To leave or stay? It hinges on hunger SPECIAL REPORT: INSIDE CASTRO'S CUBA

HAVANA — HAVANA -- The Soviet-built, Zhuk fast-attack boat bore down on the raft with its tiny black sails bobbing in 3-foot seas six miles off Havana -- halfway to freedom.

The nine people aboard were resigned to their fate. The Cuban patrol boat could put an end to their journey. A girl aboard the raft would be young enough to warrant seizing the craft, because young children have been forbidden from joining the exodus from Cuba.


Orlando Mendez clung to the crude tiller. He was a distinguished-looking man in his early 50s. He checked his compass. Not once did he turn to see the fast-approaching patrol craft that could end his escape from hopelessness.

His gaze was fixed on the horizon and the magic 12-mile limit beyond which a U.S. Coast Guard cutter might take him to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Or the raft might ride the current that sweeps past South Florida. But then, a storm might overwhelm them, drinking water might run out, and there were always sharks.


The girl pushed herself deeper in the bottom of the raft. Only her bright fearful eyes could be seen. A small rabbit hidden in the grass. She was perhaps 8 years old.

The patrol boat's exhausts bubbled in the water as the Cuban Border Guards inspected the raft from 50 yards away. Mr. Mendez refused to look at it. The boat was behind him, its powerful diesels growling. His young crew paddled furiously with homemade oars, trying to turn the unwieldy craft of inner tubes to keep the wind in its two sails.

They had launched at 1 a.m. Wednesday from Santa Fe beach on the outskirts of Havana. It was now 3.30 p.m., but no one was keeping time. The glint of binoculars could be seen from the bridge of the patrol boat.

Mr. Mendez's determination seemed to break slightly as the patrol boat roared to life, gingerly skirting the raft, and sped into the gray distance. They were safe for the moment. The girl came out from her hiding place and shook her long blond hair. Her parents and grandfather were aboard. Three generations riding a single roll of the dice.

How would they feel if their perilous bid for freedom ended with years of internment at Guantanamo? What if there was no happy ending in Florida?

"Hey, I'd go to Haiti," said a young oarsman. "Anything is better than what's back there."

What's back there is zip, a chance to buy a cheap Chinese bicycle, a 15-year-old sister turning tricks for tourists to stay alive. Rice and beans. Doctors, lawyers, engineers out of work. In the tough Stalinist apartment buildings of Cojimar, Regla and Boyeros, thousands assemble the elements of escape. Inner tubes, steel drums, sealed lengths of pipe. Plastic bottles of water. Canned food. Wood for oars. A compass. And welding equipment, cable and rope to put it all together.

They are out of hope. The revolution that rescued their fathers a generation ago has faded into political and economic bankruptcy. The Soviet patrons are gone. The confrontation between President Fidel Castro and Washington that played itself out in a nuclear showdown three decades ago now plays its endgame with the lives of people gripped by despair, searching for any way to subsist, or better, to get out.


On the beach at Cojimar, the Reina del Caribe, the "Caribbean Queen," is for sale. Free enterprise in Communist Cuba. A thousand bucks firm.

Oscar Sigueroa stumps around the raft like a used car salesman. "Nice eh?" he says. "Look, real steel on the bow," he says, giving it a thump. "She'll carry six easy. Inner tubes and foam blocks. Nothing is safer. Oars included."

He is standing on the tar-slimed rocks on the beach at Cojimar. He is standing on one leg, the other having been shot off by the Cuban coast guard when he tried rafting to freedom last year, before Fidel Castro reversed the ban on fleeing the country. "They were very nice about it; I could have bled to death. And we have free medical care. Even the crutches are free."

It was Monday, and Mr. Sigueroa was leaving two days hence on another raft. Since his mishap with the Cuban coast guard, the former law student has been thinking about nothing but the raft to get out. He helped design and build dozens of them. And now, with Fidel Castro officially looking the other way and the U.S. Coast Guard officially shortening freedom's trip to just 12 miles, "This is a can't-miss proposition."

'Nothing left to sell'

At the beaches where the rafts are launched a roar goes up from the watching crowd. One day it was Wilma Perez's turn. She had been arrested and imprisoned for five days for making a similar attempt last year. By God, she was going to make it this time, she said.


The 42-year-old accountant was bobbing up and down in a raft that boasted eight oars, like a Roman galley. She was no #F freedom fighter; she was leaving with her husband and son to get something to eat. The decision was reached after she sold her washing machine to buy food. Now there was nothing left to sell. The arithmetic was simple: a bottle of cooking oil cost $1.50, slightly less than half her entire month's salary.

The man taking names

With nothing on television, little to eat and no money, rafting has nearly eclipsed baseball as Havana's favorite pastime, drawing crowds by the hundreds.

It is the final moment of truth and for truth. The rafters can speak honestly in public without fear of government reprisal. They are leaving, after all, and every launching is cause to vent the angry reasons for departure and draw the envy or disdain of the departed. Many also are seeing their families for the last time. Not everyone is going to make it.

Yet the onlookers are burdened by the paranoia of a society that does not trust itself, in which every person is a potential enemy or a cop in disguise. One should not cheer too loudly, for it might draw the attention of authorities.

Full names are rarely given to U.S. reporters. (The government has let them in by the score to cover the exodus, thereby stoking anti-immigrant fears in the United States and strengthening its hand in talks with the Clinton administration.)


The paranoia is well-grounded. Since nearly every Cuban must be doing something technically illegal to survive, such as participating in the black market, guilt is never an issue and arrest never far away. For many, the rafts represent a last-ditch bid for freedom, like lifeboats fleeing a sinking ship. Meanwhile, for those left behind, there's always a man going around taking names.

But now the government wants people to go.

"The government wants the rafters to leave, wants their houses, wants their food rations, their free education and medical care, because it can no longer afford them," says Eric as he builds his raft.

Nor can it tolerate what Eric, a 43-year-old, out-of-work engineer, calls "the possibility of a social eruption," such as the unprecedented riot that occurred Aug. 5 in Havana, when hundreds of enraged citizens demanded to leave the country. (The waiting list for U.S. visas has reached 134,000.)

Eric refuses to give his full name "for the quite obvious reason that I am not yet at sea." A mechanical engineer, he lives on a reduced salary, having been laid off a year ago. His means of escape was a raft powered by a 9-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine bought from a mill.

"Yes, we are pawns in Castro's little game. Fidel got his talks with Clinton by riding the backs of the rafters. We are his atomic bomb to get Washington's attention. But I might get my freedom from this," he waves his hand toward Havana, "this nothingness."


Whores in a broken city

Cuban life today is expressed by the Spanish verb "resolver," meaning "to solve," more accurately "to cope, to get by no matter what it takes." At night in the fancy restaurants patronized by foreigners and government functionaries, dozens of pretty young women "resolver" their poverty and hunger by selling their bodies.

It is as if they have stepped from a Cuban Victoria's Secret catalog clad in skin-tight latex and low-cut dresses. There are bare midriffs, see-through blouses. And there are teen-age giggles and twitters that flutter around the dull conversation of stone-faced businessmen.

But it's this or sitting at home when energy is rationed and the lights go off for seven hours, eating a dinner of rice and beans, waiting hours in a line for a bottle of shampoo, a bus, a piece of soap, an ice cream cone.

"I don't look down on them. They are doing what they have to do to get by. Prostitution is not a disgrace in Cuba," said Nadia, a feminist artist and the daughter of a woman who at one time took pride in her close friendship with Mr. Castro but who now demonizes him.

"The first duty to oneself is to survive. Practically the only tourists we get nowadays in Havana are men seeking sex with women -- or men."


The upsurge in young prostitutes recalls Havana's racy past before the revolution, when it was the playland of the Caribbean, with scores of flashy clubs, gambling casinos and bordellos. If it was illegal, Havana sold it.

All of that changed with the arrival of Mr. Castro in 1959. In a thrust for revolutionary purity, he removed the bordellos, shut most of the clubs, and banned gambling and the more obnoxious neon signs.

Today, the city is nearly free of billboards, giving it a kind of decrepit but pristine socialist look. Buildings, especially on the waterfront near the old colonial section of the city, haven't been painted, facades are cracking and a few roofs are sagging into oblivion. The country is too broke to fix them.

Carve and trust the Lord

At Havana's tiny free market, Dr. Reyes Soler, 55, an orthopedist, is selling carvings of Indian figures for a dollar. It is his only income, other than the meager pension he receives since being "early retired" by the government. He and his wife and two sons spend the evenings carving the Indians and creating simple children's toys out of feathers and foam.

"If it wasn't for this, I don't know what I'd do," he says. "It seems like we're headed for worse times, but I don't see how they can get any worse. I fear for my children's future and trust in the Lord."


'Those people are lazy'

An out-of-work matron in Havana's wealthy Miramar suburb has opened an illegal restaurant, serving meals to friends and "associates" to help with expenses. Her restaurant consists of a marble-topped kitchen table and four chairs.

She and her engineer husband seem to have benefited from the revolution. They enjoyed an almost wealthy life-style until economic depression forced her into the kitchen. Two cars are in the garage (one car would be considered a luxury in Cuba), and her living room is furnished with expensive furniture and paintings.

"I think those people are lazy," she says of the rafters. "There's plenty of work for them to do."

Food improves attitudes

The closer one gets to food, the more upbeat people's attitudes become. The people in Santa Cruz del Norte, a small fishing village about 20 miles east of Havana, do not have the same desperation as in the capital. No one is heading out to sea in search of U.S. Coast Guard cutters.


The Soviet-built street lamps that line the road into town are falling apart. The somewhat seedy village of 6,000 seems like a typical small Caribbean port, with a central plaza, three or four stores, a police station and the docks that hold about 35 fishing dories. The big employers in the area are a sugar mill, a rum factory and a box factory.

Perhaps the major difference is that food is more plentiful here, especially for the men who belong to the local fishing association. Officially, the association is one of amateurs, harmless old men who spend the afternoons playing dominoes under a tin roof. Unofficially, the men are serious fishermen who sell what they don't eat of their catches for dollars on the black market.

Rafael Acosta, 48, is a slightly paunchy, blond, blue-eyed factory worker who has rights to one of the association's fishing boats. The exodus from the beaches in Havana leaves him mystified and angry.

"Those people are crazy. What other society in the world offers free education and medical care?" he asks, lifting his shirt to show a 25-inch scar on his back. "I've had two major operations, and it didn't cost me a cent."

What bothers people here is the state that the collapse of the Soviet empire left them in, suddenly closing their markets and cutting off their source of supply and technology.

"Those bastards left us in the lurch," said a fisherman as he struggled to repair his Soviet-built engine. "We've had to change everything overnight, from screws to light bulbs."


A farmer has little sympathy

About eight miles inland from Santa Cruz del Norte, in the heart of a major sugar cane region, lies the tiny hamlet of El Colima. The town might not exist at all except for its state-run store, which serves the area's 1,500 collective farmers. The store's shelves look bare, a few cans of jam, cigarettes, cigars, and the inevitable rice and beans.

Unlike in Havana, where slender people abound, one begins to )) notice people carrying weight. The deliveryman carrying the day's rations of bread to the surrounding collective farms looks as though he's been eating more than his daily ration of a single dinner roll.

But it is the private farmers like Lazaro Garcia Faramola, 48, who seem to be doing the best of all and who have the least sympathy for the rafters. His four-bedroom cement bungalow is a comparative luxury in Cuba.

Behind the house are a huge sow, several goats, three cows, innumerable chickens and Mr. Garcia's pride and joy, a 1925 Massey-Ferguson tractor in perfect working order.

"I don't understand why those people are leaving, many of them with the best university educations," Mr. Garcia said. "I think they are just lazy. They think the United States is paved with gold, but they will be surprised -- if they ever get there."


Mr. Garcia's 93-year-old father had worked the land as a tenant farmer on a large estate. In the days before the revolution, the house was a modest two-bedroom building with no indoor plumbing.

In keeping with the revolution's land reforms, he and other farmers were given title to the land they worked, in this case

about 25 acres. It was those same land reforms that resulted in the seizure of millions of acres from U.S. companies and put Mr. Castro in disfavor with Washington.

Farmers like Mr. Garcia have made plenty of money selling their produce on the black market. But on Aug. 28 a new free market was created, allowing him to sell to the public for the first time in more than 10 years. The new farmers' markets are aimed at undercutting the black market and lowering prices.

"I think the government is heading in the right direction with this ,, new market," he said, as he handed free avocados to some visitors. "It's about time the government recognized what already exists."

Mr. Garcia was disturbed by the Clinton administration's decision to block Cuban-Americans from sending money to their kin on the the island, which provides a supplement of about $500 million.


But he was particularly crushed when Mr. Clinton banned flights to Cuba by American relatives, effectively barring the annual visit of his sister in Florida.

"I can see no good from this. It is mean-spirited and has broken JTC the heart of my 87-year-old mother. It was the high point of the year when she came. We would celebrate for days. Why would someone do such a thing?"