J U N E 1 9 9 0
by Katherine Ellison
WITHIN DAYS OF the startling fall of Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu, Mark Seibel, the Miami Herald's foreign editor, began drafting a contingency plan for coverage of Cuba. He jotted down choices of graphics, space needs, and the names of staff reporters who might be sent to watch Fidel Castro's removal from power. "I'm not prepared to be unprepared," Seibel said.
Outside the Herald's newsroom there is more glee than caution as Miami's half-million Cuban exiles keep Castro's political death watch, a thirty-one-year wait now buoyed by socialism's worldwide decline. "Everywhere you turn, everywhere you look, there's talk, there's concern, there's planning," says Marilyn Kalusin, the executive vice-president of the Cuban-American Foundation, which has already begun drafting suggestions for revisions to the Cuban Constitution.
But some two hundred miles away, in Havana, Miami's breathless countdown seems more wistful than justified by circumstance. Despite its grave problems, Cuba looks nothing like Romania. Restaurants are full; teens dance the merengue at outdoor concerts; women wear bright, skimpy sundresses; and students flock to poetry readings on the lawns of Lenin Park. Cubans do gripe, for they feel deprived of everything from razor blades to onions. But few blame Castro for that or -- more to the point -- are ready to defy his still pervasive and rigid control to show that they do.
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During two two-week visits to Cuba not long ago, traveling the island's length
by plane and rented car, from Havana to Guantánamo Bay, I found the
nation's problems both serious and obvious. Yet just as obvious was why Castro
hasn't met the fate of Ceausescu or of Erich Honecker, in East Germany -- and why
he may well hold out longer than many of his critics predict.
Americans can hardly be blamed for imagining a politically volatile Cuba. Though the island is particularly newsworthy these days, U.S. journalists have extremely narrow access. To start with, no U.S. newspaper or wire service has a permanent base in Havana. Reporters travel to the island solely at the erratic indulgence of the Ministry of Foreign Relations, whose apparatchiks grant visas on the basis of past journalistic performance, and usually only for brief periods during events that Cuba wants witnessed.
From last July to March, for example, no journalist's visa was obtained by The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, or The Los Angeles Times. (In March the Cubans opened up, specifically to encourage coverage of Cuba's angry response to the U.S. TV Marti project, which had begun beaming news and entertainment programs into Cuba. The Castro government jammed the programs off the air minutes into the first broadcast.)
I got a journalist's visa in August, but in December, after a fruitless five week wait, I had to return with a tourist visa, and was warned officially that I couldn't "report," though I was free to "learn from my experiences."
To be sure, the United States is every bit as grudging in its treatment of Cuban journalists. It never allows random visits, and although two Prensa Latina agency reporters have been allowed to work from a base in New York, they're limited to covering the United Nations and may not travel outside a twenty-five-mile radius.
But Cuba might profit from granting more journalists visas. First-time visitors often confront a much more complex nation than they had imagined. The evidence of material shortages is striking -- barren shop windows, peeling paint on colonial mansions, meager restaurant fare, and gloomy lines waiting for delayed, broken-down buses. Most Cubans, moreover, are quite eager to complain. Yet they seem willing to tolerate a surprising degree of discomfort. Diplomats I spoke to in Havana couldn't remember the last show of serious unrest. The most shocking protest that one of them could recall during all the crises of last year was a night when a few members of a movie audience started singing, "Él es loco!" ("He's crazy!"), in obvious reference to Castro.
The more pervasive attitude toward Castro, the hemisphere's only remaining caudillo, remains reverence. His hold on the popular imagination still verges on the mystical in this superstitious country, where the magazine Bohemia once printed the Comandante's portrait with a halo. Unlike all the deposed or weakened Eastern European leaders, Castro has never suffered from an image of material corruption, says Ilya Prizel, an assistant professor of Soviet and Eastern European studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has managed to command an unusual degree of respect for his private life, avoiding what Prizel calls an "Imelda effect." Ceausescu's wife, for instance, was ridiculed for having held a half-dozen government posts; Honecker's estranged wife made her own unpopular claim on the job of Education Minister; and Mikhail Gorbachev's wife inspires scorn with her fox furs. Yet Castro drew no fire for his long, subtle, intimate relationship with Celia Sánchez -- perhaps because she was a popular revolutionary in her own right, who designed Lenin Park and who was widely mourned after her death, from cancer, in 1980.
Castro's stubborn independence also enhances his appeal, though some may question its net value to Cuba. When Ceausescu first came to power, as a maverick opposing the Soviet Union, he had the same popular quality, Prizel says. "But then power corrupted him, and he grew arrogant and, as we say, came to believe his own newspapers." Castro remains a symbol of lonely self sacrifice. Nightly featured on the news, tirelessly opening factories or chairing meetings, he is still widely perceived as someone who could not fundamentally betray Cuba. Last summer, during the scandalous drug-smuggling trial of General Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez -- Castro's worst crisis since the 1962 Soviet missile affair -- many Cubans seemed to suffer with their leader, rather than because of him. His anguish and outrage were plain -- how could they find him culpable?
I SPENT a lot of time in Havana with a handsome sixty-year-old woman who had been raised in the old aristocracy but had made the rare choice to stay in Cuba, because of her politics almost as much as because of her children, her pension, and the two homes she was able to keep. She nearly wept when she told me of the pain of the Ochoa scandal, and her confusion about Castro's role. But then she added, "I am still a fidelista. He's such a wonderful leader, a political genius -- in times of crisis, every time, he's managed to take our hearts into his hands again." Castro does this mostly with television, of which he is a master to rival Ronald Reagan. Ever since the live broadcast of his triumphant march into Havana, in 1959, he has exploited TV to cement his personal relationship with his constituency of 10.5 million. No wonder he's so furious with TV Marti.
Besides his charismatic appeal, Castro counts on his revolutionary stature. Unlike Ceausescu, who came to power only in 1965, long after Romania's formative upheavals, Castro is inseparable from the Cuban revolution. Cubans call themselves "fidelista" much more often than "comunista" or "socialista." And whereas socialism was imposed by foreigners in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, Castro's rule came as a nationalist reaction to the murderous dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Many Cubans can recall their own sacrifices in that war, and those who can't are constantly reminded of what others suffered in the revolution and its aftermath. At a museum in Matanzas province commemorating the failed U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion, one can see a huge photograph of a wall at a military airport that was bombed by CIA planes before the assault by sea. On that wall a twenty-six-year-old militiaman killed in the attack had scrawled, with his own blood, "Fidel." This use of Castro's name is a suggestion of faith, from the word fidelidad.
Adding to Castro's staying power is his fanatical resolve, which has carried him through his initially quixotic, six year struggle against Batista and the subsequent three decades of U.S. economic warfare and CIA assassination plots. But Castro will turn sixty-four this year, and he has taken to expressing his will more and more apocalyptically. It's been a long, dark journey from his pre-revolutionary cry "History will absolve me" to "Socialism or death," a slogan that these days is blazoned throughout Havana, on government offices and baseball outfields alike.
Along with this forbidding motto has come a determined crackdown on any signs, or imagined signs, of opposition. Castro made his position clear on January 28, in a speech to a workers' congress, when he said, "We don't want fifth columnists here, in a moment when everything is in danger."
Days before that speech the Spanish newspaper El País reported that at least four leading members of Cuba's Communist youth organization had been arrested in Havana after complaining about a lack of democracy and what they dared to call a Castro-based cult of personality. These students hadn't carried banners in the streets, or even complained to foreigners; they had used "proper" channels, according to a source who is close to the government. Their crime was in writing a single letter of protest to their group's chief.
Castro's crackdown continued into the spring, with more arrests of would be oppositionists. During my visit I saw the vigilance up close, in the city of Guantánamo, near the site of the U.S. naval base of the same name. A colleague and I were detained for five hours of questioning by Cuba's state police, after we conducted a thirty minute interview with a retired driver named Melvin Kerr, who was shining shoes outside his small home for extra cash. The interview couldn't have been more innocuous: Kerr, sixty three, mostly spoke of his twenty years working as a chauffeur at the U.S. base, which he'd left in 1964. But Kerr's nephew, who'd been listening, grew suspicious after his uncle started showing off the English he'd learned at the base, which the nephew couldn't understand; it was he who turned us in.
"This isn't anything serious," the investigators repeatedly insisted, during a grilling by five of them. They threatened to keep us at the station until I showed them my notes. "Some of the neighbors had some concerns about your conversation," they said, "and we wanted to be able to reassure them." Later we learned that Kerr had also been hauled in for questioning, as had an elderly woman whose sole involvement had been to direct us to his house.
Once my anger subsided, I realized that we'd seen a neat show of the efficiency of Cuba's down-home spy system. Since the early 1960s Cuba has been organized into block-based Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which mobilize grandmothers and militiamen alike to monitor suspicious characters, recruit volunteers for nighttime guard duty, and keep children current on vaccinations. The block committees turn relatives and neighbors into wardens, a plan that plays on people's patriotism, greed, and fear.
"The entire system is set up to reward informers," a diplomat in Havana told me. "If you look like a militant, you get higher up on the list to buy a car, to take a good vacation, to get better housing." If you don't, you are ostracized, penalized, and shamed.
Those still adamantly opposed to the regime may leave, if they can find the dollars to do so. Most of the upper class and professional class -- those most inclined to buck the system -- had fled by 1963. In 1980 came the Mariel boatlift exodus. And Castro keeps letting the steam escape, with U.S. help. Last year some 4,000 Cubans emigrated legally to the United States.
Yet Cuba also provides many reasons to stay. Castro shuns opinion polls, but most of the people I spoke with claimed that their lives vastly improved after 1959 -- still a critical reference point. The state guarantees all Cubans a job, adequate housing and food, and free schooling and medical care -- even nose jobs and eye tucks. While underemployment still exists, the guaranteed housing may be a bit squalid, and the food is just barely adequate, Cuba's health care is a shining example in Latin America, drawing what its officials call "health tourists" from throughout the region. The island is among the twenty nations in the world with the lowest infant mortality, and among Third World nations it has both the highest doctor-patient ratio and the longest life expectancy.
A result of all this -- and of the nearly airtight government control of Cuba's media -- is that not one compelling opposition figure has emerged in thirty-one years to rally dissent against Castro. Diplomats from the U.S. Interests Section admit their disappointment with this lack. True, the human-rights activist Elizardo Sánchez went to jail last summer for daring to say to foreign reporters that Ochoa was drugged during his court-martial and had suffered psychological torture and other mistreatment. Yet few average Cubans recognize Sánchez's name, while several other activists have either already left the country or become known as opportunists who flaunt their nonconformity in hopes of getting U. S. political-refugee status. In a 1988 interview with Maria Shriver, of NBC-TV, Castro dismissed the activists as "four cats instigated by the U.S. Interests Section." Indeed, one of the opposition figures, often quoted outside Cuba, has the habit of asking U.S. correspondents to pay for interviews with him. (Before I rejected his request during a conversation, he assured me that he provides receipts.)
Just as Castro lacks prominent opposition outside the government, no one inside the regime is conspicuously ready or willing to fill his shoes. "No one's going to pit themselves against the Comandante," says Wayne Smith, a former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. One would guess this is even more emphatically true after the show trial and execution of Ochoa, a compelling potential rival. Left in the limelight is Castro's brother, Raúl, the head of the army and a man few Cubans would want to see replace Fidel. "He's . . . too fat. And he's not funny," one mid-level government official complained to me. "He makes a joke and no one laughs."
Finally, the significance of Castro's traditional role as David to the U.S. Goliath cannot be ignored. The U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion, the assassination schemes, and, most recently, TV Martl have all helped Castro to justify his continued demands for revolutionary sacrifice and vigilance. An exceedingly nationalistic people, Cubans seemed universally horrified by the invasion of Panama last Christmas, repeatedly asking U.S. visitors if they thought Cuba was to be next.
STILL, TIME isn't really on Castro's side, and he knows it.
All the strong arguments in Castro's favor could collapse under the weight of a misstep -- as he would see it -- such as giving a dissent movement the sort of vital space enjoyed by one in Nicaragua last February. Far more likely than that, Cuba experts in the United States say, is the possibility that opposition would come from inside the government -- for example, from the military.
So Castro is circling his wagons ever more tightly. In a series of speeches beginning last July he warned Cubans to expect "major difficulties," to adjust to a peacetime "war economy," and to anticipate even more sacrifices.
This year should be critical. Cuba remains dependent on Comecon, the Communist-bloc trade organization, for more than 85 percent of its trade. But it can expect a sharp decrease in commercial solidarity from the new governments in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, and even from the Soviet Union, all until recently firm allies. Moreover, Comecon's decision to abandon its traditional barter deals for trading based on convertible currency could be a painful jolt, not least because Cuba's foreign exchange reserves have fallen to a record low.
But Wayne Smith argues that the impact needn't be drastic. Cuba could simply demand dollars for its staple exports of citrus, sugar, nickel, and tobacco. Smith points out that the barter system has helped Comecon almost as much as it has helped Cuba, since the former's products have hardly been international market bonanzas. "Those East German cars they sell to Cuba are like riding in a washing machine," he says.
A short-term danger might be a drastic change in vital Soviet crude-oil shipments to Cuba. A Soviet diplomat in Havana told me that in the past Castro's government has gathered up to 40 percent of its foreign-exchange revenues -- several hundred million dollars a year -- by limiting its domestic fuel use and re-exporting the surplus. Yet according to at least one report, the USSR has already begun to cut back its exports of crude oil to the level of the island's domestic needs. At the same time, the Soviet press has begun taking some ominous potshots at Moscow's hitherto coddled client. On March 7, for instance, Moscow News published a portrait of a Cuba repressed, destitute, and politically antiquated.
U. S. Cuba-watchers interpret the attacks as an inevitable product of glasnost -- and a delayed answer to Castro's own bitter swipes at Gorbachev's leadership. They may also indeed presage significant cutbacks in aid. Yet few analysts believe that Moscow will abandon its ally, which still offers considerable Third World public-relations value and serves as a base for reconnaissance planes and ships.
Meanwhile, however, Cuba's worsening material shortages have stirred up low-level but blatant defiance by black-market money-changers and a wide variety of islanders who try to cajole tourists to enter dollar stores on their behalf and, with their hoarded, forbidden greenbacks, buy them imported chewing gum, fashionable clothes, or even shampoo. For the time being, store employees and the police seem mostly to tolerate this practice, for fear of alienating tourists and having to arrest vast numbers of Cubans.
Cuba is trying hard to find ways out of its problems, partly by energetically seeking new trade agreements. Last fall Castro signed a half-billion-dollar trade pact with China. And Cuba's recently appointed ambassador to the UN, Ricardo Alarcon, told me that his country has made record gains in expanding its commercial relations within Latin America, including the sale to Brazil last summer of a new meningitis vaccine, a deal that increased trade by at least $100 million in hard currency, according to Alarcón.
At home Castro has given Cuba's tourism industry -- a key economic sector that he wants to expand -- rare freedom to flirt with capitalism, in the form of joint ventures with European firms to build and renovate hotels. In other sectors Cuba has been conducting some quieter experiments with capitalism -- in one case, Rockefeller style capitalism. Peggy Dulany, the daughter of David Rockefeller, who retired in 1981 as chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank, recently invited several U.S. business-school professors and organizational experts to travel with her to Havana, where they held discussions with their academic counterparts and with Cuban officials in charge of heavy and light industry. "This proves we are not so closed to learning about capitalism," Alarcon says. "And for us, Rockefeller is not exactly an example of failure."
Even some militant nationalists have told me that they want to see Cuba's domestic politics become as open to Western influence as its foreign trade has become. But officials argue that this is impossible while a hostile United States continues its efforts to destabilize the government.
"We can't ignore that for the last thirty years we've had an enemy nearby, trying to destroy us," Alarcon says. "You took dramatic measures when you were at war, like the concentration camps for Japanese. We've had to take certain steps too, like putting this guy [Elizardo] Sánchez in jail." An aide later stressed that Cuba's action was within the scope of its national laws.
As Alarcon and others in power see it, Cuba can't change until the United States changes its attitude toward Cuba -- which, of course, is unlikely unless Cuba changes. With this vicious circle in mind, and with little hope that negotiations might break it, Cubans joke wistfully these days that for them there will be no perestroika, only an espera estoica -- that is, a stoical wait.
Copyright © 1990 by Katherine Ellison. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1990; Succeeding Castro; Volume 265, No. 6; pages 34 - 38.