Castro’s long shadow
Government launches an economic crackdown, working to ensure the
survival of socialism after the Cuban dictator’s death.
By Ruth Morris
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
April 9, 2006
CIENFUEGOS, Cuba hey sink their boats in the shallows by night, hiding
them in watery nooks to evade authorities. By day, the shrimp fishermen
lean inside shady doorframes, wiggling their index fingers as cars pass
— a signal that discreetly advertises their illegal catch.
“If they caught me hunting shrimp, they’d leave me like a chicken
without feathers,” said the fidgety fisherman who asked not to be
identified. It is against the law to sell shrimp privately in communist
Cuba, and he risks steep fines if detected.
Fishermen like him are among those feeling the deepest pain from an
ongoing government campaign to tighten the screws on the Cuban economy.
Tagged “recentralization,” the move began in 2003, clamping down on
private enterprise and the black market, and raising state salaries and
Castro contends the economic clampdown will refresh socialist ideals,
punish pilferers and combat U.S. trade sanctions. Detractors say the
program is meant to bring every aspect of Cuban life under government
control, battening the hatches ahead of an eventual leadership change.
Castro appears strong for his 79 years, but rumors of health problems
“Fidel Castro is trying to eliminate any degree of autonomy, any degree
of personal enterprise, any degree of personal income,” said Antonio
Jorge, a professor of economics and international relations at Florida
What’s clear is that hardship remains. Economic snapshots from different
walks of life suggest that most Cubans struggle to make ends meet
despite government pay hikes, while the island’s small entrepreneurial
sector feels the reforms snapping at its heels.
The fisherman makes most of his money by selling shrimp illegally. Yet,
asked about his economic status, he held out his hands, leathery on top,
calloused underneath, stained by cigarettes.
“We’re poor. I have nothing. Why would I lie to myself?” he said.
As enforcement ramped up, authorities confiscated the boats of three
friends, he added, slapping them with large fines they find impossible
Recentralization reverses modest market openings created in the 1990s,
when Cuba welcomed limited entrepreneurial endeavors to offset the loss
of income from Soviet subsidies. Foreign companies were invited to join
the government in running resorts and exporting tobacco. Thousands of
Cubans were issued self-employment permits, allowing them to dabble in
everything from renting rooms to repairing televisions to selling sugar
Today, recentralization has made such permits harder to come by. The
number of self-employment licenses has shrunk to 150,000, down more than
25 percent since 1996.
Among those feeling the squeeze are bed-and-breakfast owners such as
Nelson Molina, who rents a room in his home to foreign language
students. A year ago, authorities began demanding he pay a tax on
maintenance, even including the amount spent to wash towels. About the
same time, the government set stricter limits on overnight visits by
Cubans, ostensibly to ward off prostitution. Then the government yanked
a provision that allowed hostel owners to suspend operations, and avoid
taxes, during slow months.
From a rocking chair on his breezy front patio, Molina said he still
considered himself more fortunate than many of his countrymen.
“This venture doesn’t give you the chance to get rich, but you can
breathe a little easier. I’m less suffocated,” he said.
Even with the new provisions, Cubans with access to foreign currency —
Molina charges in dollar-denominated pesos — fare better than most.
Profits from his rented room help support his son and aging parents, he
said, and paid for a new stereo system and a large television in his
home. Dollar-denominated, or “convertible,” pesos also can buy products
such as perfumed soap and spaghetti sauce in special shops.
Molina also said prices for household goods seemed to be edging higher
as the state lifts salaries for Cubans on the government payroll.
“There is a rise in salaries, but what is a raise if the bag of coffee
goes up, too?” he asked.
Cubans who work for the state said staggered salary hikes have boosted
their buying power, but only slightly. Castro more than doubled the
minimum wage last year and boosted pensions by 50 percent. Dr. Noel
Godoy, for example, said the government pay hike for health workers had
done little to improve his finances.
“I think we deserve more in terms of a stimulus,” Godoy said at a busy
country clinic in Horquita, a town of tethered horses and clay-colored
pastures near Cienfuegos. “It’s not easy. Maybe I have money for meat,
but I don’t have cooking oil.”
Cubans pay nothing for health care, housing and education, but those who
work for the state are paid a median monthly wage of $17. As a doctor,
Godoy has seen his pay increase to about $25 a month since
recentralization began, a sum he says does not reflect his heavy workload.
He moved through his day like a short-order cook slammed with lunch
tickets. A steady stream of patients entered his small examination room
through both the front and side doors. Short on notepads, he wrote
prescriptions on the back of paper squares he cut from unused hospital
He described his financial situation as “comfortable,” but only because
his wife’s sister, who immigrated to Canada with little more than an
eighth-grade education, keeps the family afloat with remittances. He
owes his television set, his kitchen table and even his children’s toys
to her money wires.
“I am university-trained, and I can’t hold a candle next to her,” he
said, referring to his sister-in-law’s monthly contributions of $50 to $100.
More recent economic reforms have targeted black-market operators, from
vegetable vendors to gas attendants skimming off the state pumps. In one
overnight crackdown, Castro replaced gas station attendants with
pro-government social workers, charging the social workers with figuring
out how much fuel had been stolen.
Alcides Hernandez, who sells illegal pork sandwiches and congealed pork
fat to passers-by in Santiago de Cuba, said the government had not yet
interfered with his scruffy street-corner trade. Shortages, he said,
make his venture necessary. “The doctor doesn’t recommend [pork fat],”
he said. “But people need it because there’s no cooking oil, no butter.”
Nor was the enterprise making him rich, despite Castro’s portrayal of
black-market vendors as profiteers.
At 67, dressed in shiny, yellow overalls, the retired labor consultant
said he made a better living peddling 20-cent sandwiches than he had on
the government payroll. He still lives in a tiny house with one bare
light bulb and no running water. The only picture on the wall was a
collage of strangers — a man and a woman looking at one another, cut
As he spoke to a reporter, two women strolled past. They had been turned
away from their cigar-rolling jobs for the day because wet weather made
it difficult to handle tobacco leaves. They had no money, but smiled
seductively, and Hernandez gave them free sandwiches.
“If I can I help,” he said with a shrug.
Cuba’s present economic system “doesn’t work for the people,” he added.
“For the government, it’s marvelous.”
Ruth Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5012.