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Miami November 15, 1992 - Neither U.S. Nor Castro Have Any Give

By Bob Van Leer

  DayCare(MIAMI, FL, November 15, 1992) - A Bolivian plane today brought us from Havana to Miami. We are now in the airport Ramada Inn and the contrast in accommodations is dramatic. In our 10 day visit to Cuba we were getting somewhat used to the privations and now we have a full range of services available, heightening the comparison with Havana. The TV set works. No great chunks of anything are peeling from the bathroom walls. We can change the setting of the air conditioner. The plumbing works. And the whole hotel is clean.

How Long?

  We can't get a plane home until early tomorrow so we have an evening in Miami to reflect on the Cuban tour. How long can Cuba continue the way the economy is working (or actually not working) now? I queried a number of other journalists on our tour and, with one exception, no one sees any abrupt change in the immediate future.

  Ten days is not enough for any firm conclusions, only impressions. The people don't appear to be in a mood to overthrow the government by force. Few specific names are used in these articles because the Cubans will be getting copies of these articles and I don't want to cause problems for people willing to speak to me.

Bone Weary

  But many are tired, bone weary of standing in long lines for rationed products that may not be available when they finally reach the head of the line. One person told of waiting four hours in line to buy a half-pound of meat. Yet the "tourist stores" in which foreigners may purchase things not available to Cubans are defended. If the tourists weren't able to buy these things they wouldn't come. And Cuba desperately needs tourist dollars, any dollars.

Health Care Good

  Cuba has some good things. Its health care system is one of the best we have seen. But it was built at a time Cuba was subsidized $3 billion per year by the Russians. There is no real source of revenue in sight to replace the Russian subsidy in spite of the brave words about tourism. Already cutbacks are being made in the medical system. Prescription drugs are issued for only two days of treatment at a time.

  Jose' Marti' Airport is handling people about at capacity now. If two fully-loaded Boeing 747's landed at one time the airport might be paralyzed. The parking lot is about the size of the Medford Airport.

Blockade Dominates

  The shortage of oil and the United States "blockade" dominate everything in Cuba. Accommodations have been made to the oil shortage, some of them interesting and some just sad. Havana has "bicycle buses". These buses have no seats. Bicycle riders ride their bicycles aboard up a ramp, keep on their bicycle seats to their destination, and ride off on another ramp.

  In Santiago, particularly, a principal means of transportation is to ride tightly packed in wagons pulled by horses. Relatively few vehicles are on the road but a lot of bicycles.

  Cuba probably won't be a happy place until it makes an accommodation with the U.S. But in all our meetings the Cubans never said what concessions they are willing to make to have the "blockade" lifted. I was asked by one of our Cuban guides what would be necessary to have the blockade lifted.

  My answer, facetiously, was to find a major oil field. The U.S. is willing to put up with a lot from governments who export major amounts of oil.

Learn From Finland

  TransportationI suggested to several of the Cubans they could learn a lot from Finland. The Finns understand they have to accommodate their country to the interests of the giant Russia next door. This might not be the preferred position but it works. And the Finns live better than the Russians.

  Cuba is just 90 miles off Key West, Florida. Cuba has little the U.S. needs but Cuba need a lot from the U.S. This obviously puts Cuba in a poor bargaining position. The present U.S. policy is rigid. We detected no give at all from our diplomats. Some of the U.S. position seems anachronistic. The "Cold War" is over - Russia and the East Bloc lost.

  Cuban troops, once stationed around the world, have been brought home. Cuba is on the ropes and our impression is the U.S. is not going to let up on the pressure as long as Castro is in power.

  The U.S. states says one of the conditions of lifting the blockade is free elections. Cuba is in the process of holding elections. However imperfect, they are Cuba's first with a secret ballot. If the U.S. genuinely was after free elections in Cuba, this would be a marvelous time to send a signal of approval, to relax something. Instead, Congress passed, and the president signed, the Torricelli amendment tightening restrictions.

  The present U.S. policy seems to be the country has to do things 100% the U.S. way or Cuba will be isolated and ultimately destroyed. On the Cuban side, Castro appears to have no flexibility either. Isteban Lazo, party general secretary, thinks the government has time to accommodate to the effects of the cutoff of Eastern Bloc aid. He may not have as much time as he thinks. In the meantime, of course, it is the people who have no control over policy that suffer.

  One a one-to-one basis, we got along well with our hosts. And, when we left, they seemed to show genuine affection. Certainly, they were "stroking" us. But some of their comments were more than was needed for that purpose. Cuba may be able to readjust to the Russian cutoff and carve out a standard of living at a substantially lower level than they were accustomed to. 

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