WORLD

THE NEW CUBA

MARCI MCDONALD April 21 1986
WORLD

THE NEW CUBA

MARCI MCDONALD April 21 1986

THE NEW CUBA

WORLD

COVER

The scene could appear on any Caribbean postcard. In the fading Sunday-afternoon sun, the turquoise waves of the Caribbean lap lazily against a curve of white sand on Cuba’s south shore, where two lovers lie entwined beneath the coconut palms. Above, on the manicured terraces of the Girón Tourist Centre, teenagers cavort around a pool and visitors sip beer beneath the yellow blossoms of an ancient mimosa tree. But most tourists are drawn to the isolated area two hours’ drive south of Havana not for a taste of tropical paradise. Instead, they are there to see the site of the twoday Bay of Pigs battle that took place 25 years ago this week—a battle that altered the shape of global politics and is still a powerful legacy in a rapidly changing Cuba.

The reactions evoked in visitors to Giron’s beach depend on their political vantage point. In Cuba the assault, which began when American troopships launched counterrevolutionaries from offshore anchorages before dawn on April 17, 1961, is hailed as the Victory of Playa Girón. Most Cubans see it as a tri-

umph which consolidated the revolution that had brought Castro to power two years earlier and which launched the nation on its current road to modernization. The emergence of a new Cuba is reflected in everything from new free-market stores and a home-ownership program to the development of diplomatic and commercial relations with formerly hostile governments such as those of Uruguay, Peru and Brazil.

But to much of the rest of the world, the 1961 confrontation is remembered simply as the Bay of Pigs invasion, a U.S.-backed attack by 1,200 Cuban exiles which ended in disaster and ignominy—America’s first postwar military humiliation. Proclaims a billboard which pictures a ship going down in a sea of scarlet flames: “Primera gran derrota del imperialismo en America Latina (The first great defeat of imperialism in Latin America).”

Crossroads: The invasion a quarter of a century ago stirred the consciousness of the entire continent. Within Cuba it determined the shape of a revolution that now stands at an

important crossroads—a division between the ideological allegiances to Marxism and younger Cubans’ increasing yearnings for the material comforts that their exiled relations enjoy across less than 100 miles of water in Florida (page 32). Both the massive militarization of Cuban society and the regime’s repression of the Roman Catholic Church—which has begun to ease in the past year—date from the Bay of Pigs threat.

Tragic: And within the United States some historians say that the invasion was an interventionist foretaste of the tragic American misadventure in Vietnam. But there is a more current reason why the world is focusing on the beach in Cuba’s Matanzas province this week. It is the parallel between the Bay of Pigs intervention and the Reagan administration’s present campaign to finance another band of rebel exiles trying to overthrow the Cuban-backed Sandinista regime of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, only 500 miles away.

Like their latter-day Nicaraguan counterparts known as the contras, the Cuban exiles of Brigade 2506 who made up the invasion force were also contra-revolucionarios recruited, trained and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for a covert assault on their former homeland. The $13-million operation was authorized by President Dwight D. Eisen-

hower, then continued by his successor, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had campaigned for the presidency in 1960 calling for a refugee force to crush the “Communist enclave” that threatened the United States’ borders—rhetoric that President Ronald Reagan himself recently borrowed in connection with Nicaragua.

Bad luck: When it took place two days after Brigade 2506 set off from Puerto Cabezas on Nicaragua’s east coast and other Caribbean points, the invasion promptly unravelled through ineptitude, bad planning and bad luck.

But more important were two miscalculations which the United States has also adopted in its current support for the Nicaraguan contras.

They were the assumption that the population of Cuba would rise up in support of the invading rebels and Washington’s determination not to involve American troops, even if it meant abandoning the attackers on the beach at Girón. Said Tad Szulc, author of the forthcoming A Study of Cuba, who cov-

ered the operation for The New York Times: “There is an eerie similarity in the assumptions. Congress might do well to ponder the analogy as it prepares to vote on President Reagan’s request for $100 million in

new aid for the rebels.”

Indeed, the parallel seems clear to the government in Havana, where Castro has vowed to back the Sandinistas well beyond the 2,500 to 3,500 Cuban military advisers which U.S. officials estimate he currently has stationed in Nicaragua. Ricardo Alar-

con, Cuba’s deputy foreign minister, says that the contra attacks on northern Nicaragua are based on the same strategy—to establish an exile beachhead in an unpopulated area of the country where the United States can support a provisional government and launch a civil war. “It is not only a question of firepower,” he told Maclean’s in the ornate protocol salons of Havana’s foreign ministry last week. “But in Nicaragua the contra attacks are even more dangerous than the attack on the Bay of Pigs, because the country isn’t an island. In Cuba, when the rebels failed they had to go back into the sea, but in a continental country they can continue over and over again.”

Victory: But the greatest impact of the Bay of Pigs invasion has been on the 10 million Cubans themselves. At the time, Castro’s revolution was faltering after his nationalization of U.S. interests had provoked an American trade blockade launched only months before. The victory of his ragtag forces and all-but-obsolete aircraft over the might of a superpower galvanized the people of Cuba behind him.

But more important, according to most historians, is that the 1961 invasion led him into the Communist camp, which he had previously kept

at a distance. In fact, Castro later reversed years of denials that he was a Communist and proclaimed, “This is a socialist and democratic revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble.” Said Alarcón, even then a Soviet supporter: “That declaration was the political assertion of what was already going on.”

Legacy: A quarter of a century later the legacy of that rhetoric can be seen everywhere in Cuba, beginning with Havana’s streets.

There, new Lada and Moskvich cars from Soviet assembly lines pull up alongside the 1950s fin-tail Pontiacs and De Sotos which have turned the island’s highways into a mobile American car museum.

Russian signs dot the country —from the neon welcome atop Havana’s José Marti Airport to Cienfuegos, where some of the estimated 18,000 Soviet § military and technical I forces in Cuba are building a nuclear generating plant scheduled to open in 1990. But the most telling symbol of the Russian presence is the enormous new Soviet embassy compound under construction on an entire city block in Havana’s chic suburb of Miramar. In the compound, five office and apartment buildings squat in the shadow of a bizarre highrise shaped like the turret of a medieval fortress, which looms over the capital’s skyline. Cubans mockingly refer to it as “la torre de control (the control tower).”

Vast: The most powerful aspect of the Soviet presence in Cuba is not publicly visible. It is a vast supply of Soviet armaments which has given the country’s 500,000-man armed forces, under the command of Castro’s younger brother—and some say possible successor—Raúl, the largest arsenal of any nation in the Western Hemisphere next to that of the United States.

As well, the Soviets provide $6.3 billion (U.S.) a year in economic assistance to prop up Cuba’s fragile economy which, 27 years after the revolution, is still 80to 85-per-cent dependent on

sugar exports. Under a complex twodecade-old quota arrangement, the Eastern Bloc buys 85 per cent of Cuba’s sugar, paying up to eight times the world market price. Moscow also guarantees the energy-dependent country a constant supply of oil at a cost below the global price, providing a dual subsidy. The Soviets have allowed Castro to resell any surplus oil on the world market, in order to earn badly

needed hard currency.

But the extraordinary system of Soviet subsidy floundered last year when Cuba received what one U.S. state department official described as a “one-two crunch.” Four years after world sugar prices plummeted to four cents from 30 cents a pound, a severe drought followed by Hurricane Kate last November devastated the country’s cane fields just before the annual sugar harvest began. As a result, Cuba apparently cannot meet its commitment to the Soviet Union.

Compounding that crisis is the fall in oil prices, which will reduce Cuba’s hoped-for hard currency earnings. Last week Soviet Deputy Premier Ivan Archipov arrived in Havana to begin renegotiating the allimportant terms of economic co-operation. In fact, Archipov had a good report for the Cubans. At week’s end, he announced an increase in aid—$4.6 billion more over the next five years.

There will be fierce competition for the aid funds in a country where many Cubans with a growing appetite for better standards of living and consumer goods are dissatisfied. When Castro offered to allow Cuban dissidents to flee to the United States in 1980—in a shrewd attempt to weaken opposition —he was apparently shocked when 10,000 Cubans jammed the grounds of the Peruvian Embassy,

clamoring for an exit from his revolution. After the massive exodus of lancheros— boat people—when he briefly opened the northern port of Mariel, Castro swiftly introduced sections of stores marked Free Sale offering mainly Cuban and East Bloc goods at prices far above the subsidized ration rate.

Lineups: Still, in a country where everything from books to the five-cent bus fare is subsidized by the state, extra pesos have been easily obtained by a large segment of the population. “Before, the people had money, but there was nothing to buy,” said Rolando Rosado, a 52-year-old naval mechanic whose 20-year-old son broke Rolando’s heart by fleeing to Miami with the “Marielitos,” as they are known. “Now, it is wonderful. A family can have meat every day, not once every 11 days. My wife can have more than two pairs of shoes a year.” Lineups now stretch down the block outside Havana’s central Variedades department store—formerly the prerevolutionary Sears-Roebuck. Inside, housewives cram their string bags with huge chunks of pork at $10 per kilo, $7 tins of Cuban sunflower oil and $16 bottles of local cologne.

Last year the government introduced an even more radical capitalist measure: allowing—indeed obliging— every Cuban to buy the house or apartment in which he lives. Under a new housing law, Rolando’s monthly rent payments—based on 10 per cent of the monthly salary he was making in 1984—will be paid against a mortgage which will give him the deed to his house on Havana’s outskirts

where he lives with his wife, two stepdaughters, son-in-law and granddaughter. Some of his neighbors welcome the measure as a justification for repairing the shaky staircases and leaking roofs that the state—with its notoriously inept bureaucracy—has been unable to fix. Others say that it may end Cuba’s housing crisis, which has forced many young couples to remain with their parents long after their wedding and the birth of their children. But Rolando grows poetic when he talks of what the housing law means to him: “At last, when I die I will have something to give to my grandson.”

Some of those measures seem to be the thin edge of the wedge of capitalism which could eventually subvert Castro’s revolution. But Alarcon denies that that will happen. “We’re not trying to establish a consumer society,” he said “But you have to recognize the

normal aspiration for a better quality of life. We don’t think we can build a great wall of China around Cuba.”

One of the greatest dilemmas of the Cuban revolution has been how to counter the allure of American capitalism, enhanced by U.S. radio broadcasts aimed at Cuba. Radio Martí, a broadcast service, offers both a regular soap opera and pop music funded by Washington. That problem is com-

pounded by the fact that over half of Cuba’s population is now under 30people who have grown up in the years since the revolution. Last week excited lineups formed outside Ha-

vana’s Alameda Cine movie house to see the newly arrived Hollywood film Amadeus. At the same time, local late-night Cuban television featured a 1950s Gene Kelly film, and on Variedades’ record department shelves Ste-

vie Wonder’s albums, at $6.75 each, were easily outselling a female Moscow disco trio’s record, priced at $1 cheaper. In fact, a Cuban joke has it that if the streets of Havana are crammed at night, an observer can tell that a Soviet movie is playing at home on television.

Nearly every island family has at least one member in Miami’s community of half a million Cuban exiles who regularly writes or phones. The mother and two brothers of Pedro, a 27-year-old licensed tourist chauffeur, fled to Miami 10 years ago. Pedro says he likes his life in Cuba, but he speaks with awe of his family’s Florida comfort. “Some day,” he said turning his hands into an imaginary airplane, “I’m gone.”

Victim: In some ways the Cuban revolution has been a victim of its own success. Even the severest critics of Castro’s regime acknowledge that the majority of Cubans are now better fed, healthier and better educated than before his takeover. The country exports Cuban health care workers to 25 Third World countries. A few years ago Castro asked Dr. Peter Bourne, a former Carter administration official who is now working on a biography of the Cuban leader, to send him a series of pamphlets on public fitness, some of which Bourne borrowed from the Canadian government’s department of health. And last year Castro himself gave up smoking his trademark cigars as an example to his people.

But in his speech to the Third Party Congress, Castro criticized Cuba’s “sluggish” production of consumer goods, both for domestic and export consumption. It was an attempt to resolve one of the revolution’s most serious problems: the economic stagnation caused by a massive and inefficient government bureaucracy and unmotivated workers. And in an interview last year, Castro sounded at times like a frustrated tycoon who had just read In Search of Excellence. “I want to know two ^ things,” he said. “Who § is the genius who did E away with the jack of y all trades in Cuba? And 5 who is the genius who z invented the coffee ° break?”

Another source of discontent among young people has been army service in Angola, where Cuba still has an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 troops and advisers. Many have been killed, wounded or diseased. One reflection of that

problem was a recent 10-part minidrama on Cuban television about the adjustment problems of four Angola veterans. Still, what most observers outside Cuba do not realize is that Castro’s troops and advisers in many Third World countries are also a source of hard currency.

Radical: The Cuban Commandante is also trying to win the support of other leaders in Latin America in order to end the country’s political isolation. In the past year Bolivia, Uruguay and Peru have reestablished embassies in Havana, and Brazil is scheduled to do so as well. That is a radical departure from the situation in which Cuba found itself over most of the past two decades, when the only countries with which it had relationships in the hemisphere were Mexico and Canada (page 30). Said Bourne: “Fidel’s goal

has always been to act as a Third World spokesman. So far, he has succeeded in making Havana an obligatory stopping point for those countries’ leaders.”

His recent attempts at a reconciliation with Catholicism signal another building block in his Latin political ambitions. Two years ago, when Rev. Jesse Jackson visited Cuba, Castro attended a church service for the first time since his sister’s wedding in Havana cathedral shortly after the revolution in 1959. His discrimination against Cuba’s Catholics began when he arrested outspoken bishops on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Then, last December an extraordinary book, Fidel and Religion, based on interviews with a Brazilian friar named Frei Betto, was published. Within days of arriving in Cuban bookstores all 500,000 copies of the first edition had sold out. Said Msgr. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, spokesman for Cuba’s seven bishops: “It showed that after 25 years of atheism the Cuban people were still interested in religion.” Recently Castro has been pressing Pope John Paul II to visit Cuba.

Ardent: Most observers attribute Castro’s new religious attitude to political motives, but Msgr. de Cespedes says it may also be a personal attempt by a Marxist leader who was an ardent Catholic until he was 20 to “eliminate the contradiction in his personal life” as he approaches his 59th birth-

day next August. Recently, following what some Castro-watchers believe to have been a heart attack, he made a series of changes in the government and Communist party in an attempt to ensure that his is not the “one-man

revolution” which most Western observers still insist that it is.

For 27 years Castro’s massive charismatic and quixotic figure has towered over daily life in Cuba with such force that when things do not work in

the country, its citizens routinely exempt him from blame. Often they use a variation of the phrase, “Ah, if only Fidel knew about this.” In January, 1980, when he disappeared for three months in a depression over the death

of Celia Sanchez, his companion ever since their guerrilla days in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains, the nation’s decision-making process was abruptly paralysed.Said Bourne: “The whole country ground to a halt.”

Some observers say that he is trying to build closer ties to the United States. But in May, 1985, Washington began broadcasting anti-Castro propaganda from Florida over its powerful Radio Marti transmitters, severely straining relations. Alarcon also says that U.S. involvement in Central America has contributed tc a major deterioration in links between the two countries.

Delicate: Currently, Washington and Havana are following a delicate diplomatic course. That is symbolized by the massive neon billboards erected five years ago outside offices of the former U.S. Embassy on Havana’s seafront promenade. There, the 20man U.S. Interest Section—with double the staff of the Canadian Embassy—now enjoys most of the diplomatic privileges of a fully recognized mission. Directly in front of its green-tinted windows, the provocative billboards feature the cartoon figure of a predatory Uncle Sam creeping toward a Cuban guerrilla. By night its red letters flash the challenge “Attention Señor Imperialist We Have Absolutely No Fear Of You!” It stands as a constant reminder that political rhetoric could once again trap the two countries in a critical train of events bearing a frightening similarity to those of a quarter-century ago.

-MARCI MCDONALD in Havana