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Castro Tackles Corruption

** FILE ** President Fidel Castro speaks in Havana, Cuba in this July 26, 2005 file photo. Castro turns 79 on Saturday Aug. 13, 2005 with no plans for retirement at the helm of the Western Hemisphere's only Communist state. (AP Photo/Jorge Rey)
AP (file)
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.