Cuba's Socialist Ideology Gets a New Translation

July 02, 1995|By JOHN M. McCLINTOCK

The highest officials of Cuba's Granma province had gathered last summer to give their year-end reports. Each bureaucrat and Communist Party apparatchik rose to recite a favorable statistic: Harvests were good, the fishing nev- er better, the children well-educated and disease nonexistent.

Suddenly the word "bull--" rocked the air, witnesses recalled. All eyes turned to a 63-year-old man, dressed in the uniform of a Cuban general.

"Bull--," repeated Raul Castro. "I don't want to hear lies. I want to hear the truth. I have been traveling the length and breadth of this province and what you are telling me is not what the people say."

The people were saying they had no work, no fertilizer, no spare parts, no animal feed and no gasoline. The education they received did not get them a job.

Within a week, General Castro had dispatched one of the Communist Party's highest officials to straighten out the mess in Granma. Jose Ramon Balaguer, the party's chief of ideology, has been in the province ever since.

The story demonstrates the pragmatism of Fidel Castro's increasingly influential younger brother as the nation struggles with its worst economic crisis this century.

As defense minister he heads the nation's 160,000-man army. And as second secretary of the ruling Communist Party, only Fidel is more powerful than he in the party's apparatus. Should the 67-year-old Fidel die, Raul is legally the man to replace him.

Though he's spent his life in the shadow of his adored older brother, the low-keyed, unpretentious general has emerged as the dominant force in bringing order to the chaotic Cuban economy.

In the months since the Granma incident, Raul's military has been put in charge of food production, including the sugar crop, Cuba's principal source of foreign exchange.

The armed forces are now in charge of creating the nation's first cash reserve, whose resources can be tapped only by Fidel. Army funds also have been lent to the civilian economy.

And Raul Castro's army and the Interior Ministry it controls now dominate a commission that effectively rules Havana. "Our specific task is defense, but defense encompasses everything, beginning at the present time, with food production for the population," the defense minister said in a September interview with Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.

Raul Castro's emergence coincided with the economic crisis beginning in 1989 with the loss of nearly $5 billion in Soviet-bloc aid and the continued hardship caused by the 34-year-old U.S. economic embargo.

The crisis erupts

The most telling manifestation of the crisis occurred last summer when scores of enraged Cubans rioted on Havana's waterfront. Caught unawares, the stunned regime opened its social safety valve in August and September, just as it did with the bigger 1980 Mariel exodus and 1973 airlift.

This time 30,000 disgruntled Cubans fled the island in makeshift rafts in hopes of a better life in the United States.

The incident exposed the regime's remoteness from the people, suggesting more explosive and embarrassing incidents lay ahead. As in the case of the Granma provincial officials, the regime has been lulled by the Pollyanna views of bureaucrats anxious to keep their jobs and has relied on the population's fear of the state security network.

The people who boarded the rafts, many of them lawyers, doctors and academics -- the chief beneficiaries of the revolution -- showed that the system had broken down. The government was neither believed nor feared. Those who remained were trapped in lives that promised nothing. Women were selling sexfor the dollars of foreign tourists, Ph.D.s were driving taxis, a pound of pork was equal to half a month's wages, the bicycle was becoming the chief mode of transportation.

Government guarantees of a job, housing and adequate food no longer applied. The country couldn't afford its socialist pretensions. Cuban officials began likening the nation's shift to the mixed economy of China, whose Communist rulers enjoy the benefits of capitalism but who still maintain their Marxist orthodoxy.

Yet Cuba's bet that foreign joint ventures companies, centered on tourist hotels, and its own biotechnology industry would make up for the loss of Soviet largess was shaky at best. By spring the government announced the layoff of more than 400,000 workers. How would the unemployed eat? What kinds of jobs were available?

Cuba's army of conscripts could hardly be immune to the crisis. Would it stay together?

The regime had no choice but to bend with the economic winds, and pushing for practical changes was the army's top general, Raul Castro, who reportedly announced in July that "Beans were more important than cannon."

Unlike Fidel Castro, the defense minister tends to listen to people's problems, without a preconceived solution. And unlike his older brother, he is always on the go, visiting the island's far recesses, talking with the troops and ordinary citizens.

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