Burst of discontent echoes through Cuba

HAVANA — HAVANA -- The Malecon has protected Havana from stormy seas for centuries. But the riot that erupted with a fury along the old sea wall two weeks ago unleashed a different kind of force.

It was a small but sudden explosion of anger that demanded change -- a thunderclap that momentarily shook the sense of government control here.


The rock-throwing, window-breaking and shouts of "liberacion" Aug. 5 involved less than 1 percent of the population and were contained in the traditionally rowdy seafront barrios of Old Havana and Colon. But the government's attempt to label the melee as an isolated incident involving only "delinquents" from that area has failed.

Committed government supporters condemned the demonstrators who caused the worst street violence in President Fidel Castro's 35 years in power.


But many other Havana residents -- who once looked down on inhabitants of these densely populated, poor neighborhoods -- expressed a measure of understanding for the rioters.

"That's because these days everyone is going through the same scarcity, the same hunger," said a man who was in the crowd.

Mr. Castro, most people say, is not in any immediate danger of falling. Even some of his enemies concede that he still has majority support. Control was regained over the port area on the same day and there have been no further eruptions since then.

"After the riot happened, Fidel warned that the United States was causing this and that it could result in chaos, in a blood bath in Cuba," said a Cuban journalist opposed to the government. "I think that was a message to Cubans on the island. He was trying to scare those people who are in the middle from trying to do the same thing."

The hope among many of those "in the middle" now seems to be that the street violence will serve as a wake-up call to the government to loosen its reins on the economy and allow more private enterprise.

But if it doesn't, then what?

When asked if the riot could happen again, many Habaneros, as Havana residents are known, looked concerned, even scared of that threatened chaos.

'It could get very, very bad'


"This time the police only shot in the air, but if things don't change, it could happen again and worse. Then Fidel will have to make a decision," a cabdriver said. "Then it could get very, very bad."

He was driving through the older neighborhoods of the capital explaining why the trouble happened there and not somewhere else, and why it could happen again.

"You have to understand that some of these people from these areas are rough and not afraid," the cabdriver said. "Most people in the city are more complacent, they live with the problem and try to survive, as I do.

"But down here, there are people who are used to doing business and used to having trouble with the police."

The neighborhoods were once typical port slums, full of bars, brothels that served sailors and other businesses legitimate and not.

Many of the neighborhood's streets lead to the sea, just as many of the people's hopes lead to the sea and beyond it, to the U.S. shores. And many of their buildings are crumbling, just as many of the people say Mr. Castro's ruling system is crumbling.


"The rocks people threw at police were from their own deteriorating homes," said Gerardo, 36, a teacher from Colon who said he witnessed the riots.

Many residents were originally shocked and frightened by the violence. But in the quiet days that followed, when asked to comment on the riot, they gave the protesters a kind of absolution. Many uttered the same phrase: "You must understand how difficult things are."

Some of those involved explained that anti-government sentiments were fueled by a recent crackdown by police on black market activities, which these people need to feed themselves and their children.

The crackdown is affecting many people throughout Havana.

'Something has to change'

"What do you expect people to do when they aren't sure where their food will come from?" asked a doctor who earns the equivalent of $2.75 per month working for the government. "Something has to change."


Old Havana, with its crumbling Spanish colonial grandeur, has been developed as a tourist center, bringing the poor there in contact with dollar-carrying tourists. Last year, when it became legal for Cubans to possess foreign currency, many people changed their way of life to chase U.S. dollars.

"This is becoming two different societies in one country," said an economist who now rents himself out as a chauffeur to tourists. ** "Those who have dollars and those who don't. That is very dangerous. There must be an opening."

That phrase is heard over and over again -- "There must be an opening."

What most Havana residents mean by it is basically economic reforms that will allow Cubans to run their own small businesses, to carve out an existence for themselves and to do it legally.

That is not possible now.

A medical technician who makes less than $3 per month tells how he has access to alcohol and makes crude liquor, which he sells on the black market.


A 25-year-old woman who works in a plant where medicines are bottled smuggles some out and sells them.

Farmers, after turning over part of their harvests to the government, keep more than they are supposed to for their personal use and sell the difference on the black market.

A professor who says he will support the Castro government until the day he dies also confesses he breaks the law.

"I make 370 pesos [about $3] per month, and you can't eat from that," he said. "I give private classes, which is against the law, but what can I do?"

But while some want only economic reforms, others hope for more.

"But of course it would not just mean an economic opening, but a political opening," Gerardo said. "And that's why Fidel resists."


Others say an economic opening may indeed be in the works.

"They are debating at the university the kind of opening the Chinese are doing," the journalist said, referring to Beijing's strategy of adopting a mixture of free market and socialist economic policies without political reforms.

He said influential government figures are thought to strongly support such a strategy. Among those are Communist Party leaders in charge of youth organizations that are having trouble finding adherents because of the cynicism of many young Cubans now seeing the worst years of the revolution.

New tax law

The questions are whether reforms will come and whether they will come in time to head off more and possibly worse violence in the streets.

The day before the riots, the National Assembly of People's Power passed a law instituting taxes on individuals for the first time. It has not taken effect yet and does not cover official salaries, but there has been talk of extending it to such earnings.


"Can you imagine taxing people who make less than $2 per month?" the cabdriver asked. "If they were to try that now, there would be another riot and something much worse. No. There has to be an opening."