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U.S. dollars turning Cuban society on its head

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Cubans these days tell a joke in which a wife calls a psychiatric hospital to ask about her husband's odd behavior.

All afternoon, he has stood on the balcony of his apartment screaming to passers-by: "I'm a bellboy at the Riviera Hotel!""Madame," says the hospital's top doctor, "your husband is suffering from delusions of grandeur: He doesn't realize that he is only a brain surgeon."

The ravings of the fictional brain surgeon might be excused in today's Cuba, where a worker at a tourist hotel can easily earn more than the most distinguished government employee.

Why? The American dollar.

Since Cuba legalized possession of foreign currency in 1993, the dollar has taken a central role in Cuba's socialist economy.

Five years ago, Cubans caught with dollars could be jailed. Now, the government encourages use of dollars, which helps it obtain the hard currency needed to save its struggling economy. As a result, nearly half of the population has access to greenbacks, officials say.

But while dollars are spurring economic recovery, they also have created inequalities unknown since the triumph of the 1959 revolution. The average government worker earns about 200 pesos a month - $10.50. A bellboy can earn that in tips in a few hours.

"If I had dollars I would buy a big pork steak with congri," a dish of rice and black beans, said 69-year-old Anibal Granada, who fought in the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.

"But I don't have anyone to send me dollars from Miami, so I have to eat that picadillo," he said, referring to a soybean mixture available by government ration. "I think combatants of the revolution deserve more."

Still, resentment has eased since the early 1990s, a time of severe hunger and gloom when Cubans begged tourists to exchange dollars for pesos, and implored them to buy them toothpaste, rubber thongs and other things available only in the dollar stores they were barred from entering.

President Castro anticipated the inequalities when the dollar was legalized on July 26, 1993: "Some of these measures are unpleasant," he said. "We don't like them. There will be those who have privileges others do not, because they have a family member, because they have a relation, because they send them money."

Four years later, the Agencia de Informacion Nacional acknowledged that "those who have dollars can cover their necessities. Those who do not have the green bills suffer the rigors more."

The government said late last year that an influx of dollars contributed to a modest economic recovery of 2.5 percent in 1997, despite a disappointing sugar crop, this Caribbean island's traditional financial mainstay.

Today, dollars are used as commonly as Cuban pesos, and products and services are increasingly offered in dollars. Dollar sales in Cuba increased 17.8 percent last year.

The government says 1.4 million of the 4 million people actively employed in Cuba now receive at least part of their monthly salary in dollars, as a way to improve their standard of living and retain them as workers.

Many work for hotels or other tourism enterprises held jointly by the government and foreign partners.

Even if they don't earn part of their salaries in dollars, hotel workers, waiters and government taxi drivers earn greenbacks through tips.

So do those who illegally provide services to tourists: prostitutes, unofficial taxi drivers, those who rent rooms without government approval.

Owners of small family restaurants, artisans and others approved for small private businesses also often earn dollars.

And then there are those with relatives abroad who send money.

Estimates of family remittances range from $400 million to $800 million annually, making them one of Cuba's most important hard currency sources.