Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A catastrophe in waiting

Cuba: A catastrophe in waiting
Last Updated: 8:02 AM, January 27, 2010

Much has been written about Haiti being a failed state in the wake of
its devastating earthquake. But just to its west lies another human
catastrophe in the making -- Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Havana is a city of sorrow -- a once elegant and prosperous capital
brought to despair by 51 years of deliberate neglect and isolation. A
country that has been plundered by a succession of foreign powers,
homegrown dictators and mobsters imported from America now languishes in
a bizarre time warp where little has changed in more than half a century.

Its people go about their daily routines bereft of consumer goods,
nutritious foods, meaningful jobs or adequate housing -- most of them
born after the revolution that swept Castro to power in 1959 and now,
thanks to rigid censorship, largely conditioned to accept their
impoverished lot.

Prosperity is the last thing that comes to mind as you watch the Cuban
people wearing clothing that went out of style years ago. Even shoes are
washed and hung on the laundry line along with shirts and pants.

To listen to Castro's cronies -- those among the political and business
elite whose loyalty is secured with perks unavailable to ordinary Cubans
-- the economic situation is solely the fault of the US embargo imposed
after the revolution.

More thoughtful Cubans discreetly offer a different explanation: They
blame Fidel's feckless experiments with communism -- his initial seizure
of $25 billion worth of private property from Cubans and the
nationalization of all businesses, forcing the middle class to flee to
Miami; his bizarre decision to send 300,000 Cubans out of a population
of only 11 million to fight wars in Africa in the 1980s; his Cold War
alliance with the Russians that left his country bankrupt and saddled
with antiquated technology when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Everyone in Cuba knows the status quo can't last. But no one knows how
or when it will end. The political structure, like Havana's crumbling
buildings, seems to be held up by force of habit and little else.

Fidel's failing health has cast him into the shadow of public life. His
brother Raul is now the man -- struggling to maintain the family's grip
on power by taking two steps forward and one step back, permitting
cellphones and Internet access to those few who can afford them. (But
don't try logging on to that den of imperialists, Facebook -- it and
many other sites are off-limits.)

"The Revolution," is invoked endlessly on TV channels that are so dull
they make C-Span look frivolous. A recent segment on a morning news show
devoted six minutes to the just-completed harvest of limes, praising it
as "a triumph of socialist workers' cooperation."

There's no advertising in Cuba -- unless you count the pervasive
propaganda on TV and painted on walls rallying the masses with
Stalinist-style slogans that would make a North Korean cringe. Roadside
billboards proclaim the 51st anniversary of "La Revolucion" with
glamorous portraits of Che Guevara and assorted other "freedom fighters"
-- all responsible in varying degrees for bringing Cuba to its knees.

Meanwhile, the average citizen of Havana goes about his mundane life,
lining up at stores whose shelves are often empty, waiting in long lines
for Chinese-made buses that never seem to come or trying to hitch rides
in 1950s-era American cars that belch black fumes and contribute to the
choking air quality that leaves the city covered in grime.

In Havana's densely populated, older sections, less than half the homes
are connected to city sewers. A majority of the buildings are decayed
beyond repair.

The government claims that 96 percent of Cubans own their own homes --
referring to the crowded apartments where generations of families are
forced to live together. Even if that figure were true, no one seems to
know who owns the outsides of their once-majestic buildings -- so no one
takes responsibility for maintaining them. Many fear that, when this
regime eventually collapses, a wave of exiles will return from Miami and
lay claim to the properties that Castro stole from them.

Cuba is in limbo, its creaky, centralized economy sustained for now by
Latin America's other delusional dictator Hugo Chavez -- who sends oil
in return for Cuban doctors dispatched to Caracas.

The day of reckoning for Cuba's calamity is approaching. It will take an
international effort to put this country back on its feet.

Kenneth A. Chandler is president of Chandler Regan Strategies and a
former editor and publisher of The Post.

Cuba: A catastrophe in waiting - (27 January 2010)

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