Inside Cuba: Survival of Castro's socialist state
HAVANA-- Long before Fidel Castro led a revolution to overthrow the pro-US government of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba was just another Caribbean banana republic run by the New York-based Italian mafia and American multinational corporations.

The country was bled white by mobsters such as Meyer Lanksy, Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello and Vito Genovese who turned Cuba into a veritable "Latin Las Vegas" dotted with casinos and night clubs.

Only 22 miles from the city of Miami in the state of Florida, Cuba was also a playground for American celebrities.

The glories of the past are still visible in the baronial Hotel Nacional-- a more lordly version of the Galle Face Hotel -- whose walls are plastered with photographs of some of its regular Hollywood guests of the 1950s, including Frank Sinatra, George Raft, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable and Edward G. Robinson.

An equally symbolic reflection of the American past is the endless stream of 50-year-old vintage American automobiles in the streets of Havana, including boxy Pontiacs, Fords and Chevrolets.

But Cuba's most enduring political legacy is its continued defiance of neighbouring United States -- and its resourcefulness in surviving a rigid 42-year-old American economic and trade embargo that has damaged the infrastructure and cost the country about $72 billion.

The charismatic Castro is the last of the world's truly socialist leaders who still commands a standing ovation at international conferences -- and who continues to be mobbed by the media.

Despite the US economic blockade, Cuba still ranks high in education, health, literacy and life expectancy beating out some of the more advanced developing nations.

In the latest human development index compiled by the UN Development Programme, Cuba is ranked 55 out of 173 countries, way ahead of Sri Lanka (ranked 89), the Philippines (77), Saudi Arabia (71), Malaysia (59) and even Russia (60).

The index, which measures advances in several fields, including health, education, literacy rate and population growth, is the basic yardstick for a country's social and economic progress.

In pre-revolution 1959, Cuba's life expectancy was 60 years compared with the current 76.2. Cuba also had only one medical school and 6,000 physicians during the corrupt Batista regime.

Today, it has 21 medical faculties and 66,325 physicians. According to UNDP, Cuba's adult literacy rate is 96.7 percent, one of the highest in the world.

Alberto D. Perez, UNDP's director of communications in Havana, describes Cubans as "the healthiest, best educated, most culturally cultivated people in this hemisphere."

Besides the embargo, Cuba was more recently devastated by the collapse of the former Soviet Union, its longtime ally and trading partner. Currently, Cuba has little ties with the successor state, the Russian Federation.

Additionally, the global recession has severely affected Cuba's sugar industry, the victim of falling international prices compounded by the industry's domestic ills.

So, Cuba now depends primarily on tourism (which brings in about a $1 billion annually) and expatriate remittances (about $500 to $600 million annually) for its economic survival.

But since Americans are barred from travelling to Cuba (under threat of imprisonment and confiscation of passports), the Cubans depend on French, German and Canadian tourists to fill in the state coffers.

Even Sri Lankans with American passports are barred from Cuba. The exceptions include journalists. The only Americans and Cuban-Americans who are permitted to visit Cuba are those who get advance clearance from the State Department and are "licensed" to travel to Castro country.

But despite its economic advances, Cuba's per capita income is still very low. The average wage earner survives on a monthly salary of about $20. The highest income earners are in the country's tourist industry.

Still, health and education are provided free while food and transport are subsidised. The hotels, run mostly by European companies, are as good as those in the US and Western Europe.

The Parque Central Hotel, run by a Spanish chain, has advertised a New Year's Eve Dinner priced at $85-- over four times the monthly salary of an average Cuban. The menu includes goose liver, lobster, roast lamb, international cheeses, almond sweet and Cuban coffee. But only tourists can afford such prices in a low-income society.

At a more realistic level, there are two worlds existing side by side in Cuba. The high-spending tourists who are pampered by the government desperately in need of hard currency and the average Cuban who is provided for with only the basic necessities of life.

A country with an ethnic mix of blacks and whites, Cuba has no visible signs of racial discrimination. But yet, virtually all of the performers in the Cuban ballet staged at the national theater in Havana are whites. On the other hand, the performers at the exotic Tropicana night club are all blacks or mulattos of mixed black and white parentage.

Although a socialist state has no place for institutionalised racism, one longtime resident confesses that a white Cuban would readily embrace a black Cuban and proclaim in endearing terms: "You are my comrade and you are my brother -- but you will never be my brother-in-law."

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