National Geographic : 1991 Aug
anywhere else in Latin America. Nobody has to go hungry, no child unvaccinated. On the other hand, one soon discovers that here is an economy so pinched, so beset by shortages, that people think themselves lucky if they can find ajar of mayonnaise to buy, or a plastic comb, or a tin of shoe polish. The day you find a dozen of any of these in a shop, bingo, you'll grab them all. After 20 minutes the carnival lights are on again, more bands and beauties pass, onlook ers spout uninhibited comments. "These men are terrible," says the young lady who is my translator, smiling. Don't women mind? Oh no, she says, in Cuba the women love to hear that they've been noticed-"You mustn't be too thin, of course, especially in the back." In such a case the men might say estd infumable--"she's unsmokable." It means not enjoyable, like a cigarette smoked down too far. I have come for a firsthand look at what these vivacious Cubans have achieved and how they cope with their ever more pressing everyday problems. For nearly three decades communist Cuba has depended primarily on trade with the Soviet Union and its longtime East European allies. Now, Castro says, such commerce with countries of the "former socialist community" has virtually ceased; some Soviet deliveries, notably oil, have been drastically cut. "We are working under very tense conditions, very tense. .. ." But unlike Soviet leaders, Castro forswears any deviation from his brand of socialism. "We have swept away the capitalist system," he says, "and it will never return as long as there is a communist, a patriot, a revolution ary in Cuba." And so, while even China and Albania have been inching away from com munist orthodoxy, the government of Cuba remains one of the last in the world to profess Marxism-Leninism. How long can it go on like that? Castro ends his speeches defiantly: "Socialism or death! We shall win." T RAVELING WITH ME is not only a translator, delegated by Cuba's Council of Ministers, but also an official of MINREX, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose help is essential. If I want to visit a sugar mill or any place off the tourist circuit, the MINREX man will contact a local functionary of the Cuban Communist Party who then assures the person in charge of the place I want to see that it's all right. That's the system. But from time to time, as will be readily detectable, I do meet Cubans when I am not, so to speak, chaperoned, as I move around to assemble, bit by bit, my mosaic of this beautiful country under pressure. A typical landscape: great expanses of green with tall palms, singly or in little groups; Slow, fast, and then faster, sacred bata drum rhythms seize a dancer in Santiago de Cuba seeking communion with the Afro-Cuban divinity Babald Aye. The government accepts such rites merging Christian and African beliefs. Long spurned, conventional Christians slowly grow in number; today the Communist Party considers having them as members.