If nothing else, Fidel Castro is a survivor. At 67 his cheeks are ruddy, his humor intact, and his eye for a pretty face as keen as ever. When the architect of the Cuban Revolution begins to talk, it is clear his rhetoric is caught in a time warp.
"Capitalism has nothing to offer. It has no future. Capitalism has brought about colonialism and slavery but never equality or social justice. It has polluted the environment and destroyed almost all the oil on our planet. It has no answer to hunger and poverty."
"The Cuban revolution has been the most humane in history in terms of what it has done to improve the dignity of man, for race relations and for children. We cannot yield our socialist goals even though by necessity we must now use capitalist means to save the revolution. . . . We must study the Chinese and Vietnamese experience and find new ways to build socialism."
Vintage Castro is difficult to swallow especially when it is served well after midnight to a group of tired American visitors.
He drones on: "Our revolution was not copied from any other. We have not followed the Soviet Union's revolution. If we had done so, we would not have been successful. Ours was an autonomous revolution; we are our own creation."
But one wonders how at this point the Cuban leader would define success. As the world knows, the collapse of Communism in 1989 has had a devastating effect on the economic health of his country. Cuba is in a state of crisis. Five years ago, imports from the Soviet Empire totaled $8 billion, and 85 percent of Cuba's trade was with the East Bloc; today imports barely total $1.7 billion, and trade figures are less than 35 percent.
With the Soviet Union providing the fuel and a ready market for the sugar crop, Castro & Co. built an oil-burning economy which is now limping along at less than 50 percent capacity and may shut down altogether as fuel shortages become even more acute.
"Our Achilles heel is energy," Mr. Castro told us. "We have no coal, oil or hydro-energy. So we now have a marriage of convenience with various companies to search for oil. We are also expanding the tourist industry in partnership with foreign investors. This is not something we want to do [the official line has always been that tourism corrupts], nor do our people want to return to capitalism, but foreigners have the expertise to exploit this market." And raising his hands in a gesture of helplessness he added: "We are like the mouse trying not to be eaten by the cat."
The plight of most Cubans today -- especially those without access to dollars -- is dire. Food is rationed: six pounds of rice per month and 12 ounces of beans. Meat, fish and chicken are rarely available, and often a month or two will pass without any vegetables. One friend said that even with dollars, she couldn't find any onions in November. Milk, which was once guaranteed every child up to 14 is supplied now only to children up to 7. In point of fact there is a shortage of almost everything including medical supplies, paper products, toiletries and clothing. Transportation has been severely curtained because of a lack of gasoline, and spare parts for Soviet-made buses, tractors and machinery are no longer available. The streets of old Havana are crowded with people waiting endlessly for buses which, when they come, are filled to capacity. Bicycles imported from China are now the most reliable means of transportation; and for some reason stamped on every cross bar are the words "Flying Pidgeon." Ancient Studebakers, Chevrolets, Hudsons and Fords are somehow kept going, but most of the time they remain parked, gas tanks empty, reminders of another era.
Although there are pockets of beauty in Havana and a few venerable structures have been handsomely restored, most buildings are in various stages of disintegration. Cornices and balconies have fallen, decorative details are being eaten away by moisture, and no one can afford the paint or cement needed for repairs -- if indeed they can be found. Trash overflows trash bins throughout the city as the trucks to haul it away either don't work or have no gas; petty theft is increasing; and for some, prostitution is the only way to survive. Telephones work fitfully and there are regular blackouts.
Anyone who has contact with foreigners expects to be tipped in dollars. In fact one frequently encounters doctors, lawyers and other professionals whose salaries are in pesos working as taxi drivers. Those with dollars form a special class which can purchase clothing, liquor, perfumes, chocolate, etc. in special shops from which those who only have pesos are barred. This kind of economic apartheid does not sit well in a country that prides itself on a spirit on a spirit of egalitarianism.
dTC The bitter anti-Castro feelings of Cuban exiles in Miami, as well as their financial and political domestic clout, continue to play a major role in keeping the United States government from ending its 32-year old trade embargo against the island.
Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina says that it is not the embargo itself but the sanctions against third countries wishing to trade with Cuba that are doing the most damage. Sugar sales have been deeply affected, and basic goods to sustain the economy come from these earnings.
"When I was at the United Nations in New York many people told me that the U.S. is missing unique investment opportunities in Cuba. As you know, we already have joint ventures with the Spanish, Italians, Germans and Canadians. And the Japanese will arrive next. We don't intend to tie ourselves down to a single trading partner as we did with the Soviet Union. That has all changed. We want a pluralistic world but plurality, seems to be everything but Cuba these days and this is ridiculous."
A young American journalist working in Havana and a one-time admirer of the revolution has turned sour. "This is a country full of hypocrisy. People are going crazy. Nothing works, and nothing happens without Castro's approval. He has one whim after another. Biotechnology was going to be the answer to the shortage of hard currency; then it was pharmaceuticals; now it is tourism and oil exploration."
Saul Landau, of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington and a longtime Cuba watcher, says that in the past 30 years Cuba went from being a fragment of the U.S. economy to being an independent state.
"Castro forged a proud nation," Mr. Landau said. "The Cuban revolution has made a huge impact all over Latin America. The country has produced world known artists and athletes. Today we are seeing the end of the revolutionary era. The USSR wrote Cuba's insurance policy, but now it is no longer valid. Confusion reigns and there is no economic cushion; no accumulated wealth. There is a grave crisis and added layoffs are likely to
occur. The embargo must be lifted to provide some relief. Cuba is no model for anyone anymore. Yet we are punishing her."
It is interesting to talk to the Cubans themselves about the "special times" and realize that most of them blame the U.S. embargo and the disintegration of the Communist world for their current plight. They don't fault themselves nor do they fault Mr. Castro; he remains the hero. His achievements in terms of literacy, educational opportunities, health care and racial tolerance are always mentioned with pride.
One middle-aged architect was mildly critical of the government's excessive paternalism. "Our young people today lack spirit and energy. Everything has been given to them. They have had it too easy and are the ones who are most disenchanted and impatient with Fidel. I just hope the lid stays on long enough for us to get on our feet."
Fernando Portuondo, a professor of Industrial Economics at Havana University and a Yale graduate, maintains that Mr. Castro to Cubans is as significant a figure as George Washington is to North Americans. "When he dies, the revolution will continue. Everyone is waiting for Cuba to collapse. But we are still here. We exist and we will survive. U.S. policy is not an embargo; it is a blockade. Why should a wealthy giant of a country with a population of 260 million try to strangle a small island with a population of 11 million? It makes no sense."
But it does make sense when one realizes that Fidel Castro has been on the political stage for 35 years and a sharp thorn in every U.S. President's side since Dwight D. Eisenhower. He has been a provocateur, a meddler and a ruthless opponent. Today he is a paper tiger who maintains a tight hold on his people and is desperately seeking ways, even capitalist ways, to keep his country from economic collapse. His enemies remain implacable and have convinced U.S. policy makers that when it comes to Cuba, the Cold War should not be allowed to end.
Janet Heller, a Baltimore writer, visited Cuba recently with a group of American journalists.