Autumn of the patriarch

MIAMI — Miami -- LAST WEEK the great but stormy romance between the Soviet Union and Cuba finally ended. Twenty-nine years of political concubinage -- a querulous union held together by a shrieking anti-Americanism and a loose belief in the perfectibility of man -- closed when Moscow said it wouldn't even pay alimony anymore.

The words were simple. They came sooner than people had thought, and they were as devastating as a Caribbean hurricane. New reformist Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin tellingly used a public news conference in Moscow to say drily of Cuba, "Our relations will be reconsidered. The fact that foreign policy has been de-ideologized refers in the same way to Cuba or Chile or Albania or Ethiopia. There's no difference."


This meant that, for the first time since the communist giant and the Caribbean dictator got together in 1962, Fidel Castro is left alone, unsupported from outside, threatened with conspiracy within, the ruthless caudillo finally caught in his labyrinth, as was Simon Bolivar at the end of his tragic but noble life.

To make it even worse, and to underline the watershed changes that are taking place, the same day that Pankin made these statements, Cuban-American officials were in Moscow meeting with the new liberal group in power in the Kremlin. Relations could not be warmer. Jorge Mas Canosa, the wealthy and influential Florida businessman who is chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, had just arrived in the Soviet capital to discuss the elimination of all Soviet aid to Cuba and the withdrawal of Russian troops and others from the island (and probably Cuban-American investment in the U.S.S.R.).


Meanwhile, from here in Miami, one can measure the winds of change by the degree to which power has been turned around in the Caribbean. It used to be that Castro, with his genius for confounding his enemies, initiated most power moves; they flowed out from Havana to the world.

Now the worlds he formerly controlled are ominously closing in upon him. To cite only one situation, Cuban-American pilots now fly small planes to within 50 miles of the Cuban coastline to spot and protect Cubans escaping on rafts and in boats. And Castro keeps announcing more and more and more spartan horrors for the increasingly angry Cuban people. Even as Pankin spoke, Castro was announcing he would ration liquid gas for cooking; the list of rationed goods now includes just about everything.

The right-wing Soviet coup of August was Castro's last hope. He had counted on it, particularly since the now-disgraced KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov made an astonishing visit to Cuba last May (it is obvious now that the visit was to inform "friend" Castro about the coup). When the coup failed so quickly, leaving the hard-line Soviet option out for good, Castro announced his "zero option," or zero aid. This means returning Cuba to the 19th century, with Cubans living off the land like earlier primitive peoples.

Meanwhile, the psychological control programs of the Castro government are becoming stranger. Knowing that he is losing the people, Castro has formed a group of sociologists who monitor "the state of opinion," by listening to Cubans' phone calls. Finding that the people are growing increasingly angry and unruly, Castro has for the first time in his 65 years changed by giving more mollifying speeches.

When the dictator is at the service of public opinion, in any manner, the end is not far off.

The Pan American Games, held in Havana in August, were a great enough danger for him. They were Potemkin games, only a front to hide the misery inside. The next, and real, danger comes on Oct. 10, when Castro will finally host the fourth Communist Party Congress in Cuba.

For the first time, there will be 1,800 delegates, with one-third of them loosely elected. If Castro gets up, as he surely will, and tells them that there will be no economic changes, no liberalization, and that the island has to go on as it is, it is hard to imagine that such words will still be accepted.

So the clock ticks, with all the hope and all the dangers (a Castro striking out militarily at the U.S., a Gotterdammerung last-stand against the world, a civil war within the Cuban military) that these days pose.


But certain things are clear now. The great communist "romance" between Cuba and Russia is over, and Fidel Castro's time is slipping away as rapidly as the hopes the world once had in him.