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updated 6/9/2005 7:02:35 PM ET 2005-06-09T23:02:35

Once-magnificent colonnaded structures now crumbling into ruin reside side-by-side with beautifully reconstructed mansions and grande dame hotels. Tourist restaurants and well-stocked stores catering to the U.S. dollar co-exist with the sparse provisions available to locals for pesos. Government anti-imperialist rhetoric is counter-balanced by unreserved hospitality toward Americans.

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Cuba seems on the brink of another revolution. With its increasing focus on tourism to combat the debilitating loss of financial support after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the country is undergoing a major architectural makeover - and with it come political and economic implications that may further complicate Cuba's future.

As tourism rises to its vision of economic savior, so does the demand for extensive renovation of hotels, attractions and historic sites to both attract and accommodate tourists, as well as to increase the basic visual appeal of the island.

The advent of large-scale tourism brings with it other changes as well. Dollars, because they are negotiable on the worldwide market, have become the currency of tourism. Waiters and taxi drivers now earn a lot more money than doctors and teachers, which brings a wide discrepancy between those working in the industry and those not. Manuel, the bell boy at our hotel, claimed he has "the best job in the country."

The haves and the have-nots now refer to those with and without access to dollars. This economic disparity is beginning to result in a two-tier economy - a very non-Communist agenda - engendering resentment among those not in the industry. I heard one worker refer to it as "economic apartheid."

This is aggravated by the fact that Cuban residents are not allowed to stay in or eat out at those hotels and restaurants designated as tourist destinations. The flip side - that tourism as the major force in the economy ultimately will benefit the entire population -is a hard concept for many Cubans to accept.

Bemoaned Havana-native Jose Valdes, after being turned down in his attempt to rent a scooter at the Varadero Beach resort: "There I am, a Cuban worker, from a good, responsible family, and I can't rent a scooter in my own country - while strangers from other countries are catered to."

The government's additional need for money has led to an uneasy experimentation with capitalism as an alternative income-producing measure. Enter the self-employed. Some fast-food stands have cropped up, selling pizza and ice cream. Tourist-designated Coco taxis roam the streets. Private homes have been transformed into B&Bs and restaurants.

In each case, the new entrepreneurs must purchase licenses and pay taxes, bringing more dollars into state coffers. Will Cuba soon be straddling a fiscal see-saw trying to find a balance between communist ideology and commercial capitalism in an attempt to revive its ailing economy?

Some conjecture that possibility depends upon life after Castro - which is as far as the conjecture goes. What is going to happen when Fidel dies? Everyone acknowledges that is the question people all over the world are asking. Still, whomever I asked - tour guide, teacher or former government official - the answer was the same: a huge shrug of the shoulders.

In many ways, Cuba - despite the repressive government and underlying poverty - defies status as a Third World country.

Its universal health care system provides broad-based medical facilities to all residents. Each neighborhood has its own doctor's office responsible for prevention and primary care of about 150 families. The doctors divide their time between house calls (remember them?) and office hours daily and follow closely the medical needs of their patients.

Despite a severe shortage of pharmaceutical products and supplies, Cuba boasts an infant mortality rate of only 3.8 per thousand and a life expectancy equal to ours.

In the education sphere, the country claims a 96-percent literacy rate, public schooling is mandatory and graduate-level study comes free with a two-year community service commitment.

Not only does Cuba lead Latin America in health care and education -both doctors and teachers travel worldwide as emissaries - but it has even surpassed the United States in having virtually eradicated illiteracy.

Still, there are problems; "I don't want to tell you that the educational system in Cuba is perfect," offered Nydia Gonzalez, vice chairperson of the Board of Cuban Association of Teachers, "but it's much better than it used to be." She added matter-of-factly: "We'd like the U.S. embargo lifted so we could afford more books and supplies, people would have more to eat and be able to pay for better housing, and young people would have money to go to a dance or show."

Problems of a different nature, of course, are that Fidel is a harsh dictator who governs with a very heavy hand, media censorship is rampant, and leaving Cuba is almost impossible. Some people accept the trade-offs; others are eager for his removal. While Cuba as a country works in many ways, it is important to recognize the serious hardships the people endure and the ruthless realities of the Cuban government.

Although poverty is widespread, starvation is not. Through a rationing program, every household is guaranteed a minimum supply of staples each month. Admittedly, the existence is subsistence-level if there is not enough money available to supplement the government allotment. While minimal amounts of sugar, eggs, rice, beans, soap, toothpaste and other basic necessities are provided monthly, other items we take for granted - beef, chicken, fresh produce, cooking oil, shampoo and cleaning supplies - are in much less frequent supply. If you don't like rice and beans, you're in trouble.

With an eye toward improving the diet, the government is encouraging the planting of urban gardens. Wherever there is an unused piece of land or concrete, organic vegetables are sprouting up.

In conversations with people about health care, education, housing and transportation, there was no attempt to whitewash the problems. While proud of the accomplishments, people were frank about the shortcomings and challenges. For example, while housing is very inexpensive, it is so sparse that several generations often share a sparsely furnished two-room apartment, and a decrepit building a casual observer might assume is abandoned could be home to several dozen families.

Comments about Castro also present a mixed picture. Some people seem to worship him, while others berate him with equal fervor. Most, I found, combine an old-uncle fondness with the hope that when he leaves the scene, life will improve.

As our tour guide, Robert, explained: "Yes, Fidel is a dictator. It's a military state run by the army, but I can speak freely as long as I don't conspire to overthrow the government. Most people like it this way. We have free health care and education, and there's tremendous emphasis on improving social services for those in need." He added, though, that the Cubans would like "a better economy."

His outlook was echoed by others. The belief that they - and the country - are much better off than before the Revolution goes hand in hand with an apparent affection for Castro. Unlike the hated dictator Batista who preceded him, discussions with a number of Cubans led me to conclude that Fidel is viewed by many as wanting the best for the country and its people - even if the current system doesn't always deliver it.

Still, a member of our tour group observed, "I haven't met anyone who likes Fidel. Many people are very open about their desire to see him go."

Prior to my trip to Cuba, I had anticipated feeling a sense of oppression among the population. I found little of that – just people going about their daily lives punctuated by tourists traveling in groups and looking the part. An attorney from Fayettesville, Arkansas, who didn't wish to be named commented that he expected "More of a police state" but instead found the people "Very friendly and eager to help."

This is so despite the fact that propaganda is pervasive. An undercurrent of anti-U.S. sentiment is apparent through posters, the media and other public messages. Driving through the countryside, images of revolutionary heroes and Viva la Revolucion billboards are interspersed with signs exhorting the public to work hard, get an education and conserve energy. One theory is that the goal is to keep the people focused on the outside enemy as responsible for their problems - the embargo, for instance - rather than internal dissatisfaction.

Brimming with open-air markets, art festivals and street musicians, it is really the enthusiasm and friendliness of the people – even in the face of the many shortcomings and challenges they deal with - that breathes life into the country.

I was surprised by the positive attitude so many Cubans express toward Americans, even outside the tourist areas - so it has to be based on more than just our penchant for tipping well.

"I am so impressed by how nice the people are, much more so than in the rest of the Caribbean, where often they are angry," observed Anita Madison, visiting Havana from New York City.

While they see the U.S. embargo on goods and our restrictions on travel as hurting their economy, I found the people more helpful than hostile. Speaking better English than I expected, folks I asked directions of more often took us than told us the way. A taxi driver, upon learning we were from the U.S., declared, "I love Americans."

A chat with a man in line at a Havana bakery led to sharing coffee and conversation with him and his mother in their small but artfully decorated apartment nearby. When I told a man walking on a small street in Santiago where I was from, he looked around a bit before rolling up his sleeves to display a U.S. flag on one arm, and an American eagle on the other.

It's hard as a visitor to rationalize the existence of a total totalitarian state - and all the oppressive images that brings to mind - with the cultural richness and social buoyancy that permeates the country.

Cuba now is preparing for the day when tourism brings it economic solvency. Underneath broken balustrades and peeling porticos is a vintage Caribbean odyssey striving to break through. Wide boulevards, verdant parks, stately mansions, rich history and beckoning beaches all vie for their rightful place on itineraries of the most discriminating travelers -- presumably, one day soon, including many Americans.

Trying to See Cuba Today:

Who can go? Since 1963, the U.S. government has prohibited American citizens from spending money in Cuba, in effect making it illegal for most people to travel there. Exceptions have been made for journalists, students and several other categories.

In addition to those who made the trip under permitted loopholes, tens of thousands of Americans have visited illegally by way of Mexico, Jamaica, Canada and other countries. In an effort to stop that flow, the U.S. government recently tightened travel restrictions and increased enforcement of regulations already on the books.

The major change was to prohibit people-to-people cultural trips, like the one I took. Licenses to visit Cuba still are granted to specified travelers, primarily people associated with religious organizations and humanitarian projects.

Some observers believe those exceptions still will allow Americans who wish to see the country to go there by affiliating with an approved organization, though probably in far more limited numbers.

Travel to Cuba is regulated by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. For information:
call (202) 622-2480,
or log onto its web site at
www.treas.gov/ofac/cuba  
(country summaries).
The web site of the Cuban Ministry of Tourism is www.cubatravel.cu.

The OFAC web site lists authorized U.S. travel service providers to Cuba. The agency that planned my trip is a knowledgeable source of information about the regulations and the country. It is Transeair Travel at (202)362-6100 or e-mail blubic@aol.com.

Whether to go: If travel to Cuba were not caught up in a political storm, it is likely that the country would quickly become the major Caribbean destination as it was for Americans before Castro came to power, and is for the rest of the world. Critics of the travel embargo make several points.

(1) They note that the United States restricts travel to Cuba but not to China and other countries that also do not respect human rights.

(2) They point to the irony of objecting to the Cuban government's violations of its citizens' freedoms by restricting the right of Americans to travel there.

(3) They also argue that rather than bringing Castro down, decades of the travel and trade embargoes have provided a convenient bogeyman in Uncle Sam. That, the argument goes, has enabled Castro to deflect criticism which otherwise might be directed at him.

On the other hand, at the time he announced the tightened travel restrictions, President Bush said the goal of the move was to hasten the end of the Castro regime. He said that tourism provides "The hard currency to prop up the dictator and his cronies."

Supporters of that position charge that little of the hard currency which tourism brings into Cuba finds its way into the hands of average people there. Instead, they say, much of it is siphoned off by the government, and used to maintain its iron grip on the country.

When I asked about that charge, I was instead told that tourism dollars are re-circulated within the community, with tourist-related facilities such as hotels and restaurants contributing a percentage of their profits to on-going reconstruction, and quality jobs.

Also, several guides and others who work in tourism said they are required to donate part of their earnings to support health care and education.

Travelworld International Magazine features articles, columns, and photos from members of the North American Travel Journalists Association. For more information on Travelworld Magazine, please contact the NATJA by phone (310) 836-8712 or email at info@natja.org.

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