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. 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.

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 …

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Letters

Can Castro Last?’ October 25, 1990