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.

General José Abrahantes Fernández, a one-time crony of Castro’s who hung about the Palace of the Revolution until he was named interior minister in 1986, lost his job after the Ochoa trial and was himself sentenced to twenty years in prison. We do not know why. Though the official justification for the Ochoa and Fernández trials was corruption and “illegal” cocaine shipments to the United States, they seem most likely to have been the result of power struggles, perhaps over succession to Fidel, perhaps over the policies Cuba should be following in the changing Communist world. Ochoa may have returned from Angola with political ideas and with a degree of popularity among his fellow officers that were not to Fidel’s liking. Nearly a year later, the trials remain “shrouded in ambiguities.”3

The crisis facing Castro was reflected in the first part of 1990 by the new appointments he made. In February, Brigadier General Juan Escalona Reguera—another hero of the Angolan war who, as justice minister, was the chief prosecutor at the Ochoa trial—was named chairman of the National Assembly, a job lacking real power, but considered prestigious politically. Castro presented Escalona’s nomination to the public as if it were a reward for a deserving one-star general. Lieutenant General Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, another combat hero in Angola and Ethiopia, became the new interior minister (replacing the unfortunate Abrahantes). Finally, Castro appointed Major General Sixto Batista Santana, also an Africa corps veteran, to run the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), the nationwide network of around-the-clock neighborhood surveillance agencies.

Castro thus installed trusted top army commanders, all of whom fought at his side in the revolutionary guerrilla war, in highly important positions. Never before during the history of the revolution have all three of these jobs been held by high military officers. In mid-February Fidel also removed a number of old-line Communist party officials from highly placed jobs—they were perhaps the least intelligent members among the ruling elite—in favor of younger Communists he had trained himself.

After the 1989 trials, the reorganization of the Committees for Defense of the Revolution was the most significant defensive measure taken by the regime. The committees’ national director, General Batista Santana, has reshaped them into militarized organizations on the model of the armed civilian militias known as Territorial Troops Militias. The CDRs were, in effect, incorporated into the armed forces. Then the CDR National Directorate ordered the committees to “accentuate revolutionary vigilance” in order to “avoid antisocial actions,” which will mean more intensive spying on people’s movements and thoughts and more intensive questioning of people with independent views. This order got rhetorical support from Castro’s denunciation on March 4 of “a fifth column” in Cuba—“a dangerous enemy of the Cuban nation and socialism.” Castro had not referred to a supposedly existing “fifth column” since the early days of the revolution.

While Fidel was in Brazil in mid-March for the presidential inaugural, thousands of students marched through Havana to demonstrate their support for the Fourth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party scheduled to take place later this year; plans were also made for great public celebrations of “revolutionary reaffirmation” during 1990. The march was one of those spontaneous events that are carefully organized in Cuba, and apparently still impress visiting television journalists.


It had long been part of the conventional wisdom that Castro has high international prestige, another aspect of his supposed invulnerability. He was chairman of the Nonaligned Movement in 1979, and he was taken to be the third world’s most active leader internationally, with tens of thousands of victorious combat troops in Angola and Ethiopia, as well as military, medical, and educational advisers in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and elsewhere in the developing nations. He was a major Soviet partner in the third world, and a hero in Latin America.

This is no longer so. The Nonaligned Movement has lost much of whatever force it had, and Castro did not bother to attend its 1989 summit in Belgrade. Under an agreement with South Africa and Angola—arranged by the United States and the Soviet Union, which pressed Cuba to accept it—most of the 50,000 Cuban troops were withdrawn from Angola by the end of March, and only a few thousand Cuban soldiers remain in Ethiopia. Moreover, the Sandinista electoral defeat in Nicaragua in February badly diminished Castro’s influence in Central and South America. In his March 7 speech to the Women’s Federation, he sought to rationalize the election results by claiming that the Managua regime had “to accept the challenge of the elections in the most adverse conditions, in the midst of a dirty war imposed by the empire” and had to hold them “a few weeks after the collapse of the socialist camp.”

Without the use of Nicaraguan territory, Castro can do little to help the leftist Salvadoran guerrillas, who are now apparently ready to negotiate with the American-supported government. The American invasion of Panama last December deprived the Cubans of the “supermarket” through which they were able to import high technology and partially breach the US economic blockade. During the past twelve months Castro made a point of attending the inaugurations of democratically elected presidents in Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil (the first time he set foot in South America in eighteen years) in an effort to develop greater barter trade with Latin America—all of them need trade and markets but none has hard currency Yet no one seems to have paid him much attention.


Having successfully resisted the yanquís and eight of their presidents for three decades, Castro now openly admits that it is the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that represents the greatest danger to the Cuban revolutionary society. Thirty years ago, he exchanged Cuba’s traditional economic dependence on the United States for what he conceived as “fraternal” assistance from Moscow and its Eastern European associates. The new dependence, as it turns out, could be even more life-threatening than the old one.

Castro has from time to time expressed a concern to overcome this economic dependency. In a long meeting with the Columbia University professor Alfred Stepan in 1988 he talked of shifting the economy’s main source of revenue from sugar production to a much-enlarged tourist industry, including duty-free ports and the development of numerous sites for hotels. So far, however, little has come of such schemes for economic independence. In acknowledging in his March 7 speech that “the socialist camp has, in effect, disappeared,” and that he would go it alone as the last true interpreter of Marx and Lenin, Castro was publicly recognizing his fundamental vulnerability to the fortunes of the Soviet Union. It may have been his most important speech since the beginning of the revolution; the key passage was the warning that

We have the duty—this is very clear—to prepare ourselves well if serious problems should occur in the Soviet Union…. If we are to remain here alone, we must be prepared to resist.

Castro might, in theory, liberalize his regime and move toward a market economy, not only to please Gorbachev (to the extent that it would matter), but to find economic relief in Western Europe or even improve relations with the United States. The novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who is a close friend of Castro’s, has been suggesting that the time has come for such an accommodation and that the US should take the initiative in bringing it about.4 But to make such a shift would be uncharacteristic of Castro. He has sworn he would rather die than succumb to any form of capitalism. If he sticks to his word, he faces the dilemma of surviving through more and more drastic sacrifices of the Cuban population, a policy that will be hard to sustain—or of seeing his revolution collapse.

In his speeches of March 4 and March 7, Castro described with brutal frankness the situation facing Cuba if Soviet oil deliveries are not fully restored. “All our programs, our entire consumption,” he said, are based on deliveries of twelve million tons of Soviet petroleum annually, and for this reason “we must be prepared for the worst circumstances.” Cubans must know, he went on, what would happen “if suddenly, we do not have the twelve million” and “we must know what to do if there are only ten, or eight, or six, or five, or four.” Castro remarked that if “serious internal conflicts” erupt in the Soviet Union, then Cuba would find itself in “a special period in peacetime” and it would be necessary “to adapt the whole life and economy of the country to this situation.” In fact, Soviet oil exports to Cuba had already dropped from thirteen million tons in 1988 to the twelve million tons mentioned by Castro in 1989, reversing for the first time in a quarter-century the trend to a rising volume of fuel deliveries to a country whose population has been growing and whose economy has been expanding. To make matters worse, according to the Central Bank of Cuba, Moscow in 1988 eliminated additional shipments that Havana was free to sell on the free world oil market to earn hard currency: this alone cost Castro $200 million in a year. Moreover, Soviet petroleum production has begun dropping slightly since 1987 for reasons that remain unclear.

Wheat flour is the other commodity for which Cuba is dangerously dependent on the USSR. As the Cuban Council of Ministers explained in January, the Soviet practice for twenty years was to dispatch grain ships to the island immediately after the autumn harvest so that the new year would start with about 100,000 tons of wheat in the national reserve. Last fall, however, the ships failed to arrive because of “difficulties affecting Soviet trade and shipping agencies,” as a Cuban announcement put it, and the regime was forced to apply urgent measures to conserve food stocks. As of February 1, the price of bread was raised from fifteen to twenty-nine cents per pound, and the daily ration outside Havana was cut from one hundred to eighty grams. Because Soviet grain feeds Cuban chickens, the price of an egg went up from ten to fifteen cents. Uncertain of the reliability of Soviet shipments in the future, the Cubans spent precious hard currency for emergency wheat imports from Canada—just as the Soviets contracted in March to increase their own purchases of American wheat by 11 percent annually.

Cuba, in fact, does not know what to expect from the Soviet Union from day to day (though, ironically, weapons shipments, including the MIG-29s keep arriving on schedule, suggesting that the Soviet army, at least, has its own friendly concerns for Castro’s armed forces). The current Soviet-Cuban five-year trade pact, which is the basis of the entire economic assistance program, expires at the end of this year, and Castro disclosed in March that “we cannot be sure of any agreements for 1991.”

The statements of the Soviet trade mission to Havana in mid-April did not make it precisely clear to what extent Moscow is willing to go on buying Cuban sugar at subsidized prices, roughly four times the world price (which was about fourteen cents per pound in March, meaning the Cubans were receiving about sixty cents). But the implication of the statements issued in Cuba in April and of the editorial comments published in Pravda was that the longstanding subsidies should be reconsidered and that future relations should be on a more reciprocal basis. Indeed, Castro already warned in a speech in January that since Cuba could not count on any of the agreements being maintained in 1991, Comecon (the moribund Communist common market organization) “may wish to pay for our sugar at the prices of the world garbage bin of the free market.” Though Castro did not say so, Cuba has been unable to produce enough sugar in recent years to meet its scheduled shipments to the Soviet Union; last year it bought half a million tons of Thailand sugar from a French corporation for hard currency to maintain at least a portion of the deliveries due the Soviets. And, according to a Cuban news agency, the 1990 sugar harvest is running far behind schedule.

Soviet-Cuban relations are now at their worst since the missile crisis in October 1962, when Nikita Khrushchev infuriated Castro by removing Soviet nuclear missiles from the island without first consulting the “Maximum Leader.” Extremely discreet in the past, the Soviet government disclosed in an article in Izvestia that Cuba has accumulated nearly $25 billion in debt to the Soviet Union over and above free grants of economic and military aid, including the sugar subsidy. This was embarrassing to Castro, who had urged third world nations for the last five years to stop paying their debts to capitalist creditors; Izvestia added that this made Cuba the biggest debtor to the Soviet Union, while in addition it owes $2 billion to the West.5


Castro’s statement about the “terrible” prospects that may result from further cuts in Soviet oil deliveries and his uncertainty over the entire economic relationship suggest that he may deeply distrust Gorbachev’s intentions toward Cuba. He doesn’t hide his anger toward Moscow; he remarked on March 7 that “earlier, there were lots of people insulting us because they said we were Soviet satellites—and now there are lots of others who insult us because we’re not doing what the Soviets are doing.” For its part, the Soviet press have started attacking Cuba this year as never before; a recent article in the weekly Moscow News by a Soviet foreign policy specialist declared that “a shift is under way from social apathy to a passive, so far well-hidden discontent” in Cuba. In a story that would be called a provocation or a lie if it had appeared in a US publication, Moscow News reported that “Cubans, especially the young intellectuals, watch our Soviet reforms very attentively and with evident sympathy.” And in March the principal news program of Soviet television broadcast highly sarcastic comments on Castro’s ideological “principles.”6

Whatever Gorbachev has in mind politically, further serious delays in oil and wheat shipments would have extremely harsh effects on Cuban life—especially if the Cubans are required to apply the “special period” measures their leader has described as follows.

In such a special period, there is something essential—we would have to halt totally social development; in this case, (to halt) the construction of schools, (social) circles, clinics, housing—all that we have been constructing in our normal period. It would be necessary to halt social development, and we may have to be one, two, three, four, five years without social development. But what we must not stop is economic development…. The food (production) program must proceed under these circumstances, it is fundamental, it is essential. The development of sciences, these new industries of biotechnology and pharmaceutics;…we would move ahead.7

Construction in “strategic industries” would be maintained, Castro said, but cement production may have to be cut back from four million tons to 1.3 million tons because nonessential work would stop. The number of bus trips in Havana would be reduced from 30,000 to 10,000 daily. The use of electricity would be brought down to one half or one third, paralyzing less essential industrial production.

Castro recognized that as a result of such measures there may be a surplus of workers, “but there won’t be people in the streets.” He promised that

We shall give people books for them to read, learn, improve their culture; a little time for television, for radio…. Perhaps the citizen will have much more time: marvelous, there will be vacations during the special period because we may have too many hands in some areas and we’ll have to reduce working time.

A knowledgeable diplomat with excellent contacts in Havana told me: “If Fidel is forced to demand all these extreme sacrifices, the immediate question is how long the population is prepared to go along with him, especially if there is no light at the end of the tunnel? How long before enough people decide they’ve had enough hardship? What if an incident happens at a food market with no food for the people, especially children? What if weapons are used against a protesting crowd?”

Such possibilities explain why the Castro brothers are tightening security and looking for “subversives” and “fifth columnists” who might be ready to act if a confrontation erupts. Certainly it would be foolish to predict that an open struggle will take place soon; but if it does, the United States, it seems to me, would be best advised to stay out of it. Any temptation to intervene through military threats, or actions to hasten the fall of the Castro regime could be catastrophic; indeed, it might save Fidel by handing him the banner of Cuban nationalism once more threatened by the Yankees. If conflict were to break out in Cuba, President Bush should not look for excuses to bring the United States into it. The best proof of America’s good intentions toward Cuba would be—just for once—to leave it alone.

May 3, 1990

This Issue

May 31, 1990