In Cuba, one of the few countries that still disdains the devices of capitalism, billboards promote communism, not consumerism. And the latest billboard to adorn buildings, street comers and even mountaintops across the Caribbean island proclaims defiantly that Cuba remains true to Marx and Lenin: “For socialism with Fidel, no matter what happens.” The slogan is part of 62year-old Cuban President Fidel Castro’s battle against what he calls the catastrophic economic and political reforms sweeping Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. But Castro concedes that it will be a difficult fight.
For the past three decades, Soviet subsidies have propped up the Cuban economy. And in recent speeches on television and in Havana’s giant Plaza de la Revolución, Castro has repeatedly told Cuba’s 10.4 million citizens that they will face severe hardships if the country's Communist allies withdraw their support. But he insists that Cuba will never follow the capitalist road.
Declared Castro last week: “Better to be alone than in bad company.”
So far, few Cubans have expressed open opposition to the Castro regime.
But if the economic situation deteriorates much further, and Western experts say that it will, Castro’s position could become more tenuous. Last week, Cuba and the Soviet Union signed a trade protocol worth $16.9 billion for 1990, extending Cuba’s favorable trade relations with Moscow for another year. But Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, mired in deep economic troubles of his own, is facing mounting pressure to curtail Soviet aid. Meanwhile, the United States, Castro’s old enemy, continues to harass him. In March, the Americans began beaming a Spanish-language television channel, TV Marti, to Cuba. And President George Bush has talked repeatedly—and, to the Cubans, ominously— about seeking a fully democratic hemisphere.
Canadian officials say that Ottawa can play a role in defusing regional tensions. This week, Louise Frechette, an assistant deputy minister for External Affairs, is visiting Havana at the head of the most senior Canadian delegation to go to Cuba in three years. Her mission is partly to urge the Cubans to begin negotiating openly with their neighbors. But Canadian analysts concede that, as Castro faces growing economic difficulties, anti-American rhetoric has become an increasingly useful political tool.
Castro insists that neither a decrease in Soviet aid nor what he calls “subversive” television broadcasts from the United States will overthrow his revolutionary government. And so far, he remains in control. Unlike in Eastern Europe, where the Soviets imposed communism after the Second World War, Castro led a homegrown rebel band that helped to
overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Since then, Castro’s regime has introduced free health care and education and a small, but guaranteed, income. Cubans live better than most of their Latin American neighbors. But there has been little progress in the past decade.
Shortages of eggs and other basic foods have increased in the past year, and many Cubans privately express discontent that shoes and clothing are again in short supply. A middleaged woman with two children traded pesos on the black market until she had accumulated $150 U.S. Then, she found a foreigner to go to a tourist-only store and buy imported shoes for her family. “You have everything here,” explained a house painter. “Day care, health care. But try to buy pants or shoes.”
Housing is also a problem. In central Havana, many families are crammed into small apartments in crumbling buildings where the
telephone lines are no longer connected. A 1987 government plan promised 250,000 new apartments in Havana by the year 2000, but Cubans say that bureaucrats and other citizens officially recognized as “good revolutionaries” get apartments first. “You won’t find a single government functionary in this neighborhood,” complained a woman who lives in downtown Havana in an apartment that has had no running water for a month.
Recently, Castro has warned Cubans to take care of the clothes they have. He has announced contingency plans for a so-called special period if economic difficulties in the Soviet Union force Moscow to slash its subsidies. “We are duty-bound to prepare for serious problems in the U.S.S.R.,” he said. In the special period, the government would cut electricity consumption by half and impose a moratorium on building houses, schools and clinics. But Castro
insists that the state would continue to provide basic health care and education. “Whatever we have,” he said recently, “we will distribute evenly among everyone.”
So far, complaints about economic conditions have not fuelled an upsurge in dissident activities. In part, that may be because of a government crackdown. On March 10, eight members of a leading dissident group, the ProHuman Rights Party, were arrested for holding illegal meetings. And Castro has put the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, a neighborhood organization that watches for socalled counterrevolutionary activity, under direct military command. Those committees, organized in 102,000 neighborhoods throughout Cuba, have increased their vigilance. “Internal enemies are real,” said Francisco Moya, a committee spokesman. “It would be a lie to say all Cubans are revolutionary. The ones who have gone to Miami will never be revolutionar-
ies and they have relatives here.”
The Cubans are keenly aware that the exile community in Miami, seeing communism crumble in Eastern Europe, has become confident of the Cuban regime’s demise. And many Cubans maintain that the exile community actively works for that overthrow. Cuban exiles made up the majority of the 1,400-man, U.S.-sponsored invasion force that Castro’s soldiers routed at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
Several Cuban newspapers ridiculed U.S. reports that exiles are already drawing up plans for a post-Communist government. “They’re still making fools of themselves in Miami,” the Communist party daily Granma said in an editorial. “And here in Cuba we just carry on laughing at these stupidities from such mental cripples.” Still, since the American invasion of Panama last December, Castro has spoken frequently of the threat of another American
attack—and of the “rivers of blood” that would follow such an attempt.
The regime’s detractors contend that Castro is playing up the threat of American intervention to keep people’s minds off their economic difficulties. U.S. experts say that Bush is unlikely to launch a Cuban invasion. Instead, they say, Bush agreed to the TV Marti broadcasts to quiet the anticommunist clamor among conservative Americans. But some Western observers say that the news and entertainment channel, beamed from Florida, has played into Castro’s hands. It took only about 10 minutes for the Cubans to jam the first U.S. broadcast at 1:45 a.m. on March 27. And, just in case citizens missed that late-night victory, Cuban TV reran footage of the TV Marti logo being quickly erased by the black-and-grey stripes of Cuban jamming.
Cuban loyalty to Castro runs deep, especially among those who lived before the revolution. Alberto Faya, 46, a pop musician and the son of a truck driver, said that he remembers people coming to his home to beg for food during Batista’s time. “I wouldn’t want to go back to that world,” Faya
;~: just want to tell the North
Americans, ‘Let me live this way.’ ” It remains uncertain what effect further hardship will have on Cuba’s political landscape. But, for the time being, Castro is clearly far from the precipice of a political overthrow.
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