stopped because of the collapse. Around Cuba we saw several freeway interchanges to nowhere and a new rail station with no roof rusting away.

  He said Cuba has skilled labor and modern facilities but lacks capital and raw materials.

  Lack of fuel is one of the worst problems. Cuba consumes 13 million tons of oil and produces 900,000.

  Now Cuba can only afford to import 6 million tons, 50% of demand.

Nuclear Plant

  There was publicity recently that the Russians had agreed to finish a nuclear plant in Cuba, started but now suspended.

  But this is not a done deal. Travieso said the Russians have agreed to finish the plant, but systems from France and Germany are needed and financing is not resolved.

  It is a huge plant, four 440 megawatt generators that would save Cuba 2 million tons of petroleum annually.

  Creditors won't lend Cuba money until old debts are paid. A few new credits are being extended.

  He said Cuba does have money to buy and bought $60 million in supplies last year. This would be the capital budget of a medium sized U.S. corporation.

  If the embargo were lifted, Cuba would have access to a very important new market for tourism and goods such as cigars.

  With money earned, Cuba could buy more oil and restart industries not running for lack of fuel.

U.S. Intimidates?

  Travieso said U.S. ambassadors intimidate companies that want to deal with Cuba. U.S. officials will only agree that they do call the U.S. policy to their attention.

  The embargo will be tightened again when the Toricelli amendment goes into effect at the end of the year.

  The two principal changes are that overseas subsidiaries of U.S. companies now getting licenses to deal with Cuba will no longer be able to do so. No more Coca-Cola from Venezuela.

  The second change is that ships that call at Cuban ports will not be able to enter U.S. ports for 120 days. Only 20% of U.S. Congressmen voted against the amendment.

  I asked about tips service people receive in U.S. dollars. Travieso told an openly skeptical audience that these are turned over to the government one special day each year and $3.4 million was turned over last year. Even our Cuban handlers were skeptical of this.

Cigar Factory

  We started the day at the Portagas Cigar Factory founded in 1845. It located right behind the Cuban capitol.

  It was fascinating to see how it is done. It is all handwork. Tobacco leaves are fluffed out and humidified. Stems of the leaves are removed and the leaves are sorted for grade.

  Rougher material is used for filler and the cigar is wrapped and trimmed twice. The final wrapper is choice and clear, much like the finest veneer is used for the outer side of a plywood panel.

  Pay ranges from 128 pesos a month for unskilled labor to 217 per month for a top cigar roller.

  Workers receive one free cigar daily and many were smoking theirs as they worked.

  There was a school holiday and boys as young as six were getting lessons from their parents on how to roll cigars.

  We were told business was increasing due largely to European tourists. The workers on the cigar rolling floor gave us an unusual and resounding welcome by, on signal, drumming on their wood rolling boards with their trimming knives. It was quite impressive.

Biotech Engineering

  CigarWorkerWe went from the cigar factory to the Centro de Ingenieria Genetica y Biotechnologia. The center is impressive and apparently does impressive work.

  It produced Interferon by bacteria which we were told was the first for the Third World.

  Other breakthroughs in HIV testing and improvement have been made and a lot of work is being done in agriculture.

  The center does pilot production before turning it over to plants for manufacture.

  With a shortage of fertilizer and insecticides, the center is working on strains of sugar cane to overcome this.

  The center shows a phenomena that appears common to countries with central state planning.

  This institute is first class all the way with facilities and equipment any U.S. laboratory would admire. But the country can't fix the plumbing in our hotel.

  Resources are allocated depending on the whims of the rulers, not by market forces.

AIDS Management

  Cuba, incidentally, has fewer than 700 cases of full blown AIDS we were told and the number of new cases is dropping.

  Cuba considers AIDS a health problem, not civil rights as in the U.S. All persons coming in contact with the medical system are tested for the HIV virus.

  This is mandatory. Those testing positive are given education to decrease infection of others.

  We received hints that some are physically controlled also.

  Abortions are legal on demand and some women use abortions for birth control.

  We would like to meet with Fidel Castro. He does not ordinarily meet with U.S. journalists.

  One of our guides said Castro was notified we are here so we have to wait and see, but the prospects are not likely.

Tropicana Show

  In the evening we went to the Tropicana Nightclub to see Cuba's most famous show.

  It is a Nevada-style extravaganza with a Cuban flavor. The setting is an outdoor arena filled with palm trees. The night-time temperature was about 85 degrees.

  The show was more than an hour and a half. It boasts a cast of more than 150 including a 32 piece orchestra.

  The show featured dozens of girls (and some men) in skimpy costumes heavy on glitter, feathers and flounces.

  It was well worth seeing. Once again, the lack of maintenance was obvious. We sat next to the stage and could get a close look at the dance floor itself.

  It was wood parquet. Some of the board ends had rotted off, creating holes three-four inches wide and an inch or two deep. This is an invitation to disaster for girls dancing in spike heels.

  Tomorrow the day starts with a tour of a hospital.

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