And Then There Was Cuba

October 24, 1990

Fidel Castro's revolution has now taken Cuba to the point where oxen are replacing tractors and bicycles rather than automobiles will soon be the chief means of transport. Ironically, it is not the United States that is threatening to bring down the Castro regime -- perhaps before the end of 1991. It is the Soviet Union.

Long ago, Cuba learned to live without U.S. trade and economic aid. But can it live without the $5-billion annual subsidy from Moscow that accounts for 20 percent of its entire gross national product? Soviet officials pointedly refuse to make any commitments for next year in light of Mr. Castro's caustic comments about glasnost and perestroika. Snorts Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze: "They have their own plans, their own view of the world. We wish them well."

Fidel Castro's view of things these days is heroic, as always, and apocalyptic. "Socialism or death," he chants. His fellow Cubans, he declares, must prepare for "a special period in the time of peace," a widely heralded euphemism for the increasing austerity gripping the island. Gasoline, food and clothing rationing has already begun. Taxi service is cut 30 percent. Half a million bicycles are on order from China.

"It is impossible to foresee what the situation will be in 1991. . . We might have to work with less and even with zero," says the man who came out of the Sierra Madre 30 years ago to seize power and now talks about going back there.

For the Russians, seeking to strengthen the new superpower alliance by backing U.S. moves against Iraq, Cuba represents an awkward problem. Although its economic aid is going downhill, the Gorbachev government has continued military assistance, even to the point of shipping a squadron of sophisticated MiG-29s to Cuba last spring. Soviet diplomats contend that such help will be required so long as the United States remains hostile. Unspoken is their desire to maintain an electronic surveillance base just 90 miles from the U.S. mainland. But it puts Moscow in the untenable position of supporting a repressive, Stalinist regime even while it is discarding communism.

For the United States, the decline of Castroism offers the choice of increasing pressure, remaining aloof or promoting some degree of dialogue. We favor the third option, cautiously, because Washington must do what it can to avoid confrontation or provocation. There is too great a danger of a Romanian-style blood bath on the island. If Fidel Castro is to fall, let his one-time Russian friends provide the final shove.

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