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40 years later, reality dims Cuba's revolutionary flame

Miguel Jiminez, 65, still recalls the heady atmosphere of early January 1959, when Fidel Castro's Communist rebels drove Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista into exile and entered this Caribbean capital in triumph. For him, at least, the revolutionary fires still burn.

"I feel extremely satisfied about the state of the revolution. Because of it, I have what I have," said Jiminez, a former fighter in Castro's army who now works as a driver. "Nothing is easy here but, for example, there is more food today than before the revolution, and the country is only going to improve further."

Sitting nearby, Jose, 28, who sported a New York Yankees baseball cap and Nike T-shirt, was more critical. "The idea of communism goes against human nature," he said. "I am not interested in it because I do not think it has worked. What I am interested in is getting my hands on dollars and improving the way I live (and) having more freedom."

Such divergent views are typical of Cuba today. As the country prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of its Communist revolution on New Year's Day, conversations with a wide range of people here reveal a nation beset by contradictions _ struggling to cope with the effects of the U.S. economic embargo and the collapse of its Soviet patron while retaining its core communist values.

Castro continues to describe Cuba as facing a choice of "socialism or death." But he also has opened the economy to limited capitalism _ allowing some Cubans to operate small businesses and privately sell farm produce, permitting foreign investment and creating a dual economy that legalized the U.S. dollar.

Cuba's booming if still underdeveloped tourism industry shows in its luxury hotels with their elegant restaurants and shops _ a striking contrast to the crumbling buildings where families are jammed into small apartments and rely on government ration tickets to shop at sparsely stocked state supermarkets.

Sleek Mercedes taxis haul tourists in a country estimated to have more than 150,000 cars that are older than the revolution itself. Most of the island's 12-million people get around on bicycles, while others wait in long lines for crowded, dilapidated, infrequent Soviet-era buses and still others hitchhike.

But society is changing, even here in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, thanks largely to an influx of dollars and greater exposure to the outside world. Over the last decade, Cuba has developed a large, informal economy geared toward the dollar and encompassing everything from prostitution to underground markets for cigars and illegal taxis.

Tourist earnings, plus the more than $500-million a year sent to Cubans from relatives abroad, help keep the troubled economy afloat. But they also have created class distinctions that fly in the face of Communist dogma.

"What makes me sad about the revolution is that three classes of people have now evolved: Cubans with dollars, Cubans who cannot get them and foreigners, like tourists, with dollars," said Julia, 46, a nurse who earns about $10 a month, who was trying to flag down a car near the historic Old Havana section of the capital.

Tourist buses were parked nearby, and throngs of foreigners ambled through the streets and dined in cafes that accept only dollars. "For example, when it comes to tourists, I feel the perception here is that they have more value than Cubans," Julia said. "For me, it is a question of dignity. There used to be more in our country."

Cuban officials say they have undertaken economic liberalization only reluctantly, given the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s and the continued U.S. embargo. They express worry about social tensions caused by the growing gap between Cubans who have access to dollars and those who do not.

"There is a good deal of capitalism inside our country," said a top official in the Politburo, Cuba's ruling political body. "We do not like it, but we have to live with it. One thing that worries me is the passion people have for finding dollars."

But he added, "We have learned to do things ourselves; we have learned the limits and proportions of our strengths. When the Soviet Union was there, we were under a glass bell. Now we are out in the world. The essence of this country is still socialism, and we will never renounce that."

But Castro's government faces dwindling interest in socialism among the younger population.

At this month's conference of the Young Cuban Communists _ the Communist Party's youth wing _ its leadership noted that although one in every six Cubans between age 15 and 29 belongs to the Young Communists' Union, the number of local chapters, and members who at 30 go on to join the Communist Party, are declining.

Many youths complain of the dullness of the Communist system.

"One of the things I find most difficult about living in Cuba under this system of government is the boredom of everyday life. Unless you have dollars, it is hard to enjoy things or find places to enjoy them," said Mario Cruz, 26, who on a recent night was trying to earn dollars by escorting foreigners to restaurants in Old Havana. "It is harder, too, when you see the way Europeans and others live and dress and how they can do anything here because they have money."

But even critics praise some things the system provides, such as free medical care, education and food rations.

"Things are tough, but you will never starve to death in Cuba _ you might in the United States and other countries, but not here. This is one of the successes of the revolution," said painter Fidel Luis, 41. "The rations could be more and better, but they are there."

Many Cubans blame the U.S. embargo for most of their country's problems and laud Castro for improving diplomatic ties with many countries in an effort to circumvent U.S. efforts to isolate the island.

"We are hungrier and do not have the medicine we used to because of the United States, but we are survivors ... and we owe a lot of that to Fidel," said taxi driver Ramon, 33. "Of course, many of our problems are Cuban, but the blockade is one of the biggest, and we are still standing up."