Castro, in deep trouble, may allow exiles to invest

Georgie Anne Geyer

September 16, 1992|By Georgie Anne Geyer

INDICATIONS have been coming out of Cuba that the failin Castro regime is now willing to consider what has long been the single most "impossible" act in its 33 years of revolutionary history: allowing Cuban exiles to invest in Cuba.

The more cynical analysts about Cuba (of which I am usually one) are quick to pooh-pooh the indicators, because Cuban President Fidel Castro is every "comrade's" past master in matters of deceit. But this time, the situation in Cuba grows every day so much more desperate that the investment olive branch might not have the usual worms in it.

This most recent gesture from Havana came late in August, when Ricardo Alarcon, the Cuban foreign minister, not only gave rare interview to Miami's Cuban-American Radio Progreso, but also said that everyone on both sides should work to "normalize ties" between Cubans and Cuban-Americans.

The Cuban-Americans in Miami recognized the virgin quality of the unexpected proposal. "It's the first time a high-ranking official of the Cuban government spoke directly to the Cuban exile community," said Jose Cruz, president of the relatively liberal Cuban-American Coalition. "For those who would like to go back to Cuba, to renew relations with family, the door will be open soon."

And one defector, former Cuban Air Force Major Orestes Lorenzo, who flew his MIG 23 out of Havana and into Florida in March 1991, used Mr. Alarcon's words to petition the Havana regime "to intercede on behalf of my wife, Vicky, and my two little boys who remain in Cuba against their will . . . "

Behind these beguiling emanations of change on the surface, which Castro has always deftly orchestrated for his own purposes, are events of considerable significance.

When a group of American investors toured Cuba two months ago, Cuban officials indicated that the government would be willing to consider investment by the long-hated Cuban exiles. The general idea that permeated the discussions was that exiles might soon be able to invest in joint ventures and even in limited portions of mineral concessions -- and in some situations, exiles could even have majority ownership.

Cuba already has some foreign investment (mostly Spanish) in tourism, but that accounts for only 2 percent of the Cuban income. Havana is also considering concrete proposals from Canada to invest $1.2 billion in revamping the potentially rich nickel industry, which, with new technology, could be the fourth-largest nickel producer in the world.

Until now, the very idea that Cuban exiles -- the hated "gusanos" or worms that infect Fidel Castro's iconography like a Black Plague -- could be allowed to come back and deprive Castro of part of his power seemed so absurd that one could as well imagine Fidel embracing Dan Quayle.

But Castro is being closed in on from all sides. In July, Castro attended the Ibero-American summit in Madrid. Even five years ago, he would have been a conquering hero, but this year he was shunned, insulted and surrounded by anti-Castro pickets. Earlier this month, Mr. Alarcon visited Tokyo -- and the vice foreign minister advised him that Cuba should keep its eye on India and Vietnam, which are adopting the market mechanisms that Japan has in place -- and that Cuba desperately needs.

Worse, in tightly-guarded, behind-the-scenes occasional meetings between American diplomats and Cuban officials, the Americans privately have told the Cubans that there will not be another Mariel refugee invasion. It will be treated as an act of war, the Americans said -- and all indications are that the Cubans fully understood the meaning of that.

Fidel's conundrum is rather clear. In a recent speech in the

historic city of Cienfuegos, he told the Cuban people ruefully that 70 percent of their income had disappeared as a result of the fall of Soviet communism. In answer to that -- and to the spiritual emptiness inside -- he is trying to recoup by going the "Chinese way," which is to give economic concessions when and where necessary but to retain total political and military control.

That is a nice idea, except for the fact that it just doesn't work so neatly in practice. If he lets outsiders in, with other ideas, with cash and intentions, he loses psychological control over the people, which has always been his greatest power. Let Cuban exiles in and it is even more dangerous.

So Fidel faces the ultimate dilemma: In order to stay in power, he needs to open the country; but once he opens it, he loses it.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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