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30 years a thorn in the side

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Fidel Castro's release of thousands of boat people in recent days is only the latest in a series of provocations spanning more than three decades that have kept the relationship between Havana and Washington always tense, frequently troublesome and sometimes, as now, in crisis.

Brutal dictator to some, heroic revolutionary to others, Mr. Castro has been a thorn in the side of the United States since he seized power in Cuba in 1959 by overthrowing the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista.

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Administrations Democratic and Republican have tried to isolate him, to overthrow him and, at least once, to kill him. But there he still sits in Havana, the bearded father figure of a revolution out of steam, an orphan of lost Soviet patrimony, the lone Communist in a hemisphere of capitalists, the caretaker of a people so demoralized that thousands risk their lives at sea rather than endure life on his island.

Now, at 68, Mr. Castro is playing his endgame as the hemisphere's aging statesman as defiantly as he made his opening gambit as guerrilla and ideologist.

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"He plays brinkmanship pretty well," said Antonio Gorge, professor of economics and international relations at Florida International University. "He always expects you to blink before he does, and so far he has been successful in that. He has not met the man who will make him blink first."

Is President Clinton that man? The two are locked in a confrontation over what sort of society Cuba should be. Mr. Clinton wants democratic and free-market reforms. Only then might he open normal relations with the island, lifting the 1962 U.S. economic embargo that Cuba says has cost it $40 billion.

Mr. Castro is committed to keeping total political control and maintaining the socialist foundations of Cuban society, while trying to survive in a world in which there are no more Soviet comrades to bankroll him.

The collapse of communism and a sharp reduction in Moscow's economic support has meant near-bankruptcy for Cuba. Inflation rife: The cost of a basket of 19 consumer items rose 650 percent between September 1990 and October 1993, according news media reports. Unemployment has been reported as high as 40 percent. The sugar crop is declining. The Cuban peso officially is worth a dollar, but it takes 90 pesos to get a dollar on the black market.

"It appears that Castro would rather let the economy deteriorate still further due to the lack of sufficient market reforms than lose -- important political control tools or be blamed for cutting social services the population wishes to keep," Gillian Gunn, director of the Cuba Project at Georgetown University's Center for Latin American Studies, wrote in a recent analysis.

"However, further economic deterioration could be as destabilizing as reform."

To forestall further decline and destabilization, Mr. Castro needs to tap into U.S. wealth. His decision to let boat people sail for the United States is viewed as a ploy to gain the bargaining chip of offering to stop the flow of refugees if the U.S. embargo is ended.

So far it has not worked. The Clinton administration is refusing to discuss the embargo, preparing to detain boat people indefinitely, and has not ruled out a naval blockade or military action. The administration's goal is to force the Cuban dictator to introduce economic and political reforms, but Mr. Castro's departure would be even more celebrated in Washington.

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"The United States is carrying on a consistent policy in the Americas of establishing democracy and, eventually, free trade," said Mr. Gorge of Florida International University. "Castro is an obstacle to those plans. He is out of place in the Americas, and he is just 90 miles away from the United States."

Setting the stage

More than three decades ago, leading his revolutionaries down from the Sierra Maestra mountains into Havana after a guerrilla war, Mr. Castro set the stage for confrontation. He introduced a socialist state, nationalized banks and industrial companies, and established collective farms.

The Eisenhower administration adopted a policy of nonintervention. But as Mr. Castro's verbal attacks on the United States became more strident, the relationship steadily worsened, with the Castro regime seizing U.S.-owned lands, oil refineries and companies; the United States cutting the quota for Cuban sugar imports; and the Soviets smartly stepping in to buy the surplus sugar and promise other aid.

The Castro regime offered government bonds as compensation for the nationalized U.S. companies, but the United States rejected the offer.

In August 1960, Secretary of State Christian Herter told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "Communist-dominated elements" had seized control of the Cuban government.

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At the same time, however, Mr. Castro created universal health and educational systems that were among the best in the developing world.

A constant source of tension has been the U.S. tenancy of the naval base at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay, a 32-square-mile outpost. The lease was signed in 1903 after the Spanish-American War and formalized in a 1934 treaty that gives the United States the permanent right to use the land for annual rent of $4,058.

Reflecting his contention that it is an illegal foreign occupation of Cuban territory, Mr. Castro has cashed not one of the U.S. Treasury rental payments for Guantanamo since he took office.

With opponents of Mr. Castro being arrested or executed after the revolution, 700,000 Cubans fled the island, mostly to the United States. As the United States distanced itself from its neighbor, the Soviet Union moved closer to Cuba, expanding its military into a regional force as well as supporting its economy.

Bay of Pigs

In 1961, a brigade of Cuban Americans, backed by the CIA, landed at the Bay of Pigs in a botched effort to overthrow Mr. Castro, plunging the relationship into crisis.

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It worsened in 1962, when the Kremlin decided to ship offensive missiles to Cuba. President John F. Kennedy warned that the missiles would not be allowed onto land. Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev backed down, but not before taking the world as close as it has ever been to nuclear war.

In 1964, Mr. Castro cut off the Cuban-produced electricity and water supplies to Guantanamo Bay, isolating the camp and forcing the Navy to provide its own services. Those services are now being expanded to cope with up to 60,000 refugees who could be housed there if the exodus of Cubans continues.

When President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, there was a period of thaw. The two countries agreed to exchange diplomats without establishing full relations and reached an agreement on fishing. But Cuba was also becoming active as a Soviet surrogate, sending troops to Africa and continuing to support socialist revolutionaries in Latin America.

In 1980, Mr. Castro unleashed the Mariel boatlift of 125,000 Cubans, many of them criminals and mental patients, to the United States. Although the Carter administration welcomed the legitimate refugees, the emptying of Cuba's prison and hospitals aroused U.S. fury.

In 1983, when the United States invaded Grenada, 24 Cubans on the island were killed, and 700 were captured. And in the late 1980s, Mr. Castro kept the tension high by resisting the sort of reforms that were sweeping Eastern Europe.

Are his days now numbered? His grip on power is more tenuous. On Aug. 5, for the first time in 35 years, there was a public protest in Havana against his policies. He quickly put it down, blamed the United States and said he would allow refugees to leave. The readiness of thousands of Cubans, many of them professionals, to take to the sea testifies to the scope of popular unrest.

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In his three decades as dictator, Mr. Castro has not allowed the emergence of any opposition. The military is controlled by his brother, Raul. The major ministries are in the hands of political acolytes. Every industrial plant, every residential block, has party watchdogs.

Guessing at successor

No one pretends to know who might emerge to replace Mr.

Castro.

"Most likely, simply by mere logic, it would be a military unit," said Mr. Gorge. "The army is the only institution that is well-organized at this point. But if you are talking about the displacement of Castro, you would have to displace his brother, Raul, who is his alter ego."

Mr. Castro has been ruthless in dealing with army officers who step out of line. Four were executed in 1989 for alleged drug

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smuggling. One was Gen. Arnaldo T. Ochoa Sanchez, a war hero who commanded Cuban combat troops in Ethiopia and Angola.

U.S. officials suspected that while Cuba was a known transit point for drugs being smuggled from Colombia to the United States, the trial may have also been politically motivated to eliminate a possible military challenge.

"The idea of him being overthrown is not going to happen in the near future," said David Collis, deputy director of Georgetown University's Cuba Project. "He still has pretty solid support. Even if an attempt were made at violent overthrow, you would still have entrenched hard-liners who would fight to keep power. And if you think migration is bad now, this is a small amount of people leaving the island compared to what would happen if violence starts."

A post-Castro Cuba would attract many Cuban-Americans back. But it is unlikely that one of them would be able to lay claim to succession.

Said Mr. Collis: "You are still going to have a population that has lived throughout the Castro regime. You get an outsider in there, I am not sure what kind of contacts they would have, what type of support they would garner."


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