The Pan American Games in Havana, Cuba

‘The Only Dream Left Is to Get Out’

August 12, 1991 | Newsweek
1180 Words


You can bask for hours in the calm blue water off Playa Santa Maria, one of the dozens of wide white beaches that stretch along the Caribbean east of Havana. A few miles away gleaming new sports facilities for the Pan American Games rise into the azure sky. Thanks to a cutback in Soviet aid and Fidel Castro’s antique Marxist economics, food is scarce; in the countryside, Cubans are being asked to use oxen instead of tractors to till the fields. Yet Castro has spent an estimated $150 million on the Games, giving foreign and Cuban TV viewers alike a cheerful picture of crowded beaches and world-class athletics. To many Cubans, that sporting paradise-complete with bowling alleys imported from Japan to avoid the U.S. trade embargo-is a Potemkin village. In the weeks leading up to the Games, authorities released stockpiled food and fuel to take the edge off real hardship. “Remember the end of the Roman Empire-bread and circuses?” says a young graduate of the University of Havana. “That’s the Panamericanos. Only soon even the pan [bread] will be gone.”

Dreams of escape from Fidel’s decaying bastion occupy the thoughts of Cubans by the tens of thousands. Two young musicians idling at Playa Santa Maria speak openly of their desire to leave Castro’s world. “No future, no future, nothing,” one says angrily. “Saturn, Jupiter, Mars-the only dream left is to get out.” At that, his friend raises a finger toward Key West, 90 miles to the north. Over the last year almost 20,000 have made their way to the United States. Some came legally, but more than 14,000 simply overstayed their visitor visas issued by the U.S. interests section in Havana after Cuba lowered the minimum age for an exit permit to 35 for men and 30 for women. That is the largest migration since the 1980 Mariel boatlift, in which some 125,000 Cubans swamped U.S. shores in five months.

Officials in Washington and Florida are concerned the exodus could become unmanageable. “We’re looking at an influx of 40,000 this calendar year,” Miami official Joaquin Avino told The New York Times. Last week the State Department suspended applications for visitor visas from Cubans until it can sift a backlog of more than 28,000 requests. Privately, U.S. officials say their decision was motivated by cries for relief from south Florida; exiled politicians have also been complaining that Cuba profiteers by charging as much as $1,000 per person for exit permits, air tickets and other fees. Says Arturo Cuenca, a painter who arrived in Miami earlier this year: “Too many people have been staying. The visas were turning into a safe bridge out.”

Tricky currents:

Unsafe ways remain popular as well. Record numbers of Cubans who don’t qualify for visas have been trying to make the trip north on inner-tube rafts and ramshackle homemade boats, in spite of Coast Guard estimates that as many as half will not survive the sharks and tricky currents of the Straits of Florida. So far this year more than 1,400 such balseros have made it to the United States-triple the total of all last year. In addition to the rafters, a steady flow of artists and athletes have defected to the West, largely because of a clampdown on cultural expression. They include a boxer, a radio personality, a writer and her TV-cameraman husband, a historian, a television anchorman, and, on July 10, one of the Cuban national baseball team’s ace pitchers, Rene Arocha. Last week Victor Cuellar Pulido, 46, a Ministry of Culture official, defected in Mexico, calling life in Cuba “like being in a coffin. You can’t speak or move.”

Politically embarrassing though it may be, the U.S.-bound travel has benefits for a Cuban government bent on survival. It’s more than just the millions in exit fees. Those Cubans who do return home bring tens of millions of dollars’ worth of consumer goods, satisfying a demand the Cuban economy can’t meet. The permanent departures constitute a political safety valve: unhappy Cubans focused on getting outor actually gone-are less of a threat than they would be stuck making trouble at home. The U.S. decision to suspend visa applications gives the Cubans an opportunity to score points in their rhetorical contest with Yanqui imperialism. “After years of saying Cuba doesn’t even allow people to leave,” says one official, “the shoe is on the other foot-it’s Washington that will be forcing them into the rafts.” Cuban officials say the minimum age for exit will soon be dropped to 18 or even eliminated entirely, which will only sharpen the dilemma of Washington and Miami’s Cuban exiles. Says one leading exile politician, “Many of us would like to jam a stopper in the kettle, and hope that it will explode.” Nevertheless, says a senior U.S. official, “We want to encourage contacts that could lead to peaceful change, not violent overthrow.”

For now, the Cuban people, distracted by the lure of the United States and intimidated by Castro’s internal-security apparatus, seem unlikely to effect change, peaceful or otherwise. Despite rumblings from the Communist Party grass roots during elections for delegates to the Party Congress, Fidel has quashed any questioning of the country’s top leadership from within the ranks. The heavy foreign presence during the Pan Am Games might have served as a kind of umbrella for would-be protesters, but that seems to have been pre-empted by a heavy deployment of police in and around Havana, backed by new neighborhood militias called “rapid-action detachments.” To offset grumbling over the cost of the Games, the government is sponsoring weekend parties in the parks, featuring cheap beer poured from buckets into quartsize brown paper cups.

‘Tourism apartheid’:

Such dreary bacchanals only seem to accentuate the prevailing apathy and depression. Says dissident Elizardo Sanchez, released in May after serving nearly two years in prison for criticizing Castro’s policies to foreign reporters: “There is a vacuum, a loss of values and a terrible consumerism, especially among the young.” To many Cubans, the most galling byproduct of the government’s drive for foreign tourist dollars is “tourism apartheid,” the system that bars Cubans from dollars-only hotels, restaurants and nightclubs for foreigners. One exception seems to be prostitutes, servicing visitors despite Cuba’s claims to have abolished capitalist vices. The only people more numerous than policemen after midnight along stretches of Havana’s fashionable Fifth Avenue are miniskirted women beckoning to passing cars. Says one wide-eyed Cuban, taking in the scene at the Spanish-owned disco of the Commodore Hotel, “The women are all Cuban and the men are all foreign.”

Ask people strolling along Havana’s quiet, crumbling streets or waiting in two hour lines for an ice-cream cone why so many want out, and they reply with either a blank look or a sarcastic laugh that seems to say: why not? As one 25-year-old artist puts it: “We’ve run out of theories. We’ve run out of ideas … like we’ve run out of gasoline and everything else. All there is everywhere is Fidel, Fidel, Fidel.”

Caption:PHOTO: Bent on survival: On the stump in Havana

PHOTO: No future: Pan Am Games opening ceremony, welcoming visiting relatives to Miami, bathers at a Havana beach