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Facing Reality, Cuban Style

US dollars can buy anything, but for Concepcion, `gypsy cabbing' is the only way to eke out a living

ERNESTO CONCEPCION stands on the Malecon - this city's once-great, now down-at-the-heels seaside boulevard - and casts a northeasterly gaze across the calm Gulf of Mexico.

Over the horizon sit the Florida Keys, and beyond that lies the United States mainland. Geographically, the US is just a hop, skip, and a jump, a mere 90 miles.

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Yet for Mr. Concepcion it might as well be another universe. For the foreseeable future, his chances of getting to the US are about the same as landing on the moon, he says.

``I have a friend who made it to Florida in an inner tube,'' he says. ``I'd never try that. I have to worry about my wife and son. Many people die trying to get to Miami.

``Of course I want to leave. I'd leave tomorrow, but I'd have to be sure of making it,'' he continues.

Ah, but nothing is a sure thing these days in Cuba. Indeed, Concepcion and other Cubans don't have a lot of time for daydreaming about making it to foreign lands. Instead, they must engage in a daily fray for survival as the Cuban economy and infrastructure crumble before their eyes.

With public transportation in an advanced state of decay, the bicycle has become the main means of transport, reducing the world for many Havana residents to the city limits or even to their neighborhoods.

The Cuban government says a main reason for the island's economic troubles is the 33-year-long US trade embargo, but many Cubans don't seem to give the sanctions much thought. With US dollars, it is now possible to get just about anything in Havana.

Concepcion ekes out a living by operating an illegal taxi in Havana, driving his beat-up, Russian-made Lada, which he starts by opening the hood and crossing ignition wires with a screwdriver.

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Most of the time he hangs around Havana's train station looking for fares. Occasionally he gets lucky, picking up foreigners who pay with precious US dollars - the only currency on the island with any real purchasing power.

Gypsy cabbing is an expensive and risky business, Concepcion says. Gas costs between $2.60 and $4 a gallon, an astronomical sum for the typical Cuban. And there is an ever-present danger of a government crackdown.

Although use of the dollar was legalized in July 1993, authorities keep a close eye on the earning and spending of US currency. Officials have confiscated the property of some successful dollar entrepreneurs in recent months, saying their earnings were gained by illicit speculation.

Concepcion has first-hand experience of government capriciousness when it comes to the dollar.

He spent almost a year in prison in 1992 for possessing dollars, and had his previous car confiscated. Memories of that tortuous year remain clear, and he now tries to keep as low a profile as possible.

Under such circumstances, the outside world in the eyes of Concepcion and many other Cubans is at best an abstract concept - they know there is something out there, but it does not figure greatly in their lives.

And though there are people who listen to foreign-radio broadcasts, including MonitoRadio, news reports appear to be of interest only to a few intellectuals.

Even the current crisis in Haiti, just a couple dozen miles from the eastern tip of Cuba, does not generate interest among Havana residents.

``Most people in Cuba have enough problems of their own,'' says Bernardo Pedrosa, a former doctor who now works as a waiter in a restaurant that caters to foreigners.

``They don't have time to care about foreign events.''

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