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Cubans Caught Between Communist Past, Uncertain Future


Now to the third and final report in our special series, "Inside Cuba - Reporter's Notebook." It is an in-depth look at life on the island as President Fidel Castro remains out of the public eye - sidelined with an unspecified stomach illness.

For ten days, a video crew - working on behalf of VOA - made an unofficial visit to Cuba. The journalists found the country caught between its ideologically-driven past, and a future whose outlook is uncertain.

To protect the identities of those who spoke to the reporters, 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.

As you walk the streets of Havana, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have stepped back in time. This city is steeped in history, and in some sense, stuck in the past.

There are museums everywhere dedicated to Fidel Castro's 1959 Revolution. Everything is on display, from old photographs and weapons to American planes shot down by the Cuban military in 1961 during the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion.

On a street corner in the old part of the capital, Cubans sell books and magazines. Many of them cannot be found anywhere else: biographies of leaders of the Cuban revolution; books celebrating long-discredited Soviet leaders; even yellowing copies of western magazines dating back 60 years.

All reflect a past that some Cubans still find more comforting than the present.

One woman expresses nostalgia for a time before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Moscow and Havana were close allies. "We are sorry, we are very sorry, because we have plenty of friendship, and we are very grateful for the help to us when we made the revolution."

Before the Soviet collapse, Cuba heavily depended on Moscow for economic and political support. The removal of Moscow's lifeline, combined with the United States' economic embargo, sent the Cuban economy into a downward spiral.

But unlike in Moscow in the Soviet era, Havana residents are friendly and open. Despite the overwhelming poverty - or maybe because of it - windows and doors are rarely closed, and ordinary Cubans are warm and inviting, even to strangers.

But once you stop to talk to local people in Havana, it is very likely that your interest in them is being noted. In every residential block of the city, there is an office of the "Committee for the Defense of the Revolution" - an ideological watchdog, responsible for finding and monitoring those whose loyalty to the regime is in doubt. Some Cubans believe that every third citizen is a state informer.

And the state works hard to block outside voices from being heard.

Cuban authorities put up 138 flag poles in front of the building that hosts the American Interests Section in Havana - the closest thing the U.S. has to an embassy here since Washington has no formal diplomatic relations with Havana.

The flagpoles are meant to block the view of a scrolling electronic billboard on which the Americans place the latest world headlines. The ticker's intended audience of car drivers along a seaside highway never get a chance to catch up on some uncensored news.

Still, American influence is everywhere in Havana. "Mission Impossible," starring Tom Cruise, was playing at one local movie theater. Cubans drink "Tropi-Cola," a locally-manufactured beverage sold in cans colored by a hauntingly-familiar shade of red.

And, of course, there are the vintage American cars. The Cuban capital is filled with Chevrolets, Buicks, Fords, Chryslers and Cadillacs from the 1950s. Before the revolution, Cuba was the largest importer of American cars in the Caribbean. And even today, these relics are regarded as the most valuable luxury item in the country.

So, despite the long-standing U.S. economic embargo, car-loving Cubans have become highly adept at keeping their aging vehicles running. For instance, an old washing machine engine is now used to manufacture spare parts for the American relics. Cubans also replace original American components with similar ones from Russian cars that flooded the island during the Cold War years. But the Russian vehicles have not lasted nearly as long as the American originals.

While there are strict government controls on purchasing new cars for ordinary Cubans, these American classics are the main source of revenue for many. Used as a taxicab for tourists - they can make their owners some $50 U.S. a day - a huge sum in a country where an average monthly wage is $10 U.S.

Many of those cars - fixed up for a local car show - could sell for tens of thousands of dollars as collectors' items in the United States. But that is unlikely to happen until the frozen U.S.-Cuban relationship thaws.

That may happen in the future - for now, Cubans watch and wait for change to come.

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