Gains slow to reach Cuba’s east

Michael Weissenstein
Associated Press

Santiago De Cuba, Cuba – — Two and a half years after Hurricane Sandy trashed Cuba’s second-largest city, 35-year-old Melba Martinez is still out of work and struggling to feed two children on her state ration book and a daily hustle for extra rice or cooking oil.

“There’s no work, no money,” she said, her voice rising. “How are you going to buy a pair of shoes that cost $20? If you buy them, you don’t eat. If you eat, you go barefoot.”

Down the hill in the colonial center of Santiago, Josefina Arocha Saco pours thickening, sugary milk through a soft-serve ice cream machine made of an old air-conditioner, a pan from a cafeteria steam table and a handmade metal driveshaft. If enough schoolchildren spend 4 cents on ice cream, she can cover the costs of her government license and taxes, and make more in private business than she used to earn as a teacher.

“There used to be very little here,” Arocha said. “It’s more open, more free … Now everyone can get a license.”

Far from the tourist boom and foreign investment bounty of Havana, residents of eastern Cuba are struggling with the country’s sputtering economy, some faring better than others in a region that is poorer and more isolated than the bustling capital. While many from Santiago have opened businesses under the economic reforms of the last four years, the city is largely removed from the big-spending foreigners and wealthy Cuban-Americans whose cash is cascading through private businesses.

It’s easier to get from Havana to Miami than to the island’s second-largest city, which has just two overbooked flights a day and trains that are achingly slow. There are more horse-drawn carts and bicycles than cars and gleaming Chinese-made tourist buses on the tooth-rattling two-lane road from Havana to Santiago. Far fewer people get remittances from family overseas.

In Santiago, cellphones remain a rare luxury. Internet is available to the public in just a handful of locations in the metropolis of 500,000 people. Residents of Havana, a city four times larger, have dozens of places to get online, albeit at some of the world’s slowest speeds and highest prices.

Cubans across the country complain about low salaries and high prices, but there’s an uncommon anger in the voices of many like Martinez in Santiago, despite a rebuilding and reform program spearheaded by a Communist Party provincial official widely lauded for his common touch. The island’s largest dissident group operates throughout the city, calling regular demonstrations and distributing fliers and DVD’s calling for democratic change.

“Between the west and the east of Cuba, the west has always been better-treated,” said Carlos Arnel Oliva Torres, head of the youth wing of the opposition group, which claims to have as many as 4,500 members.

Government officials in Santiago did not return repeated phone calls from the Associated Press seeking comment on conditions in the city. That wariness extends to the populace in a city where many are reluctant to talk to the press and cast nervous looks to see who may be listening.

“There are problems, there are many problems that can’t be resolved,” secondary-school teacher Julieta Barrera said. Then, nervously glancing at those waiting alongside her on line outside a bank, she added: “but up ’til now I’m very happy with everything.”