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The "joy" of living in Cuba
Record summer heat has combined with hurricanes, relentless power cuts, water shortages and crumbling housing to tax Cubans' traditional patience with President Fidel Castro's government and the strains caused by the US embargo.

"I've never seen people talk this way about Fidel. That they want his head. Most of them really do not mean it. It's more like they are really frustrated with their father," a Havana housewife said the other night sitting in her pitch-black home in the La Lisa district.

Mr Castro raised expectations this year when he announced a big increase in reserves, centralised control of foreign exchange and alliances with China, while oil-rich Venezuela finally put an end to Cuba's 15-year crisis that followed the Soviet Union's demise.

The Cuban leader, who turns 79 next month and has been in power for 46 years, said hundreds of millions were being spent to insure the chronic energy shortage that marked the crisis would improve by the holiday months of July and August and disappear completely within a year.

Mr Castro also increased most state salaries and pensions, announced plans to improve free healthcare - strained by the absence of thousands of doctors sent to Venezuela - and promised to shore up waterworks and transport and build 50,000 homes a year.

But since May, daily blackouts of six, 12 and even 18 hours have left Cubans miserable and expectations dashed, even as millions live with little if any running water due to a prolonged drought and then suffer leaky roofs when it does rain.

Cuba's power grid simply cannot meet demand. Obsolete plants need constant maintenance and they burn a sulphur-ridden local fuel that clogs and destroys equipment. Breakdowns throw the entire system into crisis.

Small, scattered protests have taken place from one end of the island to the other, unusual events in this tightly controlled society.

"A few people have been putting up anti-government posters and stirring people up," a nurse in the central part of the country said.

A Havana resident said people were throwing bottles from his high rise apartment complex when the lights went out at night.

A rare July hurricane, Dennis, has made matters worse, killing 16 people, causing $1.4bn (€1.15bn, £800m) in damage, destroying 15,000 homes and cutting power lines between the east and west of the country.

A recent National Housing Institute report said 500,000 new homes were needed and 43 per cent of the current stock was in mediocre or poor shape, due in part to six hurricanes in less than five years that damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of dwellings.

"Dennis multiplied the problems. We are still without water, the blackouts are just as bad, if not worse, and the storm blew away what little we managed to plant in recent weeks," said Antonio, a government-supporting pensioner in drought-stricken eastern Holguin province.

Above-normal June rains combined with Dennis eased the impact of the worst drought in a century. This saw 2m of Cuba's 11m citizens fetching water from trucks and turned the island's lush greens into ugly yellows and browns, forcing the government to almost double food imports that already accounted for 50 per cent of the local diet.

The drought is far from over in three of the country's 14 provinces, and the decaying system still wastes 50 per cent of what reservoirs collect. But for now, "there is green everywhere, the cows have something to eat, the farmers have moist soil to plant, and a few hours of running water every five days is better than none," says Pastora Acosta, a university professor in Camaguey, Cuba's third-largest city.

"I couldn't believe it when the pipes began to rumble, I turned on the spigot and water gushed out," she exclaimed gleefully.

"More than a year without running water is something serious. I went out to the street and it looked like the whole neighbourhood did the same. Despite all the problems there was a big celebration," she said.
18 Jul 2005 by admin
The Havana Journal

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