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  Catering to Foreigners Instead of Cubans Puts Castro on Defensive

By Douglas Farah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 9, 1992; Page A31

HAVANA -- Cuba's swing to tourism is bringing in vital hard currency, but the accompanying bitterness among Cubans denied access to the lures laid out for foreigners has grown to the point that President Fidel Castro is on the stump in defense.

The resentment, coming as Cuba's economic crisis deepens and the standard of living drops sharply, has given rise to a new phrase here to describe the gulf that exists between tourists and Cubans -- "tourism apartheid."

Cubans are not allowed to have dollars and can only enter the growing number of newly renovated luxury hotels, expensive restaurants and special dollar stores if accompanied by a foreigner who can pay in dollars. Most of the hotels are operated as joint ventures between the Cuban government and private companies from Canada, Spain or other European nations.

Havana's residents are forced to get around on bicycles or wait for hours for scarce public transportation because the acute gasoline shortage has virtually done away with private cars and sharply reduced the number of buses circulating. But foreigners ride down the streets in new Japanese-made cars, rented with dollars. Tourists buy gasoline -- for $3.60 a gallon -- at special gas stations.

Even as the tourists multiply and the advantages they enjoy become more visible to Havana residents, Cubans are seeing their basic food rations shrink, and many grumble to journalists.

According to a joke making the rounds, the three main accomplishments of the revolution, are, as Castro says: education, medical treatment and sports. The three main failures are breakfast, lunch and supper.

Much of the economic decline and the desperation for hard currency is due to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, which supplied Cuba with an estimated $4 billion annually in subsidized imports, principally petroleum products. Now Cuba must buy the goods at world market prices with hard currency.

"Can you imagine, I cannot even eat here without a foreigner, and this is a revolutionary government," said an academic, who is not a dissident, at dinner in a dollar restaurant with a journalist. "We are not even allowed to go to the best beaches -- they took the best beaches from us. Of course this creates great tension. If that is not tourism apartheid, what is it?"

In a July 12 hour-long speech to the National Assembly of the People's Government, a body that rewrote the constitution last month to formally allow for joint ventures with foreign capital, Castro spent much of his time trying to explain the seemingly irreconcilable need for one of the world's last hard-line Marxist regimes to court tourist dollars. And he asked the nation to accept the lack of access to tourist centers, which he said was not a short-term measure.

"We have to maintain this for as long as the country has a need for foreign currency and does not have other means of acquiring it," Castro said. "We are not committing any indignity, any injustice, any discrimination. We should not let the lies of our enemies, the campaigns of our enemies discourage, demoralize, shame or embarrass us, because we are the ones defending the dignity of our country. . . . We can present this for what it is, as an economic necessity."

Castro said he was "pondering formulas" that would allow Cubans to use some of the tourist facilities as a reward for outstanding work. He blasted a "perfidious, perverse, cynical" campaign to present the current situation as "a case of discrimination."

"For every five {Cubans} staying two or three days in one of those hotels, the country would have one less ton of meat to distribute to the people," Castro said. "For every six or seven people, we would have one less ton of powdered milk to distribute. . . . We would have to expend foreign currency not only to pay our partners but also for every bottle of any kind, for every service, for every pillow, for every carpet, every can of paint. All these expenses are in foreign currency."

Andrew Zimbalist, an economist specializing in Cuba at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., said in a recent telephone interview that Cuba's industrial output had dropped 35 percent from 1989 through 1991, and could drop another 10 percent this year. He said the hard currency generated from tourism was "not insignificant" but could not come close to replacing the $4 billion in lost imports from the Soviet Bloc.

Jorge Dominguez, a Cuba specialist at Harvard University, said the situation was so difficult that Cuba had virtually no foreign-exchange reserves and could only buy foreign products on a "pay-as-you-go basis."

Last week, Rafael Sed Perez, director of Cuba's National Institute of Tourism, said tourism in the first half of 1992 was 25 percent higher than in the same period in 1991, and that visitors brought in 30 percent more hard currency. But he did not give figures. Havana reported 400,000 visitors last year, and a net of $210 million from them.

Raul Taladrid, deputy minister for economic collaboration, said in an interview that the style afforded tourists was "a bitter pill for some to swallow, especially the young," but tourism was being promoted because "we have a high, fast rate of return on our investment. Our biggest difficulty is getting foreign exchange so we can reach a new economic equilibrium."

Taladrid said there were about 60 joint ventures underway and several hundred more on the drawing board. He would not estimate the worth of the projects, which he said were "part of our strategy to get out of an extremely difficult situation."

Eugenio Balari, president of the Cuban Institute for the Investigation and Orientation of Internal Demand, said much of the money generated was going to be used to try to maintain basic social services.

"We are not expanding the services, we are not building new hospitals or schools or universities, but we are trying to maintain what we have," Balari said. "I cannot say they are 100 percent the same, but the services have not varied significantly yet."

The one group of Cubans who seem to have benefited directly from the boom in tourism is the growing crowd of young women in miniskirts who line some of the capital's main streets at night, trying to flag down the passing cars of tourists in hopes of being invited to a dollar restaurant or discotheque.

Known as jineteras, or strutters, the women deny they are prostitutes, and several said they were simply trying to kill the boredom of evenings long on electrical blackouts and short on good food and entertainment.

"I would never get to eat meat if I did not go out with tourists, so why should I go out with a Cuban?" asked a woman standing on Quinta Avenida. "Sometimes I sleep with the man, sometimes not, depending on how things go, but I am not a prostitute."

The government and police tolerate jineteras, although prostitution is illegal, and in some ways seem to encourage them to get foreigners to spend money.

Tourist hangouts like the Hemingway Marina, a popular late-night spot, have not only food, drinks and music, but also merchandise stores, priced in dollars and stocked with imported clothes, shampoo, soap and other goods that Cuban women cannot get elsewhere and that men are encouraged to buy for them.

One recent night, waiters even brought around fresh grapes, bananas and other hard-to-find produce for the men to buy for their dates.

Castro, who banned prostitution when his revolution triumphed 33 years ago, took on the sensitive topic in his speech:

"There are 'jineteras' but prostitution is not allowed in our country. There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist. Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarily, and without any need for it.

"We can say they are highly educated hookers and quite healthy, because we are the country with the lowest number of AIDS cases. There are nearby countries with tens of thousands of AIDS cases, so there is truly no tourism healthier than Cuba's."

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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