The senior U.S. diplomat in Cuba says life for ordinary Cubans is becoming more difficult by the day, prompting more of them to try to leave their country.
James Cason, the Chief of Mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana says the recent elimination of the use of the U.S. dollar as a hard currency in Cuba, and the rollback of modest economic reform measures, such as self-employment opportunities, is making life more difficult by the day for ordinary Cubans.
"Many Cubans without access to hard currency do not regularly get three square meals a day," he said. "The ration card only provides about 10-days sustenance, and the rationed food supply is erratic. One ration-store shopkeeper took to referring to eggs as 'Americanos.' Why? Because the government always says the Americans are coming, but they never do."
Mr. Cason says in the countryside, most Cubans eat once a day and he quotes U.N. reports as saying there is substantial under-nourishment and malnutrition.
The U.S. diplomat spoke at a conference in Miami examining a transition to a democratic Cuba.
Cuban authorities banned the use of the U.S. dollar last month, ending a 10-year period in which it served as the de-facto currency on the communist-run island.
From now on, Cuban-exiles sending money to relatives must also pay a 10 percent commission when exchanging dollars for so-called "convertible" pesos, which are pegged one-to-one to the U.S. dollar. Cuba's government says the move is in response to restrictions imposed by Washington earlier this year on remittances and visits to the island.
Analysts say the Cuban action is, in part, an effort to obtain scarce hard currency reserves.
Mr. Cason says more Cubans are trying to leave their island. He says the U.S. issues 20,000 visas a year to Cubans, but those who choose to leave illegally, are often the talented young professionals that any country needs for its future.
"We discovered an interesting demographic among those who choose to leave illegally," he said. "It is not the youngest Cubans who despair of making a life for themselves, but those in the late twenties or early thirties. Educated with no job prospects. Married and living at home."
The U.S. diplomat says many Cubans are waiting for a so-called "biological solution" to their misery - the death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He says Mr. Castro's recent fall in which he fractured his knee and arm has only heightened anticipation of a post-Castro Cuba, even among the Cuban leaders' followers.
"The lonely voices in the opposition are getting less lonely by the day," he said. "Fed up by food and power shortages, and the latest government-imposed crises, Cubans are increasingly losing patience with Castro. In the weeks since Castro's well-publicized fall, more and more regime supporters are now saying it is time for Castro to step down."
Mr. Cason says it is unlikely that Cuba will transform itself into a democracy the day Mr. Castro dies. He says Cuban authorities have already planned a transition aimed at perpetuating communist rule. The U.S. diplomat says a generation-long effort will be needed to bring democracy to an island that for nearly 50 years has known nothing but Communism.