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CUBA : A Run-Down Revolution

January 11, 1987|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc is the author of "Fidel: a Critical Portrait" (Morrow).

WASHINGTON — President Reagan's foreign-policy obsession is Nicaragua: that, unless he prevents it, the Central American country will turn into "another Cuba"--a Marxist-Leninist state "exporting" revolutions throughout Latin America and posing a security threat to the United States.

But whatever the validity of Reagan's fears, it is imperative--for perspective--to take a long look at the "first Cuba," the island where Fidel Castro's revolution has just entered its 29th year. What sort of an example does it offer the region?

Let Castro himself be the expert witness, offering testimony in speeches last month before the Third Congress of the Cuban Communist Party. Never before had Castro so fully and bitterly acknowledged how flawed his society has become, how his revolution now faces the deepest crisis in its history. He bluntly described the overall situation as being "anarchy and chaos." Castro accused the labor force of widespread absenteeism--many Cubans working no more than four hours a day for a full day's pay, while the nation paradoxically also suffered from unemployment. He said all forms of production were in disarray, as people cared more for money than for revolutionary principles. He found corruption in institutions, even in party ranks.

Inevitably, Castro had to combat this dismal state of affairs and on Dec. 26 he proclaimed a new era of austerity for his already-deprived nation. The 20 "austerity measures" he announced to the National Assembly ranged from further tightening the consumption of rice, milk, meat and gasoline to curtailments of television programming in order to conserve electricity.

The consumption of rice, a basic staple in the Cuban diet, had to be cut by 18%, Castro said, because the Soviets would not increase rice shipments (he did not explain why); Cubans should instead eat potatoes with their black beans. Castro also left unexplained why Cuba, traditionally a rice producer, is unable to produce enough for domestic needs nearly three decades after a revolution that emphasized creation of rationally developed agriculture on an island of fertile soil.

Castro has made clear in his latest pronouncements that revolutionary Cuba is caught up in a systemic crisis and not simply in temporary difficulties attributable to bad weather, adverse international economic conditions or United States economic pressures--all of which marked the last few years, although the American sanctions go back a quarter-century. Put succinctly, Castro's fundamental problem appears to be that his revolution has come to a dead end; in his words, "workers do not work" and "students do not study."

And what infuriates him most is that the great "revolutionary spirit" has faded away despite incessant ideological indoctrinations of Cuban youth. As Castro put it, the nation is sliding back into the pre-revolutionary capitalist penchant for material profit, stealing, cheating and cultivating "bourgeois attitudes." He scolded his own party leaders for tolerating bribery. One would have thought, he suggested in his National Assembly speech, that "the years of lean cows would have served to teach Cubans to be more efficient and thrifty, eliminating negligence and other bad habits lingering from the pre-revolutionary era."

Castro, however, may be unjust in blaming fellow-Cubans for revolutionary lapses. The fault may lie more with his style of government and management, both eccentric and overcentralized, with virtually every aspect of decision-making held by Castro personally. Many decisions and innovations seem to have been capricious, such as his sudden, single-handed 1984 rewriting of the annual national economic plan. Ministers and managers never know what to expect, so they shy away from routine decisions and, in the end, the whole apparatus of government comes to a standstill.

These faults have existed all along, but for at least a quarter-century Castro's nation was carried by the momentum of the revolution. The turning point seems to have been reached early in 1985, and the momentum has been downhill--faster and faster--ever since. From the outside, Castro's revolution still commanded international attention, and even acceptance. Democratic Latin American leaders visited him in Havana. The U.S.-encouraged international diplomatic isolation was eroding. At home, however, cracks in the revolutionary edifice were deepening.

During 1986, Castro carried out a far-ranging purge in the highest ranks of his regime, firing without explanation some of his oldest and closest associates and proclaiming a "strategic revolutionary offensive" to recapture evanescent fervor. Political controls and repression of dissent were further strengthened. Cuba went on a virtual war footing as People's Militia units were trained and kept on alert against an American invasion Castro insisted to be imminent.

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