For Cubans who try to leave, life is hard. But for government supporters, housing and consumer goods have gotten better
When the Talavera family tried to leave Cuba five years ago, they became what is known here as ``nonintegrated.'' Both parents lost their jobs and their son, Carlos, a construction worker, says he has little chance of ever getting a better job. ``It's not that we're persecuted, but it's that we don't have the same possibilities as everyone else,'' says Carlos.
The Talavera family (their name has been changed) represents a reality of life in Cuba. When one openly shows discontent with the Castro regime, there are repercussions -- social ostracism as well as increased governmental surveillance.
The Talaveras' attempt to leave the country in 1980 apparently signaled their discontent with the Castro goverment. However, the Talavera family as well as government officals and civilians say there is very little open expression of discontent with the government.
Although the Talaveras say they have not been ``persecuted,'' they kept a careful watch for leaders of the local Revolutionary Defense Committee organization (a party affiliated, vigilante group) during this reporter's recent visit to their home.
Carlos says he knows 100 people who, like him, oppose the government. ``But there are no meetings. Everyone is silent,'' he says. No one can estimate the number of people in a similar situation to the Talaveras'.
For the ``integrated'' Cuban, many Cubans say, life has generally improved in recent years. They say that Cuba's communist government has alleviated some problems peculiar to underdeveloped Latin American nations. Housing has improved. The severe shortage of basic products has lessened. Everyone now has access to free medical services and to schools. Literacy rates have climbed. Infant mortality rates have dropped.
But the experience of Cubans who express their discontent with the Cuban government is much different. The Talaveras' life has not been the same since they tried to leave Cuba in 1980 with the 125,000 Cubans now known as ``Marielites.''
The ``Marielite'' refugees, representing a wide spectrum of Cuban people, left Cuba en masse in 1980 to seek political asylum in the United States. They crossed the Florida Straits in private boats from Mariel Harbor to Key West Florida. About 2,000 of the refugees were determined to be mentally ill or to have criminal records. The US has deported about 200 of those classified as ``insane'' or ``criminal'' within the last five years.
Meanwhile, Cuba announced Monday that it is willing to free more than 70 political prisoners on humanitarian grounds following a private appeal to President Fidel Castro by visiting American Roman Catholic leaders.
Margarita, the mother, who described her former job at a cafeteria as ``good work,'' still has no job. Mr. Talavera, who worked in a printing plant, now has a lower-paying job as a road construction worker. Carlos says his formal attempt to leave Cuba bars him from government positions and from moving upward in other jobs. (Carlos's attempt to leave Cuba was thwarted by his first father, a militant in the Communist Party, who objected to his leaving.)
The Talavera home is as poor as any in Havana. Their small apartment in a deteriorating building has neither gas nor running water. They own a radio and television but no refrigerator.
``Integrated'' Cubans, however, have the opportunity to improve their homes since the new housing law, activated this July, changes a policy in which tenants pay the state a rent equal to no more than 10 percent of their salaries without having the option to buy. The rent will now be applied retroactively to purchase of the house. Officials say that many Cubans will immediately receive titles and eventually everyone will be homeowners.
The law also offers more credits for renovation and construction. It allows Cubans, for the first time since the 1959 revolution, to own more than one house and rent out rooms.
Cuban officials say the law is intended to help solve the nation's severe housing shortage. The hope is that credits and the incentive of ownership will encourage private renovation and construction. ``The state in the short term cannot satisfy the demands [of the public's housing needs],'' said Salvador Gomila Gonz'alez, an adviser to the National Housing Institute.
An agreement that would have allowed 20,000 Cubans to emigrate annually to the United States was signed last December but was broken off in May. Cuban officials say the 20,000 quota would likely have been met. US officials estimate that nearly one tenth of Cuba's current population has emigrated to the US since the revolution.
Cuban officials are still sensitive about the Mariel exodus. ``The people that left were politically, socially, and culturally backward,'' said Julio Leriverend, a top official in the Ministry of Culture and former vice-minister of education.
But one official in an informal conversation admitted that the exodus stemmed at least partly from political intolerance. ``The fault was the revolution itself,'' he said. ``Instead of trying to work with the people who were not with the revolution, we rejected them,'' he said.