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    Ruins after revolution

    Ruins after revolution
    Decaying Havana is a mirror of Cuba’s economy.

    By JOHN FENTON WHEELER
    Published Friday, September 29, 2006

    A giant poster of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s face covering the front of
    Sears, one of Havana’s many empty stores, had begun to fade. Everything
    in Cuba but salt was rationed. Life was hard for everybody. Yet by my
    imperfect count, hijackers still brought an average of three planes a
    month to Jose Marti International Airport.

    A lot of those people who hijacked planes to Cuba were misinformed or
    uninformed about their destination. At least that was my assessment,
    backed up one day by a Black Panther who walked into my office in Havana
    and asked for help, something I felt sure he never would have done in
    the United States. He had to be upset to do so, and he was.

    First, he gave me a name, not his Black Panther name, and said he was a
    Panther party member and that he had hijacked a plane to Cuba a few
    weeks earlier. I asked him to wait a minute and started my tape
    recorder. I recalled, without saying so to him, a skyjacking that would
    fit that time frame and the description of the hijacker by the plane’s
    crew after they and the hijacked passengers had safely returned to the
    United States. His description had come on the AP news wire, dateline Miami.

    My visitor knew what he said was being recorded. He looked directly at
    the tape recorder and began. He was concerned because he had lost
    contact with other Black Panthers who had come to Cuba. He said he
    feared they might have been imprisoned, or, as he put it, been made to
    disappear. I told him it was more likely they had been sent to work in
    agriculture, perhaps to cut sugar cane. He acknowledged that possibility
    but said there were other problems. The government, he said, would not
    allow “brothers” to make public statements. Officials also had suggested
    they get rid of their afro hairstyles. And food, he said, was as meager
    as his social life. In short, he had not received the welcome he
    expected. He said he hoped that by speaking out to the U.S. press in
    Cuba that his unsatisfactory situation could be made known to Black
    Panthers back home. I was the only American reporter in Cuba he knew about.

    I did not tell him that non-hijacking Black Panthers who had been
    invited to Cuba and who arrived via Third World countries had been
    welcomed by the government and allowed to speak freely to Cuban
    reporters. In fact, two of them, George Mason Murray, identified by the
    Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma as education minister of the
    Black Panther Party, and Joudon Ford, New York leader of the Panthers,
    had held a news conference in Havana. They were guests of the OSPAAAL,
    the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin
    America, a Castro-organized entity that did not live up to its
    intentions. Granma quoted Murray as saying the Panthers had “vowed not
    to put down our guns or stop making Molotov cocktails until colonized
    Africans, Asians and Latin Americans in the United States and throughout
    the world have become free.” This seemed much stronger stuff than the
    hijacker sitting in my office had in mind when he said his efforts to
    speak out had been ignored.

    I advised him the Cuban government probably expected him to integrate
    into Cuban life, work in agriculture or wherever needed and not
    complain. I also told him I would do a story on his concerns, wished him
    luck and bade him goodbye.

    Within minutes, I discovered I hadn’t run the recorder properly and
    hadn’t captured a word. I went to the small hotel where he told me he
    was housed, left him a note and waited. He called the next day and
    agreed to repeat the interview but suggested we meet somewhere other
    than the AP office. Perhaps he was catching on that I was somewhat
    persona non grata. We met at a downtown park bench where he repeated his
    story, and I taped it with the recorder in plain view. Two men who were
    from their appearance and clothing, especially the heavy shoes, either
    from the Soviet Union or one of the East Bloc countries, watched from
    about 30 yards away. They followed the hijacker, not me, as he left the
    park. They apparently knew where I would be going.

    His story got out via Western Union without much delay, and the next day
    I got a call from a California radio station asking whether the Black
    Panthers were planning to revolt against Fidel Castro. It was a silly
    question, but I answered no, not a chance. The station offered to pay me
    for talking about it, but I said no thanks and later regretted it. It
    might have been interesting to see them try to get a dollar check into Cuba.

    Most hijackers probably did find life in Cuba more difficult than they
    expected but eventually settled anonymously into Cuban society without
    public complaints. Not every hijack to the island was for political
    reasons. I knew of two cases where fathers involved in domestic disputes
    brought children with them to escape adverse legal action in the United
    States. One was a U.S. major, a Vietnam medal winner stationed at Fort
    Sam Houston, Texas, who had flown a private plane to Cuba, bringing his
    son with him. For unexplained reasons, he received better treatment than
    most hijackers and was given a house in a Havana suburb, a car, a maid
    and a job teaching at a government language school. Perhaps he had
    denounced U.S. intervention in Vietnam. That would have brought a good
    response from the Castro government. Whatever the situation, it remained
    his secret. He refused to be interviewed by me or anyone else.

    The other case involved a black man from Philadelphia who had brought
    his daughter with him when he hijacked a jet to Havana. The Cuban
    government allowed his wife to come to Havana and take the child back home.

    For the most part, trying to cover a hijacking was an exercise in
    futility. A lot of the hijacked planes seemed to come from Miami.
    Traveling at 500 mph, they could cover the 150 or so air miles to
    Havana’s Jose Marti airport before I could weave my way through perhaps
    10 miles of Havana pedestrian and vehicle traffic on Ranco Boyeros
    Boulevard at 30 mph. Even if I was alerted to the hijack by a message or
    telephone call from the AP in New York in time to beat the hijacked jet
    to the airport, the chances of even seeing the hijacker were slim. The
    chances of talking to anybody on the hijacked plane were nil. Cuban
    airport security saw to that.

    Only the Western press in Cuba seemed interested in covering hijackings,
    and UPI’s man, being a Cuban who wanted to leave the country, did not
    concern himself with something he knew the government would not like.
    The correspondent for Agence France Presse, who always liked to please
    his hosts, suggested both AP and Britain’s Reuters news agency should do
    like he did and quit covering hijacks. Such coverage, he contended, was
    largely useless and, of course, of little interest in France. But
    Reuters correspondent James Pringle and I deferred. We worked out a
    system that was somewhat successful. Taking turns, one of us would
    boldly go in the main entrance to the airport, thus attracting most of
    the security. The other would go to an outside window of the Salon de
    Honor, where the hijackers usually were debriefed and questioned by
    Cuban security. Kneeling down, either Pringle or I could look under a
    gap in a curtain. Sometimes it paid off, mildly. My big score from
    window peeking was being able to report a hijacker who had arrived
    carrying not a bomb or a gun, but a saxophone. Another time, at the
    excited urging of the New York foreign desk, I sped, probably at 35 mph,
    to the airport to cover the arrival of a hijacked plane with American
    comedian Flip Wilson on board. If he said anything funny in Havana, it
    remains unreported. I never saw him.

    Some days were busier than others. I remember seeing a hijacked Pan
    American jet roll to a stop beside a hijacked Eastern airliner one
    weekend. One of the few officials at Foreign Ministry Press section who
    enjoyed a little humor once remarked to me: “Hey, Wheeler, when are you
    going to hijack a plane to the United States. Why not, if it’s a Cuban
    plane, they won’t prosecute you, either.”

    The Swiss Embassy, representing U.S. interests, said in late 1968, not
    surprisingly, that so far none of the hijackers had contacted it for
    help. The majority settled into Cuban life. Some went on to other
    countries. In a few cases, the government gave the names of hijackers
    who asked for political asylum, and they were not heard about again. But
    Havana’s policy leaned toward discouraging hijackings because of the
    delicate diplomatic and political problems they could produce. A crash
    or the death of a passenger on one of the jets could have brought a
    political crisis with the United States.

    With each plane’s turnaround at Havana’s airport, the Cuban government
    collected a landing charge estimated at $10,000, not a great amount but
    badly needed hard currency for Cuba’s hard times.

    And hard they were. Castro admitted this publicly several times in his
    speeches. But details and figures described the situation better. Nearly
    10 years after the Cuban Revolution, a Havana family of four with a
    monthly income of $260 was spending 73 percent of its income on food.
    This compared with 46 percent in pre-Castro, unrationed Cuba, according
    to figures from the then defunct theoretical journal, Cuba Socialista.
    The lopsided figures on food spending, however, were somewhat misleading
    because there was little to buy except food, and many other expenses had
    been eliminated. Rent was free. So were medical services, education,
    weddings, funerals, public telephones — when they worked — sports,
    cultural events and nursery care.

    There were virtually no income taxes and absolutely no need for lawyers,
    including Castro. Government appointed officials and judges handled
    legal matters. But almost everything was rationed: bicycles, soap, beer,
    cigars, toilet paper and food. A worker was entitled to two shirts a
    year and was asked to forget overtime by working 12 hours for
    eight-hours of pay. Men were urged to give office jobs to women and go
    to work in industry, agriculture or construction. Students were expected
    to spend their vacations working in the fields.

    Considering these hardships, it becomes clearer why Castro was so
    willing to trade Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty for Soviet financial
    support in Cuba. But I didn’t see it that way at the time. I was too
    busy looking at the long lines of Cubans trying to get enough to eat.
    Getting details on the daily food struggle required going into small
    shops and stores taken over under nationalization and run by Committees
    for the Defense of the Revolution members. One day a CDR militant
    followed me from a store back to my office and demanded to know what I
    was doing asking all those questions. For a moment I wanted to waggle my
    forefinger at him, give him the words I heard so often — “companero, los
    documentos, por favor” — and tell him he needed permission to enter AP
    premises, then perhaps order him out. But I didn’t, and he departed
    after a handshake and an explanation that I was seeing how well
    nationalization was working.

    Nearly 40 percent of the population in the late 1960s was younger than
    15, and some of Cuba’s youths in those hard times reacted to the
    nationalization with disgust and “unrevolutionary” behavior. Castro
    complained in a speech of juvenile prostitution, vandalism and
    delinquency and said some youths were tearing down posters of Che
    Guevara. A 19-year-old who told me he wanted to play American rock and
    roll music and live in the United States complained: “I can’t talk with
    the Cuban government.” An eighth-grade dropout said: “We don’t have a
    word; we don’t have money; we don’t have a future.”

    One complaint frequently whispered about was that if you were not
    revolutionary, you could not get into Havana University, no matter how
    good your grades. Certainly, it seemed to be an unofficial requirement
    because on campus it was hard to find a student publicly against the
    government. Mayra Vilasis, a Havana University junior, was glad to talk:
    “What communism means to me is really dignity. Now I’m proud of being a
    Cuban. I wouldn’t change my citizenship for anything.”

    Revolutionary feeling seemed extra strong on the Isle of Youth — ex-Isle
    of Pines — off Cuba’s south coast. Along with about a dozen other
    invited journalists and diplomats, I visited the island in the fall of
    1968. It was a guided and controlled tour. But I got a close-up look at
    the young people Castro hoped would embody Cuba’s “new communist man.”

    I talked to a 20-year-old mother putting in a 48-hour workweek as a
    grapefruit packer. Her salary was the equivalent of $75 monthly. “I
    would work for nothing,” she said. The official communist party
    newspaper Granma published a photo of me interviewing a citrus worker

    At the 13th of March Internado, an elementary school named after the
    date when Havana University students were slain trying to overthrow
    dictator Fulgencio Batista, there was plenty of emphasis on the Vietnam
    War. “This is the school of the future,” a teacher said proudly as her
    students clapped and sang about killing “the Yankee assassins.” A
    fourth-grader told me “the Americans are killing children in Vietnam.” A
    fifth-grader declared, “Capitalism and imperialism are the enemies of
    all the peoples of the world. We are brothers of the Vietnamese.”

    All the grade school students knew who Che Guevara was and the country
    where he had been killed, even if they were unable to locate Bolivia,
    New York, London or Beijing on a map. Cuban officials guiding the
    journalists through the school dismissed such educational shortcomings,
    saying if it weren’t for the revolution, many of the students would
    never have seen the inside of a classroom, let alone a map.

    Had I had been consciously keeping score on Cuban communism as an
    economic system at the time, I would have given it a failing grade, an
    F. It did not meet communism’s oft-stated, utopian formula: from each
    according to his ability; to each according to his needs. There still
    were a lot of slackers in the cane fields, on the Isle of Youth, in
    factories and in the government. There was absenteeism from work. Castro
    had said so.

    The “moral incentives” once proposed by Che Guevara to replace “material
    incentives” were not working. So the ability part of the formula clearly
    was not being fully met. Castro continued, however, to try to pump up
    what he called the country’s “revolutionary conscience.” The needs part
    of the formula in Cuba was self-evident. Everbody in Cuba wanted and, to
    a certain extent, needed more material things than they were getting.
    Krhruschev’s aged threat that communism would “bury” capitalism would
    never come true at the rate Cuba was going.

    I couldn’t see how communism as an economic system could frighten
    anybody, and I was living in the middle of it. Why were Americans so
    worried?

    Years later as I looked at the massive poverty, corruption, lack of
    medical care, education, housing and the great disparity between the
    wealthy and the poor in the rest of Latin America, I decided my judgment
    of Cuba’s economic health was too simplistic. It deserved, even in its
    worst days, a D, perhaps even a C. “El Maximo Leader,” and in the hard
    times he certainly was that, rated an A for effort. The rest of the
    country did not always match his fervor.

    Sunday: The ax falls.

    John Fenton Wheeler is a former foreign correspondent and bureau chief
    with The Associated Press who covered Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Peru,
    Ecuador, Colombia, Algeria, Morocco and Angola. He has lived in Columbia
    since 1994. This series was adapted from his unpublished manuscript
    about his Cuba years.

    http://www.columbiatribune.com/2006/Sep/20060929News001.asp

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