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Some Cracks Appear in Castro's Fortress Cuba : Communism: Amid lean times and a frayed ideology, he struggles to hold the socialist experiment together.

November 17, 1991|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAVANA — Beneath Havana's broad, leaf-shaded boulevards, workers are blasting a network of tunnels. The idea was conceived as a subway, to be built by Czechoslovakia, but when Eastern Europe abandoned communism two years ago, the Czechoslovaks left Cuba and the project took on a different purpose.

Today, Cubans are being told that these "people's tunnels" are shelters to huddle in if the Bush Administration, emboldened by the collapse of its Communist adversaries and by its military victories in Panama and Iraq, tries to bomb President Fidel Castro into submission.

The miles of tunnels are an emergency addition to the image and the reality of Castro's Fortress Cuba. Struggling to defend his troubled socialist experiment to a threadbare people, the 65-year-old supreme commander plays to their patriotism by portraying Cuba as an island besieged by the world's unchallenged superpower.

"If to crush the revolution they had to kill all the people, the people would be willing to die in support of their leaders," Castro declared last month at a congress of his ruling Communist Party.

Castro's apocalyptic Cold War rhetoric and tireless appeals to socialist orthodoxy may be wearing thin in Cuba, especially after the failed Soviet coup in August destroyed the last of his Communist benefactors. But he skillfully used both themes at the five-day congress to limit what many Cubans hoped would be a saving embrace of radical reform.

As a result, Cuba's survival strategy seems little changed from the ad hoc but centrally planned crisis management of the last two years. Suddenly isolated in the world, the party faithful appear too disoriented, divided and disillusioned to agree on a coherent new formula for keeping Cuba alive, much less Communist.

"The level of tension and mistrust inside the regime has increased dramatically since the Soviet coup," said a Western diplomat here. "Until the coup, people in the (Cuban) Communist Party thought Fidel could survive somehow with smoke and mirrors. The coup made them think that this might no longer be possible."

On the streets of Havana, above all those tunnels, the survival drama plays out daily. The long list of scarce consumer goods under strict government rationing has grown in recent weeks to include cooking oil, rum, cigarettes and cigars.

The Cuban model of an egalitarian society that could offer 10 million people a decent diet, free medical care and civic order is fraying rapidly. People complain openly of hunger, crime and special privileges for officials. Of 800 medical products Cuba once guaranteed in hospitals and pharmacies, fewer than 600 are now available.

Scarcity has closed in since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Eastern Europe left the Soviet Bloc with which Havana bartered for 85% of its imports. The Soviet Union, still Cuba's main trading partner, had already cut oil supplies to Havana by one-fourth before the coup speeded the Soviet breakup into capitalist-oriented republics.

Cubans are only beginning to realize how events in the Soviet Union will deepen their suffering. This month they learned that Havana's already shrinking bus service will soon be cut again--from 169 routes to 88 in a city of 2 million people--because of uncertainty over how much oil Cuba can barter from the Soviet republics next year.

Castro's imitation of the Soviet system was a divisive issue in his party during the 1980s. Heeding the advocates of reform, Castro embarked in 1986 on a "rectification" to develop a more "creole" style of communism without dumping the party's pro-Soviet hard-liners. It was a compromise that left the one-party state intact and economically dependent on Moscow.

President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's dismantling of the Soviet Communist Party after the coup shattered the hopes of both Cuban factions. The hard-liners lost their mentors. The reformers lost their example of a Communist system's transformation from within. Both sides damned Gorbachev as a traitor to the socialist cause.

"The orthodox faction here hasn't given up, but it has no alternative model to believe in," said a party official. "Both sides now realize that copying the (Soviet) system was a mistake, but they cannot agree on what to replace it with."

The outcome of the Oct. 10-14 party congress, the fourth held since Castro seized power in 1959, reflected this uncertainty. On the one hand, it ratified his 15-month-old effort to stretch dwindling Soviet oil and food imports by Draconian, orthodox means--replacing tractors with oxen and buses with bicycles, mobilizing tens of thousands of city dwellers to work on collective farms, cracking down on the black market.

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