Cuba: Seeking New Channels

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Havana, Cuba. -- Tick-tock, tick-tock. It's Radio Reloj and its maddening background noise, a relentless ticking clock. Deadpan announcers tell of harvests in Pinar del Rio, a potato blight eradicated in Matanzas.

We are on the outskirts of Havana and Gregorio is trying to tune the car radio to a particular program. He insists that I listen. Whenever Gregorio acts like this, I pay attention. Like many Cubans he is trying to tell me something important in the code of innuendo and gesture peculiar to police states. Gregorio is a kind of government representative, perhaps a low-level spy.

At last he's found the station. Two Cuban journalists are conversing about the need for change, nothing radical, just change. Their conversation tiptoes around the subject. There is no mention of Fidel Castro, the talks with the Americans in New York, or the latest wave of Cubans fleeing on rafts.

Change does not mean extreme right-wing change, just change, the journalists say. From the outline of what is avoided, it is clear they are talking about the nation's future. They are talking politics, which is extraordinary. Gregorio smiles and points to the radio: "Interesting, eh?"

Then the program abruptly fades out and we are listening to a Miami radio station. The station is giving out phone numbers for people wanting to know if their relatives and friends are among the latest Cubans snatched from the sea.

Gregorio is perplexed. The Miami and Cuban transmitters seem to have their broadcast signals crossed.

Soon the Cuban station is back and the journalists drone on like Jesuits on an obscure point of church doctrine, far from reality. It is a station only for foreign tourists, not Cubans, Gregorio says. It is like the American cable television stations in my hotel room that no ordinary Cuban can see.

Tourist political discussions on the radio, maybe there will be tourist elections and a tourist president. After all, Cigar Aficionado, an American yuppie magazine, features Fidel sniffing $25 Coaiba cigar on the cover of its summer issue. What's next? Fidel in swim trunks and a Rolling Stone T-shirt?

*

Since the loss of its East Bloc benefactors, Cuba has only one realistic option: re-establish its old trade ties with the United States. The French, the Canadians, the British, the Russians, the Dutch, the Mexicans, Colombians and Venezuelans have pressed Mr. Castro's case in Washington but the price tag -- free elections -- remains high and ill-defined. The Sandinistas had free elections and lost in Nicaragua. Besides, what government would accept the dictates of another nation, no matter how well intentioned? The issue isn't elections; it is the preservation of national sovereignty.

Cuba had "free elections" before, electing a series of stooge presidents who were in the pay of American companies, even the Mafia. It was Mr. Castro who swept that system away, becoming a hero at home and throughout in Latin America.

Cubans remember that era very clearly and many -- perhaps most -- would fight rather than accept its return, even on a tidal wave of dollars. Mr. Castro has outmaneuvered seven American presidents on this very point. Cuba is not for sale. Period.

*

What is for sale is just about anything else: women, paintings, exquisite antique fans, rare books, anything that will earn a dollar to stave off hunger and relieve the tedium of staying alive.

Failing that, there is always a raft and the risky escape to freedom. Nearly 40,000 successfully took that route this year, thousands more are believed to have perished in the attempt.

VTC The Cuban economy is in deep depression. Engineers, lawyers and other technocrats are out of work. The economy has retracted and has no jobs for them.

A prevailing theme among the young is that Cuba has no future. This is underscored by a few figures at the University of Havana. Eighty percent of last year's graduating class failed to find a job. The graduate philosophy department received one applicant for 30 student openings; the history department eight applicants for 70 slots.

"They are all putting to sea," said a professor. "Or else they say: 'What's the point?' "

*

The point is Mr. Castro has been forced to change in ways that would have been unthinkable just five years ago. Prostitution, black markets, limited foreign investments, farmers selling their produce to the public, more religious tolerance, dollar stores -- all are accepted if not openly blessed and engineered by an ostensibly Marxist regime.

But where is the country going? What is the plan?

Difficult questions for a small island nation bereft of powerful allies, squeezed by the U.S. embargo and kept in the dark by its leaders. There is talk of adopting the Chinese model: accept capitalism's hard cash and technology but keep the Marxist faith, rendering unto Caesar whatever is necessary for survival.

But China is a major power; a huge untapped market; Cuba is not. China can have human rights violations; Cuba cannot. Cuba is 11 million well-educated people, beautiful beaches, sugar, cigars, nickel, rum-and-coke. Cuba is Fidel sniffing a stogie on the cover of Cigar Aficionado when he doesn't smoke.

*

Gregorio is nudging me again. "Look," he says, pointing upward. We are in San Lazaro Street. At first I don't see anything, but then I notice dozens of mushroom-like devices hanging from balconies, clinging to standpipes, sitting on roofs. They are parabolic antennas, the kind used for cable television.

Cable television? For ordinary Cubans? No way, Jose. It would expose the nation to a richness that might tip the country over the edge. This is not the aural information of Radio Marti, the U.S. government station, but images and sounds of unimaginable wealth, sleek cars, beautiful houses, sizzling cheeseburgers, people voting in real elections.

Gregorio drops me off at the home of Donaldo, an electronic engineer. It seems Donaldo and hundreds of other Havanans have been tapping into the cable feed on top of the Havana Libre Hotel. The 10 cable channels are supposed to be available only to the tourist hotels, leaving Cubans yawning at the government's two broadcast channels with their limited hours and specials on animal husbandry.

With kits sent by relatives overseas, enterprising homeowners have been able to tap into the satellite downlink. Twice the government has encoded the link, only to have the codes broken, usually by its own electronic engineers working in their living rooms.

Now the government appears ready to throw up its hands. It seems Mr. Castro is considering licensing decoders for a small fee, allowing everyone to have access to cable.

Such a move would be truly revolutionary and is strongly doubted by Elena, Donaldo's wife.

"I'll believe it when it happens," she says as she tries to work the gizmos that are taking over her kitchen table. "It's gotten so complicated only Donaldo knows how to work the decoder."

Elena usually surfs to the Discovery Channel, with occasional time outs for cartoons for her children. Other channels include CNN and two Spanish-language channels. "You have no idea what a godsend this is. The idea of watching local TV is enough to make you want to read."

*

Gregorio seems downcast. He is taking me to the airport, past the signs that vow never to surrender the country, past the old men trying to make a buck by selling scallions. It is two Cubas now. The old Cuba can no longer afford itself, with its free education, medical care, housing, subsidized food and its immense security apparatus and XXX-man army.

More citizens will be forced to leave. Maybe a hundred thousand of them. The new Cuba is vaguely sensed but it's outlines are in dollars: make peace with the United States, do what you have to do to survive.

Down this same road more than 35 years ago, Fidel Castro entered Havana in triumph. Now like a wayward brother he wants to return, regretting nothing, but return nevertheless. Brilliant, vindictive, cruel, the 68-year-old maximum leader cannot escape the flow of events. It seeps all around him on the airwaves and in the streets. He will accept his place at the gringo's table, but he will not crawl, he will not be judged by sanctimonious fools. This is Cuba.

Tick-tock, tick-tock. Radio Reloj again on the car radio. The deadpan voices announce the number of school children inoculated in Camaguey, that swine fever is under control in Oriente.

"And so, it has been interesting, eh?" asks Gregorio, turning off the car radio.

I stare at him. There is a hint of fear in his eyes. I cannot give him what he wants. A bar of chocolate yes, a few dollars. But I cannot give him a certain future.

John McClintock, The Sun's Latin American correspondent from 1987 to 1992, recently returned from a reporting trip to Cuba.

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