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Can Castro Last?


President Fidel Castro is telling his fellow citizens that their country is facing the gravest crisis in the thirty-one years of his revolutionary rule. In the grim and defiant speeches he has made since December, the sixty-three-year-old Castro has been preparing the nation for drastic and unprecedented new sacrifices—extensive layoffs, shortages, cutbacks in national development—that will be necessary if the Soviet Union continues to reduce sharply the deliveries of petroleum and wheat on which Cuba depends for survival.

Castro seems aware that in its present and future economic condition, Moscow cannot go on feeding and subsidizing the Cubans on the vast scale of the past, in which the yearly subsidies amount to $6 billion or more.1 He believes that the Soviet empire, and perhaps the Soviet Union itself, is in danger of disintegrating, and he has said so publicly. Speaking to an audience in São Paulo, Brazil, on March 20, Castro charged that the reforms promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 have led to “the collapse of socialism in these countries, formerly known as the socialist countries of Europe.”

Though Castro rejects Gorbachev’s perestroika, regarding it with utter contempt as a betrayal of Marxism-Leninism—of which he describes himself as the last wholehearted champion—he does not seem to fear Soviet reprisals. Much as top Soviet leaders and the freshly elected Moscow parliamentarians resent Castro’s political attitudes and his squandering the Kremlin’s economic aid during the last three decades, they probably would not openly abandon Cuba because of the adverse effect this would have in the third world, where the Soviets hope to preserve their influence. The Soviet trade mission that arrived in Cuba in mid-April confirmed that the USSR is still committed to continued aid to Castro’s regime, but it also suggested that the terms of that aid are going to be less favorable in the future.2

The imminent threat, as Castro perceives it, is that the Soviet Union, with its decomposing economy and national administration, will be incapable of providing Cuba with an uninterrupted rhythm of deliveries of fuel and grain, and this would be a mortal blow to Cuba. Because rural strikes in the Ukraine last autumn delayed by several months the scheduled arrival in Cuba of ships carrying wheat flour, the Havana regime was forced early in 1990 to further tighten the daily bread rations. (Rationing has never been lifted during the thirty-one years of the revolution.) Senior Cuban officials have told me that when Soviet tankers about to go to Cuba were delayed by ethnic conflicts in Baku in late 1989 and early 1990, the effects were instantly felt on the island, where the petroleum reserves on hand are inadequate.

Never before had Cuba’s economic vulnerability been so painfully demonstrated. Castro wasted no time in taking what he described as defensive measures to prepare the population to deal with what could turn out to be a deep crisis. On March 13, for example, he subjected Havana’s two million citizens (one fifth of the country’s population) to a series of emergency exercises under what he has begun to call “the special period in peacetime”—he explained that this means applying wartime measures without an actual military war—to determine how a country that relies almost exclusively on imported energy can manage with much less oil and electricity. Habaneros were ordered to cook on wood stoves to save power. Ships in the harbor were loaded and unloaded by hand instead of cranes. Road crews worked with picks and shovels, instead of machinery. Workers’ and students’ militias put on their uniforms for the day and carried their weapons in order to emphasize that Cuba is on a permanent war footing.

In an address on March 4, before the National Council of the Federation of University Students (FEU), Castro warned the people that the new sacrifices are “the price we will have to pay to save the revolution” at a time when “we are now confronting a triumphalist capitalism, a triumphalist imperialism.” Three days later, speaking for four hours to the Congress of the Federation of Cuban Women, the Maximum Leader announced that “this is the most important moment in the history of our country.” Few Cubans would disagree with this conclusion. Castro has vowed that Cuba will vanish beneath the waters of the Caribbean before he agrees to foresake “socialism” for capitalism. His latest slogan is, “Socialism or Death!” which he now uses instead of the traditional Patria O Muerte! (“Motherland or Death!”), and one cannot doubt that personally, at least, he means it.

Inevitably, the extraordinary events in Cuba in recent months raise the question of whether the Castro regime is in danger of unraveling in the manner of the Communist states in Eastern Europe—and whether this process has already begun. Of course, Cuba can’t be compared with Poland or Hungary or other countries in which Communism was forcibly imposed by Soviet armies. That Castro’s revolution was in its origins autonomous, spontaneous, and nationalistic distinguishes Cuba (along with China, Indochina, and Nicaragua) from the countries of Eastern Europe.

Still, the situation of Castro and his revolution has become more precarious than ever before. Until last year, the question of the Castro regime’s survival was not raised seriously anywhere, despite economic and political strains that were easily observable by any visitor. The Cuban economy has been in poor shape for decades, and living standards have been low, largely because of mismanagement of the island’s considerable natural resources and the waste of the generous Communist aid from the USSR and Eastern Europe. (Only the Cuban armed forces, already in possession of the state-of-the-art MIG-29 jet fighter-bomber, seem to know how to make good use of foreign assistance.)

Undoubtedly, the principal culprit has been the increasingly dogmatic Fidel Castro himself, who still insists on total control of all decision making in the country, with the result that hardly anyone dares to decide anything on his own, no matter how insignificant, while central questions remain undecided. Moreover, Castro has become periodically enamored of grandiose development projects requiring vast resources, which lapse into oblivion to make room for other projects, for example his disastrous schemes proposing new and inefficient ways of growing coffee and raising cattle. In view of Castro’s dictatorial personal style, no adviser in his right mind dares to contradict him—or to warn him of impending perils. Fidel has been known to rewrite single-handedly an entire five-year development plan, dismissing the economists who wrote the original text. Occasionally, he concludes in a public statement that the Cuban people (not himself, not the “revolution”) have committed grievous errors, and he chastises them for it—as well as for laziness, absenteeism, and inferior workmanship.

In 1986, Castro launched his campaign of “rectification” of errors and “negative influences,” by which he apparently meant, at least in part, the modest experiments in allowing markets for farmers and others in 1984 and 1985. These markets had some success in encouraging distribution of agricultural products, but Castro seems to have resented the increased autonomy it allowed the people who traded in them, and he put an end to them. His recent remark that he invented “Rectification” long before Gorbachev ever thought of perestroika therefore merely sounds perverse.

Still, it has been widely assumed (in and out of Cuba) that Castro would go on indefinitely muddling through with continuing Soviet economic aid of more than $5 billion annually—mainly because no alternative to his personal dictatorship seemed conceivable. It never occurred to Fidel, or anyone else, that the greatest threat to his regime so far would emerge in Moscow, not in Havana or Washington.

Similarly, it was always taken for granted that even three decades after his 1959 victory, and despite all the accumulating problems, Fidel had an impressive personal following among Cubans. But too little is known outside that closed society about the postrevolutionary generation, people in their late twenties or younger, to be able to predict with any certainty how they would behave in any major crisis involving Castro. The members of this generation have regarded free education and medical care as their birthright, and I have talked to more than a few of its members who take pride in belonging to a nation that counts in the world. On the other hand, many, if not a majority, can be expected to be impatient with ceaseless shortages (and years and years of waiting for tiny apartments to share with their spouses) and to hanker for the consumer goods and even political freedoms they know exist eighty miles away. Cubans can easily listen to Florida radio stations and watch US television (they are very good at making their own antennas); and visits from Miami relatives have probably sharpened their desires for material comforts. Castro’s recent jamming of both TV Martí and of medium-wave Radio Martí transmissions from Florida will probably have little effect. Yet Cuba remains a land in which people have hardly any chance to openly express dissenting views, and care must be taken about predicting political responses of any part of the population.

Unlike the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Cuba does not appear to have many intellectual or human rights dissenters. During the eight months I spent there in 1985, working on a biography of Castro, I met hardly anyone who would admit to dissent; there was no one remotely comparable to Sakharov, Michnik, or Havel, Subsequently, a few small bands of human rights activists emerged in Cuba, although they posed no serious challenge to Castro’s heavily policed state. Several of them have fled to the US; others are in prison or have been beaten up by the regime’s thugs. The most recent roundup occurred on March 10, when eleven human rights activists were arrested, seven of them for doing no more than sending a congratulatory letter to the United States delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission after it had voted to maintain surveillance over human rights conditions in Cuba. Castro was especially angry because Hungary and Bulgaria voted against Cuba, and because Poland and Czechoslovakia had cosponsored this resolution although they are not commission members.

The seven people arrested, including Tania Díaz Castro, a founder of the Human Rights party, were officially described as “counterrevolutionary chieftains.” Fidel’s brother, Raúl Castro, referred to them as “the highest traitors in the history of Cuba,” and implied they may soon be put on trial. Normally the regime has given little public attention to such activists, but this time the arrests were fully covered by the Cuban press and Cuban TV broadcast videotapes of pro-government demonstrations in front of the houses of human rights leaders in Havana. Castro’s own revolutionary movement began with a tiny group in 1953, and he may think that such enterprises have to be suppressed from the start.

The formidable public security apparatus erected by Castro thus appears to guarantee that he can never be effectively challenged from within; this, again, has been the conventional wisdom. Fidel and Raúl, who is defense minister and Fidel’s designated heir, have in recent years strengthened their hold over the powerful interior ministry, its special armed forces, the ubiquitous secret police. The execution last summer of General Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez, a much decorated hero of the Angola war, and other senior officers on bizarre and self-confessed “treason” charges, and subsequent purges throughout the regime, were clearly designed to reaffirm the absolute political domination of the Castro brothers.

  1. 1

    According to a recent article in the Moscow paper Argumenty i fakty (March 17–23), as summarized by Jeane Kirkpatrick, “non-equivalent conditions of trade with Cuba currently cost the Soviet Union some $6 billion to $10 billion annually.” Kirkpatrick’s article appeared in The Miami Herald (Los Angeles Times Syndicate), April 15, 1990.

  2. 2

    La URSS anuncia que cumplira acuerdos,” El Diario (New York), April 13, 1990, p. 14,

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