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Cubans Struggle in Province Rich in Tobacco, Tourism

This week we are bringing you a special series of reports called "Inside Cuba - Reporter's Notebook."

The series is based on the reporting of a video crew that contributes material to VOA on a regular basis. The crew made an unofficial ten-day visit to the island. To protect the identities of those who spoke to the journalists, we will not show their faces nor provide any images that could endanger them. We also are withholding the names of the crew, in a further effort to protect those who expressed their opinions.

For the second part of "Inside Cuba", the crew visited Pinar Del Rio, Cuba's westernmost province.

Known for its rich tobacco crop, the province also is a popular tourist destination, part of a $2 billion-a-year industry that has become Cuba's top foreign exchange earner. But as we hear in this report, few Cubans share in the wealth.

Days are long, sunny and quiet in this small town in Cuba's western province of Pinar del Rio.

The streets are lined with freshly-painted private houses that owners rent out to a growing number of foreign tourists. And also catering to those tourists are tour guides -- both young and old.

One of them offers his services to us on an unofficial basis -- and later explains the difference he sees between the Cuba for tourists and the Cuba that exists for most Cubans.

"You are tourists and you have money, you can eat the best of the best, visit the best places and you can do whatever you want. But if I have money and I want to go stay in the same hotel as you, I can't do it. It's forbidden. I can't even get inside the hotel lobby," the man says.

Most Cubans get paid in local pesos, earning the equivalent of about $10 U.S. a month. But those who work in the tourist industry have a chance to earn the country's parallel, convertible currency.

It is that second currency that the islanders must use to purchase goods that otherwise are impossible to get. Those with pesos can only shop at government-run stores where the shelves are often bare.

Also, remittances from overseas are an important part of Cuba's wealth. Between one-third and two-thirds of the island's 11 million inhabitants are believed to receive money from abroad -- mostly from Cuban-Americans living in exile in the United States.

And those who do not get any support from the outside world, have no choice but to struggle on their own.

The fields of this small tobacco and coffee plantation are worked by a farm family. "This year, we had a good weather, but it depends on the rain. No rain, no crop," said one family member.

Whether it has been a good year or not, the family is obliged to give 90 percent of their crop to the Cuban government for a small, fixed fee. The rest can be sold to support the family.

But even though the family is producing some of the most highly sought-after tobacco in the world, they find it difficult to keep themselves clothed and fed.

"It's difficult to get milk, and it gets bad quickly in the house," the farmer explains. "As for meat, we have chicken sometimes and we eat pork once a year. There's nowhere to buy food anyway, if there was a place to buy it we would buy more."

The house has neither electricity, nor running water -- a common situation, they say, in many rural homes in Cuba.

Residents of Pinar del Rio province are historically known for their resistance to Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. But these days, the government's propaganda is everywhere -- from schools to private homes.

Education in Cuba remains free-to-all, and the country is widely-admired in Latin America for its high literacy rate. But some young Cubans who have emerged from the educational system believe that massive change on the island is inevitable.

"Yes. I think the change is going to happen when "our uncle" dies," says one resident. "I am sure when the Americans hear that Fidel Castro is dead, everybody will come," he says.

But American tourists will only be free to visit Cuba when the U.S. economic embargo of the island is lifted. And that will only happen if the country embraces democracy.

Many Cubans hope change will improve their economic well-being, but for now they compete with one another for highly-prized jobs that earn them hard currency.