30 years a thorn in the side

August 27, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Fidel Castro's release of thousands of boat people in recent days is only the latest in a series of provocations spanning more than three decades that have kept the relationship between Havana and Washington always tense, frequently troublesome and sometimes, as now, in crisis.

Brutal dictator to some, heroic revolutionary to others, Mr. Castro has been a thorn in the side of the United States since he seized power in Cuba in 1959 by overthrowing the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Administrations Democratic and Republican have tried to isolate him, to overthrow him and, at least once, to kill him. But there he still sits in Havana, the bearded father figure of a revolution out of steam, an orphan of lost Soviet patrimony, the lone Communist in a hemisphere of capitalists, the caretaker of a people so demoralized that thousands risk their lives at sea rather than endure life on his island.

Now, at 68, Mr. Castro is playing his endgame as the hemisphere's aging statesman as defiantly as he made his opening gambit as guerrilla and ideologist.

"He plays brinkmanship pretty well," said Antonio Gorge, professor of economics and international relations at Florida International University. "He always expects you to blink before he does, and so far he has been successful in that. He has not met the man who will make him blink first."

Is President Clinton that man? The two are locked in a confrontation over what sort of society Cuba should be. Mr. Clinton wants democratic and free-market reforms. Only then might he open normal relations with the island, lifting the 1962 U.S. economic embargo that Cuba says has cost it $40 billion.

Mr. Castro is committed to keeping total political control and maintaining the socialist foundations of Cuban society, while trying to survive in a world in which there are no more Soviet comrades to bankroll him.

The collapse of communism and a sharp reduction in Moscow's economic support has meant near-bankruptcy for Cuba. Inflation rife: The cost of a basket of 19 consumer items rose 650 percent between September 1990 and October 1993, according news media reports. Unemployment has been reported as high as 40 percent. The sugar crop is declining. The Cuban peso officially is worth a dollar, but it takes 90 pesos to get a dollar on the black market.

"It appears that Castro would rather let the economy deteriorate still further due to the lack of sufficient market reforms than lose -- important political control tools or be blamed for cutting social services the population wishes to keep," Gillian Gunn, director of the Cuba Project at Georgetown University's Center for Latin American Studies, wrote in a recent analysis.

"However, further economic deterioration could be as destabilizing as reform."

To forestall further decline and destabilization, Mr. Castro needs to tap into U.S. wealth. His decision to let boat people sail for the United States is viewed as a ploy to gain the bargaining chip of offering to stop the flow of refugees if the U.S. embargo is ended.

So far it has not worked. The Clinton administration is refusing to discuss the embargo, preparing to detain boat people indefinitely, and has not ruled out a naval blockade or military action. The administration's goal is to force the Cuban dictator to introduce economic and political reforms, but Mr. Castro's departure would be even more celebrated in Washington.

"The United States is carrying on a consistent policy in the Americas of establishing democracy and, eventually, free trade," said Mr. Gorge of Florida International University. "Castro is an obstacle to those plans. He is out of place in the Americas, and he is just 90 miles away from the United States."

Setting the stage

More than three decades ago, leading his revolutionaries down from the Sierra Maestra mountains into Havana after a guerrilla war, Mr. Castro set the stage for confrontation. He introduced a socialist state, nationalized banks and industrial companies, and established collective farms.

The Eisenhower administration adopted a policy of nonintervention. But as Mr. Castro's verbal attacks on the United States became more strident, the relationship steadily worsened, with the Castro regime seizing U.S.-owned lands, oil refineries and companies; the United States cutting the quota for Cuban sugar imports; and the Soviets smartly stepping in to buy the surplus sugar and promise other aid.

The Castro regime offered government bonds as compensation for the nationalized U.S. companies, but the United States rejected the offer.

In August 1960, Secretary of State Christian Herter told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "Communist-dominated elements" had seized control of the Cuban government.

At the same time, however, Mr. Castro created universal health and educational systems that were among the best in the developing world.

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