Russia's Cuban Pullout

September 12, 1991

"What will happen if the Sahara ever goes communist?" a Cold War-era joke asked. The answer: "Nothing during the first 15 years. Then it will run out of sand."

A similar fate seems to have befallen Fidel Castro's Cuba.

The news out of Havana is that this isolated bastion of Marxism-Leninism has started rationing even cigars and cigarettes as its economy collapses.

As if that were not bad enough, major cuts are expected in Soviet aid now totaling $3.5 billion a year. In fact, the Castro regime is preparing Cubans for the "zero option" of hardships should Moscow turn off the spigot altogether.

Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed as a communist giant and a superpower, Moscow is re-examining its overall relations with Mr. Castro. While continuing trade links are in the Soviets' interest (trading oil for Cuban sugar), the Caribbean island has quickly lost its strategic Cold War importance. This was shown by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's pledge to begin talks on withdrawing 11,000 Soviet troops from Cuba.

The forthcoming Soviet pullout is good news to Americans, but not for Mr. Castro. A little over three decades after he took power and became Moscow's bogeyman at the doorstep of the United States, Mr. Castro is now being deserted. He faces the bankruptcy of his rule.

While U.S. officials would welcome Mr. Castro's removal, they fear political chaos if his government begins to falter. A bloodless coup by senior elements of the army or the communist party might not be bad, experts argue. But the country could as easily turn into something uncontrollable, triggering turmoil and bloodshed.

These are crucial days for Fidel Castro. In an effort to combat his government's growing unpopularity, he has called a party congress for Oct. 10. It is to elect a younger and more energetic central committee and adopt a program to "increase democracy within the party." At the same time, the ruling elite has no plans to discuss replacing Cuba's one-party system or its failed socialist economic policies. Nor is there talk about challenging Mr. Castro's personal stewardship.

It may be, however, that the Soviet decision to withdraw troops from Cuba could start to unravel Mr. Castro's rule. For three decades, his slogan has been, "Socialism or death." As socialist governments disappear one after another, he is a survivor who cannot last much longer.

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