Saturday, February 04, 2006

Gov't Drive Vs. 'Rich' Hits Average Cubans

Gov't Drive Vs. 'Rich' Hits Average Cubans

By VANESSA ARRINGTON, Associated Press WriterSat Feb 4, 12:30 PM ET

President Fidel Castro is pursuing a campaign against Cuba's "new rich," accusing them of corruption and moral decay in his quest to erase class differences threatening the utopian ideals of his communist regime.

Violators face possible jail time and loss of state jobs as the government tries to eliminate a thriving black market that supplies Cubans and tourists with everything from gasoline and cooking oil to illicit meals of lobster served in small, private restaurants.

Yet "rich" is a mushy term on an island where state pay averages just $12 a month — a wage virtually impossible to live on even with heavily subsidized government services and mostly free housing. Many of Castro's targets are simply poor Cubans who steal from the state to make ends meet.

The 79-year-old leader has railed in recent speeches against these thefts, portraying widespread corruption as one of the greatest threats yet to Cuba's socialist system.

"This country will have much more, but it will never be a society of consumption," Castro told students at the University of Havana in a speech that was televised across the island. "It will be a society of knowledge, of culture, of the most extraordinary human development one can imagine."

Forty-seven years after Castro's revolution, many Cubans still share an ethic of solidarity that stresses spiritual over material wealth. They may not have fancy stereos, but they crowd theaters for plays and concerts. Many express pride that their doctors are helping earthquake victims in Pakistan, even if it means their own medical service is affected.

Still, Cubans also are known for their ingenuity — and many manage to stretch their salaries in underhanded ways.

"If there were abundance, who would rob?" said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became an anti-communist dissident. "Hardly anybody can survive by working honestly in Cuba."

Bakers sell customers a less than two ounce chunk of bread for the three-ounce price and pocket the change from selling the leftovers. Workers at state-run pizza stands sell "extra" cheese, tomatoes and cooking oil on the side. Bus drivers don't give tickets to all paying riders.

Off-shift state truck drivers help neighbors move construction materials — for a price. And employees at state stores take part of the inventory home to sell.

Other people offer services or handmade goods without the required self-employment licenses that the state tightly controls.

In communist Cuba, the black market has no physical location, but is everywhere. From clothes and toys to household supplies and even gasoline, the sale of stolen goods is part of daily life.

"People have always diverted state resources — it happens when there is necessity," said Jesus Blanco, a 51-year-old who works in a bar. "One of the problems is the scarcity of new products coming in."

Blanco said he manages to live honestly on his monthly salary, which is 235 Cuban pesos, about $10. But, he added, both the television and refrigerator in his house are broken, and he doesn't have enough money to fix holes in his roof caused during last year's hurricane season.

Castro has been remarkably frank about the pervasiveness of corruption. He has lashed out at state workers and the self-employed, and accuses private restaurant owners of encouraging illegal activity by buying lobster — which only the state can legally catch — from private fishermen.

Cuba's leader seems particularly angry about service station workers who pilfer gasoline, selling it on the side. "We have to vanquish these deviations, or we die," Castro said.

Cuban socialism offers a broad safety net, with free health care and education, heavily subsidized transportation and electricity, and a ration covering about a third of the average person's monthly diet.

But the quality of some services is low, and monthly pay is swallowed up by additional food costs. Little or no cash remains for necessities like cooking oil or soap. TV sets and new clothing are usually bought with money sent from overseas relatives, so many go without.

The state dramatically boosted electricity rates for those using large amounts in December. Making a phone call to neighboring countries costs from $2.45 to $4.45 a minute, and the cost of unrationed food is high.

Castro says eliminating stealing could help raise living standards for the island's 11.2 million people. He increased government salaries in November, and doubled the minimum wage last May to 225 Cuban pesos, less than $10 a month.

But at the heart of Castro's crusade is a belief in the collective good. Hunger for possessions or prestige based on wealth is seen as a capitalist ill. Altruism, cultural endeavors and universal health care are valued above personal luxuries.

With material resources limited, Cuba must set priorities "significantly different than those given primacy in capitalist countries," Central Bank President Francisco Soberon told economists last year.

"For example, the expense related to saving the life of a child is given priority over the purchase of the latest model of a car for an elite, or lavish architecture for headquarters of global corporations," he said.

But there also is a real "new rich" on the island, although it is tiny.

Cubans with money join diplomats shopping at an upscale grocery store offering luxuries such as microwave popcorn and peanut butter. A golf club counts about 20 Cubans among its 100 members, a privilege costing $70 up front plus $45 every month.

The few relatively wealthy Cubans include people who are married to foreigners or work for foreign companies as well as musicians and athletes with special privileges. Some may even be people who steal from the state on a grand scale.

But most Cubans must scramble for essentials.

Castro's solution to this moral dilemma depends in part on youthful innocence. His government has dispatched thousands of young social workers to replace employees suspected of stealing from state operations. Since the campaign began in October, Castro claims gasoline sales nationwide have increased by $100,000 daily.

Communist officials are holding island-wide meetings urging party members to fight corruption, and Castro prods Cubans to do their part.

But people say that until their economic situation improves, it will be hard to make Castro's ideal a reality.

"The economy is getting a bit better, but I don't think we can live without the black market yet," said Blanco. "Until prices go down, the salary increases won't be felt, and there'll be no room for luxuries."

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