Cuba Sinks under Weight of Fidel's Dated Phobias

Article excerpt

HAVANA -- This place is falling apart.

My cab makes its way through the sweltering noonday heat from the dingy Havana airport to town. On the right, a tall, shabby building described as a school closed for the summer looks as if it has been abandoned for years.

In other less developed countries recently -- like Syria and Vietnam -- whose economies were in transition, I sensed a dynamism: new buildings going up, the infrastructure in good repair. But here the city is crumbling before our eyes.

The contrast with Cancun, Mexico, where I spent last night, is startling. A few years ago an insignificant fishing village, today it reminds you of Pinnochio's Island of Bad Boys, where the Fox and the Cat lure swarms of children to a pleasure park that magically transforms them into donkeys.

In Cancun, at midnight, as the airport bus mounts a series of landscaped terraces, like climbing a Mayan pyramid, to the plush international resort hotels, hordes of American teenagers in Calvin Klein T-shirts and baggy shorts drift from one disco to the next "making the scene." In Havana, I explore the back streets where children huddle half-naked in doorways of 19th-century mansions converted into one-family-per-room apartments, boom their music out the window and play volleyball without a net.

I have come to Cuba this July for the same reason as other travelers I meet along the way: to see the world's last thoroughly communist society in what may be its last years -- or months.

I live for five days in Cuban standards at a parish church in the poorest section of Havana, and for three days as a tourist -- two on a package bus tour of the old colonial town of Trinidad on the southern coast, and one in the Old Havana Hotel Ambos Mundos, where they charge you two dollars to see the room where Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and two more to take a picture of his Royal portable and his boots.

At my church we eat rice daily, flavored with corn or beans or occasionally with pieces of one of the turkeys raised with the chickens on the church roof outside my bedroom door. Across the way our neighbors sweep their balconies and hang out their laundry in the afternoon sun. Below, the monstrous "camel" metrobuses (named for their two-hump-like tractor-trailer design), passengers crammed in like prisoners, rumble by with an ear-shattering roar.

Far down Salvador Allende Boulevard, where a rare new shopping mall is going up, a shirtless, muscular, black man straddles a girder and slaps a coat of red paint on it. I suspect it is the one fresh coat of paint in Cuba.

Our air-conditioned tourist bus is filled with French, Italian, Swiss, Spanish and three American travelers. It rolls south along the highway, past hundreds of hitchhiking Cubans waiting for passing government vehicles, which, because of the gas shortage, are required to pick them up. We pull into thatched-roof way stations, constructed purely for tourists like us, where the band plays "Guantanamera" and singers and dancers amuse us between lunch and trinket-buying.

In the evening we stroll the Trinidad cobblestone byways, and our guide has us step right off the street into the front parlor of a local middle-class family to admire their antique furniture, as if the whole town were a quaint museum on display for our benefit.

The 1991 decision of the Fourth Party Congress to expand the tourist industry -- now bringing in over a million tourists, who spent $1.25 billion last year -- has complicated Cuba's already tense and paradoxical relations with the United States. On the one hand, Fidel Castro uses America's antagonism -- particularly the 34-year ban on trade and commerce, made worse by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which attempts to punish foreign investors in Cuba -- as a kind of emotional glue. His intent is to hold together a society whose economy has been on an austerity program, which Castro calls "A Special Period in a Time of Peace," since the loss of Soviet subsidies in 1991. …