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Castro Tackles Corruption

By CBS News Producer Portia Siegelbaum

A group of mechanical engineering students are being given a crash course to prepare them to join President Fidel Castro's battle against unbridled corruption and theft, as well as to secure the continuity of his revolution.

"These kids have had no experience with capitalism, all they know is what Granma (the Communist Party official daily) or relatives in Miami tell them, and that's like day and night. Most are so young they don't even remember what life was like fifteen years ago, before the Soviet Union fell and our economy went under," said a political economy professor at CUJAE, the prestigious engineering university where the students are enrolled.

"This is a way to get them involved, to make them feel important. Without them, the Revolution will go under," said another teacher, who like her colleague, did not want to be identified.

Castro, 79, recently said corruption was the greatest threat to the survival of his regime, more worrisome than the United States.

The college students and the nearly 30,000 social workers tapped by Castro to fight against it were born long after the first heady years of the 1959 Revolution. But now they are getting a taste of what it was like back then, when Castro mobilized young people for his health and literacy campaigns. Those were also the days when Castro would pop up unannounced for give and take with his supporters, a practice discontinued in recent years.

This past New Year's Eve, however, the Cuban leader turned up at midnight at a Havana gasoline station to celebrate the anniversary of his revolution with a group of the young social workers, who he'd sent to take over the pumps in mid-October.

Thievery had been rampant at gas stations. After one month with these young Castro loyalists on the job (regular employees were sent home with full pay) revenues from gasoline sales nationwide were up by nearly $100,000 a day.

Pilfering has been accepted as a fact of life ever since the collapse of Cuba's main trading partners in the former communist camp threw the island's economy into a tailspin at the beginning of the 1990s. But average Cubans who may have overlooked or engaged in illegalities in the past were shocked when the magnitude of the theft at the pumps — $36.5 million a year — was revealed.

The CUJAE students now in training expect to target the State-owned transportation sector, that is, the thousands of vehicles assigned to government ministries and other official institutions.

"These students are going to put an end to the stealing of gasoline and car parts, the use of official cars for personal reasons, and a multitude of other profiting schemes devised by chauffeurs," said a CUJAE professor who asked not to be identified, since he wasn't authorized to speak to the press.

On any given weekend, cars with State license plates can be seen parked at the beach, while the chauffeur and his family splashed nearby. And in recent speeches Castro has referred to all the extra mileage run up by State drivers who drop in on their girlfriends. He announced that the government would be installing global positioning systems in all State vehicles, even tractors and ships, to keep track of their whereabouts.

In December, Castro told the closing session of parliament "there will be nothing that is not brought under control" as a result of the current campaign to wipe out waste, pilfering and theft.

That campaign has been extended to all aspects of life.

Classes for second, third and fourth year students at CUJAE were cancelled just before the end of the year and students were organized into "Brigades against Wastefulness, Extravagance and Corruption." They were sent to go door to door taking a census of home appliances. Students at other branches of the University of Havana were also involved.

"We were pulled out of a final exam and sent to the auditorium where they gave us a pep talk," said fourth year computer science student Ernesto. "We were told that there are warehouses filled with home appliances, and that they had to be moved to make room for all the items being purchased at the beginning of the New Year."

The idea, he said, is to see what appliances people need most and to get those items onto store shelves.

Medical students participating in the census in the Playa neighborhood of Havana said they had been told something different. "We're looking for appliances that are broken or using out of date technology like old (pre-1959) American refrigerators or their energy guzzling Russian counterparts," said one census taker.

Homeowners were asked if they own an iron, hot water heater and/or electric hot plate and what kind of refrigerator they own. "We're not checking to see if folks own DVD or video players. We're looking for fans and rice cookers fashioned out of discarded parts which are tremendous electricity consumers or for old fridges that waste electricity."

The State, say these students, is making it possible for people to trade in these ancient or rustic appliances for new energy efficient ones as 2006, dubbed the "Year of the Energy Revolution" gets under way.

The first appliance to go on sale in the Cuban capital since the census was taken is the electric rice cooker, a coveted item is a country where white rice is a staple of every meal but breakfast, and where many people have only two burner stove tops on which to cook everything.

As an anti-corruption army, the social workers, according to Castro in a speech last November, could save Cuba up to $20 billion over ten years. But observers believe he is hoping even more on being able to imbue them and other young people with revolutionary zeal to carry on his vision when he is no longer around.