A look inside Cuba: Part II

Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series about the past, present and future of Cuba.

From 1957-1959 before the revolution, Cuba was recognized as the world's greatest economy outside of the top industrialized nations. The Cuban peso was on par with the U.S. dollar. The country was a leading producer of sugar and citrus and was a tourism mecca.

Since the revolution, the economy has turned upside down. The generals of the military control much of the island's economy, according to Mario R. Sanchez, Ph.D, professor of computer science at Miami-Dade College.

"The whole economy is based on the black market and what the government controls," he said.

Photo with no caption

Photo by Ed Bania

"Unfortunately, everybody over there steals and sells in the black market," Orlando Perez, associate and office manager of Cad Drafting Solutions, LLC, added.

Both Marco Island residents were born in Cuba and have friends or relatives still living there.

Sanchez was born in Havana in 1956. He came to the United States as part of Operation Pedro Pan in 1962.

In the 1990s, he joined an international consulting firm and became highly successful in the computer systems industry. For the past five years, he has been teaching computer science.

Perez was four years old when he came to America in 1967. He earned a scholarship to the University of Miami, studied architecture and joined Sotolongo Architects in Miami. He has worked for the internationally known company for almost 20 years.

Sanchez noted that a recent best-selling book titled, The Big Rip-off, describes how corporate America and the political machines of both the GOP and Democratic parties are all in bed together. A chapter in the book discusses the Fangul family, who are the sugar barons of Central Florida, and the destruction of the Everglades.

"Sugar is a commodity that is, to a great extent, subsidized by the U.S. government," he noted.

Perez said he was recently told that tons of goods that were to be exported had spoiled sitting on a freighter in the Port of Havana. The goods went into the Cuban market and were consumed by the citizens.

Photo with no caption

Photo by Ed Bania

Sanchez smiles when he thinks of people in other countries who pay $12 to $30 for a Cuban cigar.

"It's not the Cuban cigars of pre-revolution Cuba when it was a tremendous product," he said. "Now, the tobacco sits in the fields because no one can pick them or they don't have fuel for the tractors."

The curing is much different now. The tobacco sits in the barns and almost rots, according to Sanchez. "Then they roll the tobacco and that sits somewhere else for God knows how long," he added.

He said that the infrastructure in Cuba is virtually non-existent. Constant power blackouts cause much of the tobacco to rot. Most of the $30 paid for a cigar goes to a middle-man or directly to the government.

"It's not going to the guy that's picking the tobacco," he said.

"The disincentive is highly there because what incentive do you have?" Perez added.

Fidel Castro, who is rumored to be dying of cancer, temporarily handed power to his younger brother Raul, the country's minister of defense, on July 31. The director of human rights for the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami said that Raul Castro will not last long as president because he can't wield power or inspire fear in the people. Both Sanchez and Perez disagree.

"He inspires fear more than Fidel," Sanchez said.

"I think what's doubtful is his charisma," Perez said. "And his leadership and his intelligence. That's what's most in doubt."

Sanchez added that Raul Castro is the more "murderous and ruthless" of the two brothers.

"Fidel sort of kept his hands at a distance but would order a lot of the stuff that was going on," he said.

When Castro dies, both men said that Raul will rule by "fiat," or strong order. The generals and the others that control the economy and money in the country have keep Castro in power. They will likely do the same to keep his brother in power afterwards, according to Perez.

"Whatever has been done up to now, maybe Fidel transfers that formula over to Raul," he said. "In order for the other big boys to continue to live the type of lifestyle they have been living, it would be in their best interests to follow that route."

Perez and Sanchez said the country will continue to be ruled by a dictatorship but won't speculate for how long.

"Otherwise , there is going to be a tremendous uprising," Perez said. "If there is a free-for-all about who's going to get power next - it will be chaotic. There has got to be something on the table that makes complete sense so that somebody has some type of power so that the others would want to protect that fellow."

Perez was told that Fidel Castro has over $500 million in Swiss bank accounts. If his brother becomes the sole beneficiary of that money, he could use it to maintain the lifestyle of the generals and the people with economic interests. If he does, Perez said the leaders of the military and economy would likely protect him and his presidency.

"They couldn't enjoy that amount of money outside of Cuba because once they leave, somebody is going to hunt them down," Sanchez said.

He added that human rights organizations and the Cuban people would go after the generals and others in the World Court.

"They know that," he said. "Their only sanctuary is to stay there in Cuba so that the cabal will protect themselves."

Another factor has recently entered into the equation of power in Cuba; Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Fifteen years after the Soviet Union dissolved, Venezuela emerged as a petroleum producing country. Billions of petrodollars began flowing into the economy and to the anti-America president.

Chavez also has an interest in keeping Cuba the way it is, according to Sanchez, because it's yet another torn in the "gringos" side and the capitalist system. He is pumping many of the petrodollars into other countries.

"If you look at what is happening in Latin America, we have a socialist leader in Bolivia, a former communist running Nicaragua and all of this is being fueled by petrodollars courtesy of the American consumer," Sanchez said.

The situation won't change as much as people would hope unless something "cataclysmic" happens, according to Sanchez. He said there is no one in the country who can "spark" a change.

"I don't think there is a Lech Walesa in Cuban."

Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Miami) represents part of Collier County. He said that Castro's transfer of power to his brother means that the world is seeing the end of dictatorship in the country.

U.S. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) says he hopes the transfer is the beginning of the end of dictatorial rule.

Sanchez and Perez said that the legislators' stance is a political one that is overly optimistic. Perez questioned how the world community would enforce any change.

"What sovereignty rules Cuba, if not what comes out of the word of Fidel Castro and later to be Raul Castro?" he said.

If change were to happen, it would have to come from the leaders within the country, according to Perez and Sanchez. Amnesty of some sort would have to be granted and the government would have to be "rewarded" to open up the economic markets and change to a more democratic system.

"Who's to say that they can't continue based on the wealth that they have and now associated with Hugo Chavez?" Perez said. "God only knows how much money is coming down that route."

Pressure by the international community on Cuba has always been a mystery to Sanchez because of the international economic interests in the country.

"There is this quote-on-quote 'embargo' and the only people who currently honor it are the citizens of the United States that actually follow the laws," he said. "The rest of the world freely trade with Cuba, which is interesting."

He noted that most Americans believe that they can't fly into Havana, yet many U.S. tourists fly to Cancun or Canada and then take a day trip to Cuba.

Sanchez said many tourists go to Cuba to find young prostitutes.

"We've all heard about the 12 and 13 year-old prostitutes in Havana," he said. "They are not servicing the Cubans. They are serving the tourists."

Perez believes that most people in Cuba would be in favor of keeping the current government if the officials allow free speech and open up the borders to allow families to see their loved ones in other countries.

"The problem is you have all of these other groups that have resentment," he said. "How do you go about controlling that? You have to have a strong fist like they have had for all of these years to maintain that kind of control."

He said many of the Cubans are used to living with the bear minimum. Many of the elderly are content, according to Perez, because they know that they can get needed items like medicines by making a phone call to family members or friends in the United States.

"Most people would agree that whatever does happen isn't going to happen overnight," Perez said. "It's going to have to be a transition."

He hopes that any transition won't require a civil upheaval or a show of force from the Cuban military or the international community.

Sanchez believes that something insignificant could trigger the change in the country because major factors, including military intervention, are out of the question.

"The exiled community for 47 years has been yelling and screaming and praying," Sanchez said. "You name it. We've done it all. What has it done? Absolutely nothing."

In the 1980s, exiled Cubans living in the United States flew their own airplanes on missions to pick up people living in Cuba. A few of the pilots were shot down by the Cuban Air Force.

Sanchez wasn't surprised that most of the world ignored the shootings. When he was asked by some if they should do something, Sanchez replied, "Well, for the past 20 some years, you have been watching Castro murder people and torturing them in prison - yet you haven't done anything. So why do you care about a couple of guys being shot out of the skies?"

The situation in Cuba might change if the United States allowed older exiled Cubans to go back to the county, according to Sanchez. He said that most people have to pay $700 to $800 to take a charter flight from Miami to Havana. U.S. Treasury laws state that people can only visit immediate relatives in Cuba no more than once every three years. Sanchez said the U.S. Treasury limits tourist spending in the country to $50 a day.

It would take a strong U.S. president who wouldn't buckle to special interests to initiate legislation to change the laws, according to Sanchez.

"It's not like Castro isn't going to say no to Americans visiting," he said. "They will take anybody with money."

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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