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HOPE IN SHORT SUPPLY FOR CUBANS WHO STAY PUT

There are no rafts in the quiet gulf that presses up to this small town on Cuba's western end, only children splashing around under the hot late-summer sun and fishing boats tethered to the shore.

Though some hungry townsfolk have taken to stealing food from their neighbors' homes, no one has yet tried to steal any of the boats. In a town whose name translates as Faith, no one seems to have turned decisively against the Revolution.But stories of the thousands of desperate people fleeing the island have dominated conversation for weeks. The people of La Fe are asking the same questions asked by those who take to the rafts and getting many of the same answers.

"What can you hope for?" demanded Lazaro Rodriguez, a young laborer who is the father of three small children. "There is no future here."

There are people, especially in the provinces, who could not imagine abandoning the homeland. And there are those who would leave in a flash but will not risk their lives to be confined indefinitely at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Yet even for some of the diehard revolutionaries in Havana who look on the continuing spectacle of the rafts with disgust or disbelief, the exodus seems to have heightened a sense of urgency about Cuba's steep economic decline.

As in the past, the bitterness of Cubans' private complaints may be a poor measure of their patience with the communist government that Fidel Castro brought to power 35 years ago.

A month after the most serious disturbances of Castro's presidency - the incident on Aug. 5 that saw hundreds of people loot stores and attack the police and thousands more pour into the streets to watch - what impresses many foreign diplomats here is how quickly the government managed to turn people's attention to the flight on the rafts and Cuban talks on immigration issues with the United States in New York.

Particularly around the provinces of Havana and Matanzas, the area from which most of the raft people have come and have gone, the government has been quick to stop the daily power blackouts and to put scarce cooking oil back in the stores.

Some rationed foods that for months existed only on the thriving black market have become available again. The resumption of classes for schoolchildren last week lifted from their parents the daily summer pressure of finding them lunch.

But what the government has not provided is any clear sign that it will take the sort of radical measures that foreign economic advisers and analysts say are needed if Cuba is to salvage its crumbling industrial plant, revive food production in the countryside and attract new investment from abroad.

"The question I ask myself is the same one that I think everyone else asks: What is going to happen here?" a 48-year-old architect said in his home in a working-class Havana neighborhood. "And I cannot see a way out of this, not in the direction we are heading now."

As a stream of his friends have traveled abroad on professional delegations and defected, the man said, he has only struggled harder to survive in Cuba.

But even with a good job, he earns only 340 pesos a month, about $4 at the black-market exchange rate. Were it not for the occasional $100 check from an uncle in Miami, he says, he would be reduced to the illicit scavenging and bartering to which some of his other friends have turned as the only way to put enough food on their families' tables.

On the beaches around Havana and along the city's Malecon, the promenade that runs along the sea, the crowds that gather to watch each new contraption set out often listen first as those about to leave pour out tales of their desperation to reporters, television camera crews or anyone else within earshot.

With so many people risking so much for a promise as meager as that drawing the raft people - three meals a day behind razor wire and the vaguest promise that they might not have to return home - it is as though the complaints of those who stay can only be lesser criticism.

"These kids are not all against the system," said Clara Mendez, 47, a school principal in the town of Guanabo, just east of Havana. "Maybe they want better clothes, better food. It is all scarce here."

Away from the capital, the temptation to leave seems more distant.

From La Fe, Havana is little more than three hours by car, but with only one prized 1954 Buick in the town and gasoline scarce throughout the country, the trip can take two days of hitchhiking.

"How could I go all the way there?" Elaine Soto asked about New Jersey, where one of her aunts has lived for years.

With more than two dozen fishermen, the town is more prosperous than many. Fish can be swapped with farmers for meat and vegetables and with people who come from the cities for clothes and other goods. But in conversations with dozens of townsfolk, there seemed to be little question that the cohesion of the town had suffered.

Tania Rodriguez, 24, Lazaro's sister, told of a neighbor stealing one of the tiny rations of meat she received for her chronically ill 1-year-old daughter. Young men told of townsfolk descending like vultures on the abandoned remains of an ox stolen from a local farmer and killed for meat.

Diuva Camaliche, 15, a bright girl who said she had been unable to find a job since quitting school two years ago, said that her father, who lived and worked in Pinar del Rio, had already gone, leaving from Havana on a raft. That was enough, she and others said, to convince them that things could not go on as they were.

"Something has to happen here," Diuva said. "Either things have to get better or they are going to get worse."