August 23, 1999

by Norberto Santana Jr. Thursday, August 19, 1999

As Cuba approaches its 100th anniversary as a republic in 2002, island leaders are searching franticly for a way to reconnect to some type of ideological and economic anchor. But staying faithful to the communist roots of Fidel Castro's revolution while trying to feed the bellies of 11 million Cubans is proving difficult.

While the current regime has strangled independent political thought on the island for the past 40 years, that control was always tempered by the so-called fruits of the revolution: free health care and education, along with subsidized housing and full employment. Despite an undercurrent of dissent, a large sector of the Cuban population was kept content by those programs.

But today, the fruits are beginning to rot while the police state remains ripe.

Stealing from the state

The government's current approach is centered on foreign investment. Government leaders say they will only tolerate pockets of capitalism to finance their socialist economy.

The renovated hotel district along downtown Havana and the beaches of Varadero illustrate the approach. The government has allowed a small percentage of locals -- who are systematically separated from the tourist district -- to enter the private sector since 1993.

But the capitalist virus is a tough one to isolate, and a stroll through the streets of Havana this past July showed that it is quickly getting out of control. The most active pocket of dissent in today's Cuba does not come from political intellectuals asking for constitutional reform. It lies in the bucket of flowers that a young woman is selling in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.

Private enterprise. It is the new rage.

Despite being bombarded with the theories of Marx and Lenin for the past 40 years, Cubans are incredibly business savvy. Although the government legalized more than 300 sectors, ranging from bike-repair shops to restaurants, high taxes have generated a virtual revolt, with Cubans ignoring government licenses.

Government officials privately say their system is just unprepared for such widespread private-sector activity. There is no wholesale market. So Cubans have created their own by stealing from the state and reselling goods on the street.

The result is aggravated shortages at government stores. So instead of keeping watch for political protests, local police now resemble code-enforcement officers trying to keep pace with illegal private entrepreneurs.

Yet despite that intense police presence, an American buck can get you anything on the streets of Havana. A foreigner cannot walk 10 paces without having some Cuban approach and offer to arrange a good meal at a private restaurant, a box of cigars, a private taxicab, a room or even a woman for the night.

The free-enterprise marathon

An artisan market has been established next to Havana's Plaza de Armas, which is being renovated after the United Nations declared it a world historical site. Although these vendors pay government taxes, the market is buzzing with Che Guevara berets on sale as well as Cuban paintings, woodcarvings and dolls. On the other side of the plaza are private used booksellers. The works of Castro stand beside the books of pre-revolutionary Cuba.

Ironically, the new official approach toward capitalism also is causing strains among the most bedrock supporters of the revolution. An average Cuban makes 300 pesos a month, which is about $15. After paying for housing, electricity and a phone, it leaves a small percentage for food. While ration cards are still provided, acute shortages mute access to most official products.

The key for Cubans is to integrate themselves into the tourist economy to get access to dollars. That means a job as a waitress, bell boy, cab driver or tourist guide. Another route is to sell to tourists.

But professional Cubans - doctors, lawyers and engineers - are prohibited from entering that private market. The result is that a professional earns about 450 pesos a month while an uneducated cab driver makes that in a day.

Seeing an opportunity to mesh with the private sector, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce visited Cuba in mid-July. Members of the delegation said they had an agreement to offer technical assistance to private entrepreneurs. But while Cuban authorities agreed to allow them to deal with the official Cuban Chamber of Commerce, there was no agreement on working with Cubans directly.

When U.S. Chamber President Thomas Donahue was in Cuba, he denounced the U.S. embargo as ineffective at every turn and was rewarded with a six-hour meeting with Castro. "We should run, not walk" toward normalized relations, Donahue said. But after spending just a few days on the island, Donahue was introduced firsthand to the intransigence of Cuban leaders. "I suspect this is going to be a marathon, not a race," he said before leaving.

The makings of revolution

This realization says much about the current embargo debate in the United States over whether the policy helps or hinders change on the island. Change in Cuba only will come from within.

The path toward economic stability lies in the hands of Cuban leaders. Their small economic opening is proving that left to their own devices, the Cuban people are more than capable of fending for themselves. The irony of the Cuban government's policy is that its officials are creating the largest and most independent dissident class inside the island by too greatly restricting its economic opening.

Nothing is more powerful than the establishment of privileged classes. When restricted, it is they who make revolutions. That is the legacy of the Latin American independence movements that challenged Spanish rule in the 1800s, of the America's founding founders in Philadelphia in 1776 and even of Cuba in 1959.

Norberto Santana Jr., a staff writer for the Daily News in the U.S. Virgin Islands and former reporter for Congressional Quarterly, served as the editor of Dissenting Voices, a newsletter that published early dispatches from independent Cuban journalists. He is a regular contributor to His e-mail address is