Cuba's Situation Is Different, but U.S. Policy Isn't

July 25, 1993|By JACK MENDELSOHN

On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro stepped into history, leading aband of guerrillas in an abortive attack against a Cuban army barracks. It is 40 years later, and Cuba is hurting.

One sees it immediately: in the long lines at the stores and bus stops; in the ancient automobiles, the hundreds of bicyclists and the World War II-style motorcycles with sidecars on the streets; in the plaintive signaling of hitch-hikers; in the decaying buildings and the nearly empty hotels. With a crippling fuel shortage, Havana has sweeping avenues without traffic, large buildings without activity, parking lots without cars.

One thing is quite clear: With the collapse of the Soviet Union the relationship between the two nations has been totally transformed. A symbol of that relationship -- the last elements of the Soviet combat brigade -- left Cuba by ship on July 3.

A major electronic surveillance installation remains, staffed by approximately 2,100 Russians. The Russians say they intend to continue operating the intelligence center, likening it "to many U.S. centers stationed along the periphery of the territory of the former Soviet Union," and noting that it "will be playing an important role in ensuring verification of international arms control agreements, including the START treaty."

Cuban defense officials said they "realized" the presence of the intelligence installation is a "sensitive" issue for the United States, but it is an economic issue for Cuba.

The Cubans and Russians both say that military cooperation between the two countries is limited to maintenance, training and spare parts, and these are provided by Russia "on a purely commercial basis." Since "we cannot change our military technology overnight," the Cubans argued, ". . . we must keep some level of cooperation with Russia."

As for their own military, Cuban officials confirmed that the armed forces have had to adjust "to economic realities" and the standing forces have been scaled to a current level of 150,000 men and women. (Various sources estimated the size at 180,000 to 200,000 previously.) There are, in addition, 350,000 standby reserves, a territorial militia (1.5 million men and women) and another 4 million Cubans, with weapons at their workplaces, who receive regular military training.

"Cuba," Chief of Staff General Rosales del Toro emphasized, "does not represent a threat to anyone, but it is determined to defend itself."

Another victim of Cuba's economic contraction, a halt in construction of the nuclear reactor at Juragua, near Cienfuegos, was announced by Fidel Castro in September 1992. Both the Russians and the Cubans indicated that they are trying to find a third partner to help finance the completion of the reactor (which is lacking its safety and control equipment). France is a likely candidate, but neither the Russians nor the Cubans would object to having the United States involved in the plant's construction. According to Russian embassy officials, the United States -- which has expressed its "concern" over the reactor as recently as the Clinton-Yeltsin Vancouver summit last April -- was invited to join in the project but refused.

According to the Cubans, "every possible measure has been taken to ensure [reactor] safety and the construction is under strict international regulation." They also noted that the International Atomic Energy Agency has visited the project and that it can visit it "at will."

The Cuban officials maintained that there was nothing to hide: There are no military activities connected with the reactor. And the Cubans reaffirmed their commitment to join the nuclear weapon-free zone in Latin America as soon as the legislatures of Argentina, Brazil and Chile complete their work on the treaty. "We understand your concerns" about the reactor, General Rosales noted, "but if you really wish to address those concerns and reassure yourselves, there are means of doing so."

The final presentation of the Cuban defense officials involved a large map of the United States and the Caribbean overlaid with a set of tables listing U.S. military activities in the region between 1986 and May 1993, many of which were viewed as threatening to Cuba. The thrust of the Cuban presentation was clear enough: These activities "generate tension for our armed forces." The Cuban military must be on constant alert: they never know when or if a plane or boat near their territory will become a genuine threat.

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