Castro's Cuba: The Clock is Ticking

ALEJANDRO PORTES

June 28, 1991|By ALEJANDRO PORTES

George Bush said it in his May 20 speech commemorating the 89th anniversary of Cuban independence: 99 percent of this hemisphere's population now lives under democratic regimes; the remaining 1 percent is still trapped on Fidel Castro's island.

Signs are that this will not last. The economic situation of Cuba is untenable. Entirely dependent on Soviet oil and Soviet aid, the Cuban economy is at the mercy of the precarious charity of its long-time patron. With perestroika on the ropes and the Soviet state near collapse, the prospects for continuing Soviet assistance to Cuba are dim.

In Western Europe, the only government still with extensive ties to Cuba, Spain, is moving fast to sever them. The Spanish rulers deliberately snubbed Mr. Castro during their recent Caribbean visit. Cuba is the only Latin American country the royal couple has not visited. Last month the Spanish government officially received, for the first time, a delegation of exiles, Cuban social democrats.

In the island, signs of desperation are everywhere. To save oil the regime resorts to the mass import of Chinese bicycles for urban transportation and to oxen to pull tractors in the countryside. This year close to 1,000 Cuban rafters have been rescued in the Florida Straits by the U.S. Coast Guard. Apparently, the Castro regime is allowing people to leave in order to get rid of dissidents, a time-honored strategy already used during the Mariel exodus of 1980 and in earlier episodes.

The pathetic image of these people willing to risk everything to escape the island stands in stark contrast with official efforts to promote Cuba as a tourist paradise. Posters of a bare-buttocked young woman are plastered today in every Paris metro station. ''Venez a Cuba,'' they entice, ''Rumba, Cha-cha, Rum and Sun.'' A revolution which started by proclaiming Cuba would never be again an imperialist playground ends by resorting to skin ads.

For many former sympathizers of Fidel Castro, the fear is that abandoning him would open the way for an equally extremist right-wing regime. Such fears are unfounded. The Miami far right is still ferocious, but its significance in Cuba is minimal and among the exiles it is rapidly declining.

More than 1 million Cubans of all social classes and all political persuasions have emigrated during the last 30 years. Most are extremists only in their opposition to the regime left behind. Strong Christian democratic and social democratic organizations have emerged in Miami during the last two years to provide ......TC viable alternative to political extremism of the right and left.

More importantly, the end of Castroism will not come from Miami, but from inside the island. Far-righters might dream of an invasion followed by a bloody restoration of their pre-revolutionary privileges, but nothing like this is in the cards. The movement will arise inevitably inside the island and the new government will respond to the realities of Cuba as it is now, not as it was three decades ago. The most that Cuban-Americans, regardless of their political coloring, can do is to provide moral and material support to accelerate the transition.

Returnees from the Caribbean Studies Association meetings, held in May in Havana, speak with wonder about the failure of Communist Party intellectuals to defend the regime, even when publicly attacked by outsiders. This represents a sea change from the strident defense to be expected only a few years ago.

Days after the conference, 10 Cuban intellectuals, including members of the official writers' union, called in Havana for free elections and a negotiated transition to democracy. Such a gesture would have been madness in the past.

Signs like these are proliferating, suggesting the endgame has started for the oldest dictatorship of the hemisphere. Cubans on the island and abroad grow ever more impatient of remaining the last nation in the West to implement a historically inevitable transition.

Alejandro Portes is professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University.

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