Washington—I have among my souvenirs an application form from Lem Jones Associates, Incorporated, 280 Madison Avenue, New York 16, N.Y., a firm of press agents retained by the anti-Castro forces to publicize their struggle. By filling in this form I was to have gained the privilege of being one of the correspondents to report the victory of the invaders. I never did fill it in because, obviously, the party was off almost before it started. The raiders had been crushed and the U. S. leaders who openly backed them are in a solemn and chastened mood. It is clear now—and it should have been clear before — that Castro is no pushover.
What happened? How could intelligent men have been so wrong? The only answer is that when inflamed emotions take over, judgment flies out the window. The anti-Castro elements, quite understandably, were in a highly emotional state. So were the people of the U. S., who, at the moment, probably dislike Castro more than they dislike anybody else. While they have no love for the Russian and Chinese leaders, the Russians and Chinese at least are farther away than Castro, who is almost within rowboating distance of Florida.
Because they felt as they did, the Americans convinced themselves that as soon as the “liberators” established beachheads, the Cubans would rise as one man. Nothing less could have saved the attackers from disaster.
It’s unfortunate that the anti-Castroites and their U. S. supporters couldn’t have been ruled by cooler heads. And, among the diplomats in Havana, there were plenty of cooler heads who could have been consulted. I was in touch with some of them myself, just before the invasion was launched.
The picture I got was this—that Castro, while his position might be deteriorating, hadn’t yet had enough time or rope to hang himself and could, unless the U. S. intervened, continue to boss Cuba indefinitely.
Discontent has spread from the upper class down through the middle class, but is just beginning to be felt by the laboring class in the cities and towns. In rural areas most Cubans are still enthusiastically pro-Castro. Castro’s youth movement is flourishing, with thousands of teenagers of both sexes armed and in uniform.
Shortages: The most spectacular material shortages have been in soap, toilet paper and beer and soft drinks. For more than a fortnight there was no soap to be had in Havana and when a shipment finally arrived crowds queued up outside the stores. Each customer was allotted one small bar of soap and one very small box of soapflakes and within an hour the whole shipment had been exhausted. Cubans in search of toilet paper go from one shop to another, often with no luck. Supplies of beer and
soft drinks frequently run out. A curious item planted in Havana newspapers by government propagandists attributed the beverage shortage to prosperity, in its opening paragraph—Cubans were so affluent they could buy more beverages than ever before. But, in subsequent paragraphs, the item admitted that the glass factory hadn’t been able to maintain the bottle output, and that it had also been impossible to obtain cork liners for metal bottle caps. There is no shortage of food in Cuba, although supplies are less abundant and less varied than they used to be and prices are up. Canadian salt cod, a traditional staple in the Cuban diet, is no longer available; instead, grocery stores offer canned beef and pork from Russia and Poland, canned smoked cod from Russia. There is canned milk from Russia and Poland; carrots and other root vegetables have been imported from Poland. Electric light bulbs now come from Russia.
Jobs: There is no more unemployment than has been considered normal in the past, but urban workers appear to be worse off. They gained wage increases in the first months of the Castro administration but there is no suggestion of further increases, although prices and various government pay deductions are pinching them. Workers, if they wish to hold their civilian jobs, are expected to join the militia and drill and do guard duty by night. Lately they’ve had to volunteer to spend their weekends cutting sugarcane. Castro claims that Cuba is reaping a record cane crop this year, but there is a scarcity of regular canecutters. This is partly because the wages are unattractive. The wages of cutters are fixed by a complicated formula and rise and fall with the price of sugar, which is now down, the U. S. having ceased to be a customer. Another factor is that many rural laborers who formerly cut cane are currently building highways. By and large, rural Cubans seem to be better off than they were before the revolution.
Transport: Since Christmas, Cuba has been flooded with Czech and Russian vehicles, most of them military-type trucks, some of them buses. There are
no serious transportation problems. In spite of acts of sabotage at oil refineries —one of these was shot full of holes by a raiding motor torpedo boat—you can buy all the gasoline you want anywhere in Cuba.
Factories: Due to lack of raw materials, lack of efficient management, or both, production is dwindling at a lot of industrial plants. For example, Cuba’s three tire plants—all seized from American owners — are closed. This is attributed to a shortage of carbon black, formerly imported from the U. S. Cuba’s paint plants are still operating but are making less paint, in fewer kinds and colors. Indeed, difficulties have developed in most plants. The real reason is that the Americans who managed them went home after the revolution. Cuban technicians took over for a while but these technicians, disgusted by the turn of political events and Castro’s dealings with the Communists, soon joined the stream of refugees and followed the managers to the United States. Those who replaced them were utterly unqualified. In a typical case a clerk, suddenly thrust into management, knew a U. S. firm’s brand name and catalogue number for a chemical he had to have to keep his factory in production, but didn’t know the generic name of the chemical. He couldn’t buy it from the U. S. firm because of the embargo against Cuba, and had to send a sample to West Germany to be analyzed. Then, when he found what the chemical was and ordered it in West Germany, the Cuban government cancelled the order because he hadn’t first tried to obtain the substance from Russia or a Russian satellite.
Economic planning: While the plants taken over from the Americans are in trouble, ships are unloading the vanguard of fifty or sixty new factories prefabricated for Cuba in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Russia. These arrive with technicians who show the Cubans how to assemble and run them. The first to go into production manufactures pencils; the second will manufacture cutlery; a third will manufacture a cheap line of stoves and refrigerators. The drive to attain a greater degree of
industrialization is basic to Castro’s economic plans for urban areas. In rural areas he is continuing his program to redistribute land, diversify crops and establish co-operatives.
Defense: Cuba is an armed camp. Castro’s forces have an abundance of modern Russian and Czech weapons, plus U. S. weapons Castro captured when he whipped the old dictator, Batista. Practically everybody in Cuba has a rifle and is in the militia. In the cities, the loyalty of the militia may be suspect, since a large proportion of its membership was induced to join by compulsion, but the peasants Castro has put in uniform give the impression of being fanatically loyal.
Outlook: Castro is losing ground, and unrest and confusion are growing. But the ordinary Cuban is willing to string along with Castro for a while yet and give him a chance to keep his grandiose promises.
That’s about the picture, as I got it from sources that are thoroughly reliable, although I am not permitted to identify them. There is little in it to indicate that Castro has reached the end of his tether.
Those who say he’s had it should meet a short wiry black man named Tom whom I met last November in the western Cuban province of Pinar del Rio. A worker in the tobacco fields, he couldn’t read or write. He had gone to bed hungry half the nights of his life, in a mud hut with a few palm leaves for a roof. Now he was sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a neat new bungalow with indoor plumbing. Beside him sat the woman by whom he’d had nine children. Their larder was filled. “I’m going to marry her pretty soon,” Tom said in Spanish with a toothless grin. “Live in a fine house, you got to get married.” Proudly, he showed me through the bungalow. It had been built under one of Castro’s plans and. to Tom, it was a palace. As he took me through it, I opened a closed door. Behind it, in a clothesbasket, stood three well-oiled military rifles.
'■ “When Fidel Castro asks me to, I take them out and fight,” he said. There are hundreds of thousands of Toms and hundreds of thousands of rifles in Cuba —and this is a fact that potential invaders shouldn’t ignore.
Nor should they ignore the fact that this is the year all Cubans are supposed to learn to read. Tom and his prospective wife and hundreds of thousands of other Cubans eagerly anticipate the coming of the teachers. It is, to them, a miracle that they can have this opportunity.
Invaders should not ignore, either, the fact that Castro has the youth of Cuba on his side. He has given teenagers boots, guns and battlejackets, and a better chance for an education than they’ve ever had before.
A realistic appraisal of Cuba and Castro can’t be made with one eye closed. Castro’s assets have to be weighed against his liabilities. The April invaders didn’t do this, nor did their Washington friends. That’s why there has been not only a loss of life but also what may be an irreparable loss of U. S. prestige in Latin America. ^
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