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Scholars See Castro Push to Preserve His Legacy

His recent crackdown on capitalism lays bare the growing disaffection among Cubans with his social and economic policies, experts say.

April 30, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — As Cuban leader Fidel Castro wages war against private enterprise, petty theft and an already shackled opposition, veteran analysts say the aging militant is striving to recover the egalitarian aims of his revolution and protect a legacy of having rescued Cuba from capitalism.

But the crackdowns also have exposed a deepening rift between a shrinking coterie of communist true believers and a society that analysts say has largely defected from his movement's core ideals of solidarity and self-sacrifice.

In an ideological endgame pitting the nearly 80-year-old leader against what analysts believe is a large and growing segment of his own people, Castro's drive to root out "imperialist" influence is provoking comparison with Mao Tse-tung's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which ravaged China and set back the hopes of reform for years.

Although Castro has held his island in a vice grip since his guerrilla band seized power on New Year's Day 1959, his campaigns have lately taken on an urgency. In the last year, amid indications of the bearded icon's flagging health, the regime has:

* Declared war on the "new rich," arresting those who use their cars or bicycles as taxis, seizing privately raised produce on sale at farmers markets and rescinding self-employment licenses that had allowed Cubans since 1994 to run restaurants and guesthouses in their homes.

* Increased the number of "acts of repudiation" by Communist Party militants, who track down and heckle dissidents and their families.

* Ramped up efforts to dismantle outlawed satellite dishes, and confiscated televisions and subscription decoder cards brought in by relatives visiting from abroad.

* Drafted students and aging Communist Party loyalists to stand guard at gas stations and factories to deter theft by a broad sector of state employees, a problem even the party mouthpiece Granma acknowledges has reached pandemic proportions.

* Ordered Cubans to refrain from contact with foreign tourists unless "absolutely necessary" for their jobs, claiming a need to protect citizens from ideological contamination.

The moves follow earlier rollbacks of the economic reforms implemented in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow cut off billions in aid to its communist ally. In November 2004, Castro formally withdrew from circulation the U.S. dollar, the foundation of the reforms for 10 years, replacing it with a new national peso. The same year, the government increased restrictions on the Internet, denying all but a few thousand government employees access.

The current crackdowns intensify what human rights groups have condemned as "a wave of repression" against political challengers that was unleashed three years ago when 75 dissidents and journalists were rounded up, accused of treason and sentenced to an average of 20 years in prison.

The only woman among those "Black Spring" political prisoners, 60-year-old economist Marta Beatriz Roque, was released last year on health grounds but has been hounded by Castro supporters since.

News reports said she was attacked and beaten by a pro-government crowd as she left her Havana home on Tuesday.

"They shout insults and pound on my door at all hours," Roque said in a recent telephone interview from Havana. The harassment shows the regime's "debility," she said, but it succeeds in intimidating Cubans too fearful of the state to condemn it.

Cuba scholars say the harsh measures reflect Castro's efforts to preserve his nation's political system and his legacy.

Castro probably sees that his successors might be inclined toward more economic and political opening, said Wayne Smith, a retired diplomat who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Carter administration.

"I don't think it's going to re-energize people and turn people back to that form of socialism," he said of Castro's recent efforts. "That's been discredited elsewhere in the world, and it's not working very well there."

Julia Sweig, Latin American studies director at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "Inside the Cuban Revolution," traces Castro's intolerance of dissent to his conviction that the stability of the state requires "unity at all costs."

Cubans seldom share the zeal of the revolution's founders because the system provides residents with few of the opportunities that they are smart enough to envision and able-bodied enough to pursue, she noted.

"Young people coming out of the great health and education systems don't see they really have a future," she said. "And the older generations -- those who were part of the revolutionary ethos from the beginning -- they're dying."

Most Cubans' commitment to sharing and solidarity "went out the window in the '90s," said Philip Peters, Cuba analyst for the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington, Va., recalling the Cuban leadership's replacement of moral incentives with material rewards to boost production in the lean years after Soviet aid stopped.

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