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Anniversary of revolution finds Cuba limping along The young are openly questioning benefits still praised by their fathers


HAVANA -- Times are hard here, and Cubans are told they will get worse as the island limps without a patron into the 35th year of Fidel Castro's socialist revolution.

Outwardly, the evidence of collapse is everywhere: Buildings are vacant and decaying; residents stand in lines for meager daily food rations; traffic is practically nonexistent because there is a dire shortage of gasoline; there is no electricity to illuminate street lights or homes at night; and young men and women gather on the sidewalks offering sexual favors to tourists in exchange for a hot meal at a restaurant.

Inside the homes of Cuban families, conflicting sentiments join oddly to keep this island nation afloat: loyalty to Fidel Castro's socialist movement among parents and grandparents who recall the euphoria that accompanied the New Year's Day collapse of Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship in 1959; fear of the present government;and bitter acquiescence among the young.

The opposing views of a prominent pediatrician, in his late 40s, and his 21-year-old son reflect as much.

"My father says I put too much emphasis on material things," says the son, looking from the beach across the dark Havana skyline. "But to be human is to want more than just to survive. I want to really live. I want to accomplish my personal dreams, not the dreams of someone else's revolution."

The doctor and his son, a college dropout, shared their thoughts on Cuba's economic crisis and Mr. Castro's refusal to surrender his socialist movement despite the hardships faced by his people.

It is a measure of Cuba's popular anxiety that both asked not to be identified. And the son asked to be interviewed separately from his father.

The doctor is a conservatively groomed man who smiles easily and enjoys a neat glass of rum after work. Talking by candlelight in his second-story apartment, the doctor is embarrassed that he cannot offer food or soda to a visitor.

"I have nothing," he says, opening his refrigerator door to show only a few green oranges inside. "But we are wealthy in other ways."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its lifeline. About 75 percent of its total trade was eradicated, including most of its supplies of oil, medicine, machine parts and food. Factories have closed, cars are junked, and hospitals scramble to maintain the level of service that made Cuba's public health system the envy of Latin America.

Cuba's production of meat, milk and chicken has dropped dramatically because the cash-strapped country cannot afford to pay for animal feed and herbicides.

The island's trade was based for decades on a barter system with the Soviet Union. It struggles now -- mostly through tourism enterprises -- to generate enough cash to buy products from Europe and the newly-formed republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States. And Mr. Castro says living conditions will be worse.

In an impromptu New Year's message to the Cuban people, the 66-year-old Cuban leader predicted 1993 would be a "tough and difficult year."

The middle-aged pediatrician will support him. He thinks of Cuba'shortages as bearable "limitations."

Unlike his son, the doctor remembers what life was like before Mr. Castro's revolutionaries sent the old Batista regime running for its life.

"For me, the revolution was like someone coming to me one day and saying, 'You are now going to have the same opportunities as the rich kids,' " he says. "It changed my life. My love for the movement is stronger than my love for money."

But outside the apartment, the 21-year-old son's words gush out as if he has been holding his breath for hours. About the only thing he shares with his father is a love of rum. He wears a spiked haircut, smokes one cigarette after another and smiles only when mocking the Cuban government.

He is angered that no matter how hard his father works, the quality of his life never improves. "For eight hours of work," the son says, "my father only gets one cup of rice and two slices of fried platano to eat during his break.

"Why should I try to work when no matter how much money I make, I am never going to have anything," he adds. "So I make my living underground -- on the black market."

The young man explains that by night, he roams the streets offering to exchange tourists dollars for Cuban pesos at the going black market rate of 40 pesos for $1. The legal exchange rate is $1 for 1 peso.

Or he offers to get tourists top-quality cigars and rum for half the prices asked in tourist shops. He has many friends who work in stores throughout Havana, and for a share of his dollars, they allow him inside to buy such luxuries as meat, milk, shampoo and shoes.

Unapologetically, the young man explains that he is not interested in staying in Cuba to join a dissident group and fight for changes. In a month, he will marry his girlfriend, a Mexican citizen, and leave Cuba with her.

"If I speak out, not only would I lose everything, but so would my father," he says. "It's not worth it."

This feeling of hopelessness has infected large numbers of young adults in Cuba, say human rights activists. Mr. Castro's government does not undertake massive campaigns of terror -- such as those in Central America countries where entire villages have been wiped out.

However, dissidents say, the government controls everything its people need to survive: homes, food, education and jobs. Stepping out of line means risking a complete cutoff.

"In other countries like Guatemala or Peru, people have no food or place to live so they have nothing to lose by joining a protest against the government," says Oswaldo Paya, leader of a small Christian Liberation Movement. "Here, people have very little, but it's enough to survive. They don't want to risk losing what they have."

Besides, says Mr. Paya, the Cuban people see no alternatives that are worth such risks.

Following the lead of dissident groups or human rights activists has proven imprudent. The leaders of these groups are constantly arrested and their homes and offices routinely ransacked.

"Every time a dissident starts winning followers or gets international attention, the government beats him and threatens his followers with the same if they continue their participation" says a social sciences professor at the University of Havana. "So the dissidents have more supporters in the Unites States than they have here in Cuba."

On Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, the Cuban government arrested Elizardo Sanchez, an internationally recognized human rights activist. A witness said police threw Mr. Sanchez to the floor and kicked and beat him before taking him away.

Government officials accuse Mr. Sanchez of attempting to provoke public disorder and of distributing anti-government propaganda.

"The government wanted to send a message to the United States that no one can tell them how to deal with human rights," said Mr. Sanchez's brother, Gerardo. "And they wanted people here to see that it is very dangerous to criticize the government."

Cuban American exile groups based in Miami also appear to have little popular support in Cuba.

"They have been gone for generations, and now they are more American than Cuban," says a 25-year-old man who will identify himself only as Jaime. "They don't want to come back here and be a part of us. They want to come back and control us."

"The exiles have lost sight of the importance Latin American people place on solidarity," says a Western diplomat in Havana. "Cuban people see the exiles as people who have fled to the comfort of the United States. Meanwhile, they have stayed and suffered."

This pressure on Cuba from the economic sanctions demanded by Cuban exiles has simply turned the older generation of the pediatrician toward a stronger resolve to resist that pressure.

"The first thing we must do to make it through these times is resist the United States' efforts to strangle us with their blockade," says Carlos Julio Iglesias, a 62-year-old revolutionary war officer. "If we can hold on to our ideals, the blockade will fall before we do."

But others who agreed to speak with a reporter do not feel the same allegiance. These are mostly young people who echo the sentiments of the doctor's 21-year-old son.

"I look around and see all the beautiful beaches," says a 21-year-old telephone worker. "And I wonder why do I feel so bad here? We have the best rum, cigars and ice cream in the world, but I cannot enjoy any of it. In my country, foreigners are treated like citizens, and citizens are treated like dogs."

But, asked why he and his friends do not join and fight for change, he sinks his head, lowers his voice and says, "When Fidel declares 'Socialism or death,' he is not only speaking to the outside world. He is telling us that we either accept his system or he'll make our lives so miserable we'll wish we were dead."

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