Chaotic change in Cuba

The country's transformation could lead to prosperity and freedom or more repression and worse economic hardship.

January 10, 1999|By Tracey Eaton and Alfredo Corchado

HAVANA -- It's a sprawling nation the size of Pennsylvania, yet Fidel Castro has often run Cuba like a little country estate, taking charge of every detail, picking out new tractors, even deciding which sugar mill gets a new truck.

Now, though, the power that Castro has wielded for four decades is quietly slipping through his hands.

It can be felt in the awakening that's turning a rigid socialist society into a land of individuals. It can be seen in the former Castro loyalists who are filling churches or embracing capitalism. And it can be heard in the defiant words spoken by teens no longer fearful of their communist leader.

Like a cool Caribbean breeze, change is sweeping Cuba.

It could lead to prosperity on the troubled island. Freedom. An end to hostilities with the United States. Reconciliation with more than 2 million Cuban exiles, an event that would rival the historic unification of Germany.

Or there could be bloodshed, fighting between Castro supporters and pro-democracy forces. A military coup. Government repression, deeper economic hardship, civil unrest.

No one knows for sure, but few deny these are momentous times for the nation of 11 million people.

"I wouldn't call change in Cuba a transition," said Max Lesnik, a longtime Castro friend and a key mediator between the Vatican and the Cuban government. "It's more of an evolution."

An evolution that some say is guided by the Maximum Leader himself.

"Fidel may have his defects," said Cuban author Marta Rojas, who has followed Castro since his days as a university student, "but he knows what he's doing."

Led by the Cuban president or not, it's a chaotic transformation.

Bewildered revolutionaries watch as the socialist government woos American investors, once seen as enemies. Catholic Church activists, inspired by Pope John Paul II's visit last January, cautiously push for democracy as a suspicious state resists greater freedoms. And small-time restaurant owners fight over shrimp, vegetables and a few fresh steaks to stock their family-owned operations. One cafe, aptly named Hope, is so popular that its owner turns people away to appease government inspectors, for whom "profit" is a dirty word.

As this new Cuba evolves, more and more Americans -- from acclaimed movie director Francis Ford Coppola to ex-President Jimmy Carter and former House Speaker Jim Wright -- say the United States ought to change, too. Economic sanctions against the Castro regime haven't worked and ought to be thrown out, they say.

Cuban officials couldn't agree more, blaming the American trade embargo for much of their troubles.

"It would be hard to imagine a situation more difficult than the one we have right now," said Carlos Fernandez de Cosio, a top official at Cuba's Foreign Relations Ministry. "If a Cuban official had predicted in 1978 that the embargo would still be in place 20 years later, you would have said, 'He's crazy.' But it's still there."

Politics has divided Cubans and Americans since the days of Thomas Jefferson. Americans not only have tried to buy Cuba, they've invaded it. But the island has also been a source of fascination. Writer Ernest Hemingway lived here for years, and Hollywood stars Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Frank Sinatra flew in on weekends.

Like a forbidden fruit, the Cuban mystique still lures Americans. Recent visitors include John F. Kennedy Jr., actor Leonardo DiCaprio, supermodel Naomi Campbell and boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

"A paradise," proclaimed actor Jack Nicholson, clutching a fat Cuban cigar during a visit in June. He sat on a couch in the lobby of a Havana hotel. Security guards shooed away a Cuban law student who wanted an autograph.

"Can you believe it?" she said excitedly. "Jack Nicholson's in Cuba!"

She was with her mother and a foreigner who had invited them to dine at the hotel restaurant.

"I'm not impressed by that man, that Jack what's-his-name," the mother fumed. "Just take your eyes off him! Turn around! Your family is what matters, the people at this table. Not him and his millions of dollars."

"If Cuba is so great," the daughter snapped, "then why can't we eat at its restaurants unless a foreigner invites us?"

"Ay, por favor. Please," her mother said. "Just be quiet."

Keeping young people happy is one of Castro's many challenges in a changing Cuba. More and more, Western ways get their attention -- not just bluejeans and rock music, but democracy and human rights.

To try to hold society together, Castro has begun to unleash the twin forces of capitalism and religion. He wants to do what some people call impossible: let the Catholic Church grow and build a mixed economy without losing socialism.

As some analysts see it, Castro is trying to usher in a new era before his rule ends, as the late dictator Francisco Franco did in Spain in the early 1970s.

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