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Cubans Uncertain About Future but Many Crave Change

Today, we begin a special series of reports: "Inside Cuba - Reporter's Notebook."

As 80-year-old Cuban President Fidel Castro remains largely out of the public eye, recuperating from unspecified intestinal surgery that sidelined him in July, the island is being ruled on an acting basis by his brother Raul, who is also Cuba's defense minister.

Because Cuban authorities have restricted access to the island by U.S.-based television journalists, a video crew that regularly contributes material to VOA has just completed a 10-day, unofficial assignment in Cuba. While there, the crew gathered material and spoke to many average Cubans about their hopes and fears for the future. To protect the identities of those who spoke to the crew, 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.

Here is the first of our series of reports, in which the reporter takes a look at Havana and spoke with some of its residents.

It is impossible to visit Cuba and not be struck by the island's extraordinary beauty.

Just 150 kilometers off the U.S. coast, it is also impossible to visit Cuba and not be struck by its extensive poverty.

Much of downtown Havana is literally crumbling -- the facades of its Spanish colonial buildings showing the signs of decades of disrepair.

And its people are struggling too... earning the equivalent of around $10 U.S. a month -- an amount that is supposed to cover their basic necessities under the communist system. Cubans have access to state-sponsored education and health care -- factors United Nations studies say have given Cuba one of the highest literacy and life expectancy rates in the developing world.

Yet, in many ways, most Cubans live like some of the poorest people in Latin America. This is evident on the streets of the Cuban capital, where there appears to be large-scale joblessness despite government claims of full-employment.

The island has been in communist hands since 1959, when the Cuban Revolution swept Fidel Castro to power. But today Mr. Castro is ailing, and he is only seen in very occasional video footage shown to the public on state-run Cuban television.

The sudden disappearance from view of the man who -- until recently -- embodied the Cuban government has caused worry and uncertainty among many of the island's citizens.

One man told us he thinks his country is frozen in time. "I think that this country is in a freeze. A freeze in time, in the development, in everything".

We went to the "Plaza de la Revolucion" in the center of Havana. It is the place where Fidel Castro often presided over pro-government demonstrations and gave lengthy, inspirational speeches.

Today, Mr. Castro's seat in the Plaza is empty, and a bystander wonders what will come next. "I think this country can change, but it's going to take too much time. Twenty years maybe. People continue living the same way as 50 years ago."

One thing that has not changed is rationing. A woman shows us her ration book, which allows her, like all other Cubans, to buy limited stocks of food at government-run stores. Ten eggs a month, two kilos of sugar, half a kilo of chicken, a bar of soap, and every day just one bread roll -- part of the basket of staples that Cubans are legally permitted to purchase at subsidized prices.

It is a system so controlled, that it leaves many Cubans eking out a monthly existence -- unable to afford a new pair of western-made shoes, or any of the other relatively upscale goods that are not sold for pesos, but only for Cuba's second, officially "convertible" currency.

The only way of earning that convertible currency is by securing a highly sought-after job working with western tourists, trading on the black market, or relying on U.S. dollar remittances from family members who have fled Cuba's shores for the United States.

To be sure, some Cubans find ways of making life enjoyable.

And Cuban television is invariably on hand to record those moments and transmit them to the entire island. The cameras were rolling when one group of children took part in a dance competition on Havana's streets.

The country's national pastime -- baseball -- is also a regular fixture on the Cuban airwaves. Even star players earn a monthly salary equivalent to $20 U.S. for talent that earns a handful of defectors millions on the other side of the Florida Straits.

But baseball, like everything else on the island, is run along Soviet-style, centrally-planned economic lines. Some of the sport's fans crave change, but still don't entirely expect it. One man expressed it this way: "This is a very strong system, you know. It has been built stone by stone, control and control. It's very difficult that it will collapse because it is very strong. But I don't like it all, this system, it's completely dead".

The Cuban economy is increasingly reliant on support from the country's political friends: primarily, Venezuela. Tankers carrying oil, food and consumer goods dock in Havana on an almost daily basis.

Also arriving here constantly: tourists from Canada, Europe and Latin America.

Varadero, 140 kilometers from Havana, is the largest resort in the Caribbean. Its golf courses, beaches and modern, European-financed hotels are proving popular with visitors who provide the island with urgently needed foreign currency.

But the vast majority of Cubans experience little benefit from the development of the tourism sector.

And as the sun sets on Fidel Castro's time in power, many of them say they want to see rapid change on the island. But they are uncertain whether its communist rulers can deliver it.