issue 211 - September 1990
Fidel Castro is cast as the lone reactionary, saying to hell with
glasnost and perestroika. Can he - and Cuban socialism - survive?
Mandy Macdonald thinks the pundits may have got it wrong.
Warm wind blows off the sea: washed clean by the afternoon's brief downpour, the sky deepens fast to a velvety ultramarine. On front porches across the city, small groups of men are gathering, settling themselves on stools and in rocking chairs, Above the relentless background of cricket-song, you can bear the musical, dry clicking of wooden tiles being laid out on the table. It's a Friday night in Havana, and the game is dominoes.
In Washington and Miami, too, dominoes is something of a national sport, only the pieces are small developing countries. The political centre of gravity in the US 'backyard' has moved sharply to the right this year, with right-wing electoral successes in Honduras. Costa Rica, and most notably Nicaragua. According to Vice-President Dan Quayle. Cuba is 'the last real problem in our hemisphere'.
With the break-up of the Soviet 'empire', the US Administration and the powerful Cuban exile lobby in Miami are now betting on Cuba as the last, teetering Latin American domino. They're even making preparations for life after Castro: a new constitution has been drafted and corporate investments lined up. It is rumoured that US aid will be restored in the event of Castro's fall.
There's a large helping of wishful thinking in this scenario, however. For, although it gets little press in the West, Cuba is going through some far-reaching political and economic transformations, at the same time as it is fervently reaffirming national independence and the values that have shaped Cuban socialism.
Photo: Julio Etchart
This annoys the US which, buoyed by the Stalinist disappearing act in Eastern Europe and its own recent victories in Nicaragua and Panama, is hoping to wear down Cuba by forcing it to waste time and money on constant military mobilization, Three military manoeuvres coincided off Cuba's coasts in April, prompting Cuba to hold its own defensive exercises, called 'Cuban Shield'.
Then there was the Television Marti project - an absurdly expensive, questionably legal, attempt to beam US anti-Castro propaganda into Cuba. Generally discredited even in official US circles, its only success is that it is costing Cuba a lot to jam it - though not nearly as much as the estimated seven million dollars of US public money it cost to mount it.
The US also appears to be seeking to discredit Fidel Castro and his colleagues by tainting them with drug trafficking. Panamanian strongman Noriega may be offered a soft sentence in return for implicating Castro as a mediator in his negotiations with Colombian drug interests, The Cuban-chartered freighter Hermann was fired upon near Mexican waters recently by a US coastguard cutter. Yet no drugs or other illegal cargo were found on board.
Meanwhile the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe has highlighted Cuba's perilous dependency on a hitherto privileged trading relationship. As the Eastern European countries struggle to restructure their own economies the immediate losers are their friends in the South, Trade with East Germany, Cuba's main trading partner after the Soviet Union, may disappear altogether after German unification. Several other Comecon countries did not renew their trading agreements with Cuba this year.
Bread out of oranges
The effects of this shift were felt in January, when ships from East Germany, Poland and the USSR failed to arrive to collect their consignments of Cuban oranges, leaving the fruit to rot in warehouses or be dumped on the domestic market, At the same time, Soviet shippers defaulted on wheat deliveries to Cuba, demanding hard currency for the job. Cuba was forced to buy flour from Canada: the price of bread rose for the first time in 30 years and was even rationed in some places. 'Pity you can't make bread out of oranges', one Havana woman wryly remarked.
Politically, too, Cuba and its former friends are estranged. Cuba was alarmed, then indignant, when Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland and Czechoslovakia voted in favour of a US-sponsored motion at the UN Commission on Human Rights to monitor alleged human-rights violations in Cuba - the first time such a motion had been passed. Around the same time, Czechoslovakia announced that it no longer wished to host the Cuban Interests Section, Cuba's diplomatic representation in Washington. In the Soviet Union, however, there are greater qualms about simply dumping Cuba.
How has this web of pressures affected Cuba? Ideologically, Cuba's response has been to turn isolation into independence, and to dissociate itself publicly not only from the new systems in Eastern Europe (except the Soviet Union) and Nicaragua hut also from the ones they replaced.
According to Castro the Sandinistas failed because they tried to walk a tightrope between socialism and capitalism, He deplores Eastern Europe's rush to capitalism but pre-empts predictions that Cuba might go the same way' by declaring that Cuba is not and never has been Stalinist, More than ever, the indigenous nature of Cuban socialism is being stressed. 'No-one gave us a revolution,' Fidel told an international press conference in April. 'lt wasn't imported from anywhere we made it ourselves.'
Out in the hard world of economic reality, rather different criteria apply. Cuba, like Eastern Europe. is having to become a hard-currency based economy. If trade with Comecon dries up Cuba will have little choice but to export products on the open market.
There are already signs of Cuba bracing itself for serious belt-tightening after 1990. The legendary grocery queues are getting longer. Shop shelves are bare, at least in Havana. An emergency austerity regime has been established which can be set in motion when needed. Called 'a special period in peacetime', it would halt social programmes, shorten the working day, and ration energy. But hard-currency-generating activities would continue, including tourism.
The picture is not so bleak yet. Neither the Soviet Union nor most of the other Eastern European countries can do without Cuban imports yet. Cuba currently supplies the USSR with 80 per cent of its sugar, 40 per cent of its citrus fruits and 70 per cent of its nickel.
Soviet subsidies to the Cuban economy may have come under fire within the USSR - particularly the purchase of Cuban sugar at prices well above the world level - but the 1990 Cuban-Soviet trade and co-operation agreement actually increases the previous trade volume of $14.4 billion. For the present the worst that could happen would be for the USSR to reduce or cut its oil shipments.
Meanwhile Cuba is trying to develop new export lines such as sugar by-products, pharmaceuticals and hi-tech medical equipment. It is seeking new trading and joint-venture partners, both in the North and the South, and is expanding tourism.
Changing of the guard
Cuba is by no means as isolated as it might seem. This year has seen a massive diplomatic and public-relations effort, much of it designed to consolidate Cuba's position as a Third World leader. Friendly relations are being cultivated with governments and business communities in countries from Britain to Iraq. Cuba has acquired a seat on the UN Security Council for two years and in April it became the chair of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Meanwhile the increasing religious freedom in the country should result in a papal visit around the end of the year - an astute as well as praiseworthy shift in policy.
None of these changes are cosmetic. Cuba faces the most serious economic challenge of its 30-year revolution. If it is to survive, creative and radical solutions will be required. Fidel Castro, while still keeping a close and very personal grasp on government, is not getting any younger, and the future direction of the Party and Government must be planned. This may be one of the reasons why the Communist Party has announced its Fourth Congress for early 1991.
A whole generation born and raised in socialist Cuba now wants something different. It takes for granted that all Cubans will have enough to eat, a roof over their heads, decent education and health care. The Government badly needs to ensure young people's support and provide a counter-attraction to the consumer temptations just across the Florida straits - or in the Havana dollar shops.
Blessed are the stubborn
No doubt this has played some part in the most recent political changes. Electoral procedures have been reformed to make them more democratic, secret ballots introduced and greater power given to the elected National Assembly. Earlier this year a major reshuffle removed several members of the revolutionary' 'old guard' and replaced them with young people. Young Communists such as Roberto Robaina are being groomed for leadership and placed in responsible positions in important hard-currency sectors.
But the domino-players in Washington and Miami don't want to see this kind of change in Cuba. Nothing but the fall of Fidel, elections on the US or European model and the imposition of a free-market economy will satisfy them. That is what they are waiting for and trying to hasten by economic blockade and tireless efforts to discredit Castro and his government.
They are unlikely to get their wish very soon. Cuba has no intention of holding 'free' elections. Nor will the people rise up in revolt: dissidents inside the country, while vocal (especially to foreigners) and often expressing real concerns about freedom of information and political association, number less than a thousand and could not by any stretch of the imagination be called organized. Besides, they have no serious alternative political programme. For well over a century, the traditional Cuban way of expressing protest has been to leave the country. Even Cuban exiles are mysteriously silent about any joyous mass return to their native island if Fidel falls - except to build holiday homes.
Cuba may be facing an uncertain future, but this year's May Day celebrations brought more Cubans onto the streets than ever before. Even Western media called it the most spectacular demonstration in the Western hemisphere and one of the largest in the world. 'Blessed are the stubborn!' Castro had cried to the press conference a month earlier. And his country is certainly one domino that stubbornly refuses to topple.
Mandy Macdonald is a British journalist who has lived in Cuba and been a Cuba-watcher for many years.