Life with Fidel Castro leaves Cuba in a state of hopelessness

September 06, 1992|By Timothy Dwyer | Timothy Dwyer,Knight-Ridder News Service

CASTRO'S FINAL HOUR. Andres Oppenheimer. Simon & Schuster. 461 pages. $25. Each trip to Cuba is a journey to hopelessness. Every morning Cubans awake to the reality of no food, no fuel and no future. They are stuck on an island sinking under the weight of a collapsing economy and isolated from the rest of the world because of one man, Fidel Castro.

Mr. Castro, who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for 33 years, now finds himself without any friends in the world. The Soviet Union, which propped up Cuba with free oil and other raw materials, is gone. All the other Eastern Bloc countries, which subsidized Cuba's Third-World economy, have turned to free-market economies. Even in his own hemisphere, his influence has shrunk to nothing.

But how long can he last?

In "Castro's Final Hour," Andres Oppenheimer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the Miami Herald, says that the maximum leader is already dead and gone. It's just up to the Cuban people to realize it.

How long will he last? It may be hours, Mr. Oppenheimer writes, or it may be days or even years.

So while the book may not deliver on its promise to detail Mr. Castro's final hour, it is a fascinating story, rich with detail and painstakingly reported.

Using secret documents and taking advantage of unprecedented freedom to roam the country and interview outspoken dissidents, Mr. Oppenheimer has charted Mr. Castro's course of isolationism since the collapse of communism.

Much of the book centers on the executions of four government officials in 1989, including the country's most decorated general and one of its top spies. Mr. Castro's explanation for the executions was that the men had engaged in drug trafficking and had to be put to death.

But Mr. Oppenheimer reveals that Mr. Castro had them killed because he was afraid of them. Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, who once led Cuba's forces in Angola, had told friends that "Fidel has gone crazy. He's completely gaga." Ochoa had advocated opening up the Cuban government and gradually moving toward a free-market economy, Mr. Oppenheimer reports.

Also executed was Antonio De La Guardia, one of Cuba's top spies and a protege of Fidel Castro's. One of De La Guardia's responsibilities was to find ways to circumvent the U.S. trade embargo imposed on Cuba,which was stepped up during the Reagan administration.

The Cuban government set up dummy companies in Panama and Angola and sold Cuban goods in exchange for technology and products from U.S. companies. With Mr. Castro's knowledge, capitalistic ventures were set up to bring dollars into the Cuban economy.

As the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc collapsed, along with their generous subsidies to Cuba, De La Guardia came under more pressure to raise dollars so that Mr. Castro could buy oil and grain.

Occasionally, Mr. Oppenheimer writes, the Cuban government -- with Mr. Castro's approval -- would authorize Colombian drug smugglers to fly through Cuban airspace on the way to the United States. In exchange for this, the return flights carried weapons for Cuban-backed guerrillas in Colombia or other Latin American countries.

When the U.S. government arrested a man and his son for flying drugs through Cuba, and the two men bragged that the Cuban leader himself had approved the flights, Mr. Castro had to act. Who better to take the fall than Ochoa and De La Guardia, who were exhibiting disturbing anti-Castro leanings?

Still, right to the end, Ochoa pledged his public allegiance to Fidel Castro. He told the country during his trial that when the executioner's rifle was pointed at his heart, his last thoughts would be of Fidel Castro and what he had done for the country.

As hungry as the Cubans are, as tired as they are of fuel shortages and housing shortages and no electricity and no jobs, and as sick as they are of Mr. Castro's constant haranguing about the threat of a U.S. invasion, there is one thing that most Cubans are even more terrified of: the future -- life without Fidel Castro.

So while there are rumblings of discontent -- and more and more open talk on the streets that things have to change -- Mr. Castro continues to weave his spell over most of the country. And his final hour is not likely to come until he chooses to leave or dies.

Until then, each trip to the island will be a journey to hopelessness.

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