Cuba's economy sinks with loss of Moscow's aid Reforms resisted; security tightened


MIAMI -- In the kind of consumer bulletin that has become depressingly familiar to Cubans, the country's domestic press agency provided instructions last week on how to make candles. The candles are needed because of electricity shortages, and like scores of other ordinary goods they have disappeared from store shelves.

Other recent press reports have shown how to cure headaches with common plants, for lack of medicine, and how to cook without oil or tomatoes, mainstays of the traditionally rich Cuban cuisine.

As Cuba's electricity supply has flickered and waned and skimpy diets have grown poorer, experts on Cuban affairs say helpful hints like these are the more benign signs of a campaign aimed at steeling the population for what President Fidel Castro has begun warning will be a fateful confrontation with American-led global capitalism.

More ominous preparations for this confrontation, they say, are an intensified crackdown on dissent and calls for military preparedness.

Almost every month brings an announcement of some new "defense brigade" or other security measure aimed at heightening battle readiness in what is already one of the world's most heavily militarized societies.

Last week, there were inspection exercises "intended to discover possible cracks in the security system" and root out "enemy infiltration," according to the government-controlled news outlets.

The loss of huge economic subsidies after the collapse of the Soviet Union has plunged the Cuban economy into its worst crisis since Mr. Castro came to power nearly 34 years ago.

But with proposals for economic alternatives being rebuffed, and the campaign warning of confrontation becoming increasingly strident, many analysts say Mr. Castro has decided against risking managed change and believes that hunkering down is his revolution's only hope for weathering the country's crisis.

Mr. Castro appears to have concluded that the payoffs for significant political and economic reforms are too far in the future and that the risk that his leadership could be swept away in the upheaval is too great.

"The Americans believe this is their opportunity to crush us," Mr. Castro warned last month. The 65-year-old leader went on to urge his people to commit "the last drop of sweat and the last drop of blood," to defend the revolution, and warned that the "imperialists" supposedly poised to attack Cuba "would get the blood-soaked dust of our earth, if they did not die in the struggle."

With his economy unraveling and signs that a population accustomed to decent living standards is wearying of increasing privation, experts say Mr. Castro has opted to put his country on what increasingly resembles a war footing.

Mr. Castro has seized upon Congress' recent passage of a bill widening the United States' three-decade-old trade embargo on Cuba by banning trade by foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies. Large rallies have been held around the country at which the bill is cited as evidence of hostile U.S. intentions toward Cuba.

"Everyone is being kept on their toes, and this serves the regime's attempts to consolidate its hold in extraordinarily difficult times," said Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

"All the objective evidence suggests that Cuba is preparing for a state of siege."

Among the clearest signs of what some say is the bunker mentality in leadership circles was the removal late last month of Carlos Aldana, the third most powerful member of the Communist Party and its only senior figure known for his relative moderation.

Mr. Aldana was a cautious reformer who had broad oversight of party ideology, foreign affairs, culture and the press.

"One of the things that keeps this leadership in power is fear, and that is what all of this is about," Jorge Dominguez, a Harvard University expert on Cuba said of Aldana's dismissal.

"They have been spending a lot of energy creating a fear among the population that if things are bad now, they could be much worse."

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