For many, Castro remains symbol of national sovereignty SPECIAL REPORT: INSIDE CASTRO'S CUBA

HAVANA — HAVANA -- The exodus of tens of thousands of people from Cuba is not another Berlin Wall collapsing on a Cold War dictator: Fidel Castro does not seem likely to fall soon.

Though considerably weaker than 10 years ago because of the nation's dire economic straits, the 68-year-old maximum leader remains for many Cubans the symbol of national sovereignty.


It was he who freed the country of its last vestiges of foreign domination, and it was he who established land reform, free schools and health care that are the envy of Latin America.

But the extraordinary riots Aug. 5 in Havana came as a shock, compelling action of some sort. Facing the risk of a wider and possibly fatal confrontation, he needed a safety valve for the growing discontent of his people.


The riots began with the rumor that a large ship, like an ocean liner, would circle the island, picking up any Cuban who wished to leave. When the ship failed to appear off Havana, enraged citizens smashed the windows of a small hotel on the Malecon, Havana's once-grand waterfront causeway.

The nation's top security force, a black bereted group nicknamed the "Ninjas," stormed the surrounding buildings, rousting inhabitants. More than 500 people were arrested. Many were badly beaten, according to witnesses.

Much of the crowd's anger was directed at Washington for not processing visa applications faster. Over the past 12 months, Washington granted Cubans 2,700 visas, far below the ceiling of 27,845 allowed by law. More than 134,000 had applied.

The Aug. 5 eruption was unparalleled in the 35-year-old regime. Mr. Castro hurried to the scene and went on television to blame the riots on the U.S. embargo and immigration policies. Then he said he would allow more "balseros," or rafters, to take to the waves, a powerful shot at Washington given that it was still reeling from the Haitian boat refugee crisis.

But the riots were a blow to Cuba's vaunted neighborhood security, which extends into every village and city block, raising questions whether the elaborate, often brutal, security apparatus was breaking down.

Moreover, the signs were clear that Havana could no longer sit tight and hope that the economy would improve. After investment of millions in tourism and biotechnology, the economy continued to spiral downward.

The views within the ruling Politburo highlighted a split between the hard-line veterans of the revolution and younger, more liberal members.

For the hard-liners, the riots symbolized how Communist Party discipline had been weakened as the government sought to deal with its economic crisis. The hard-liners wanted to renew last year's policy of arresting rafters.


For the liberals, the answer was simple: let the people go. That way the country would be rid of malcontents, there would be fewer mouths to feed, and it would force the Clinton administration to reverse itself and talk to the Castro government.

The liberals won the day and in the process caused the downfall of Jose Ramon Balaguer, the Central Committee's chief of ideology, who apparently favored a harder line.

Washington's reaction to the riots was to press for free elections, though democratic elections are not likely while Mr. Castro is alive.

The distinctions between liberal and hard-line members of the Politburo are comparatively minute. All agree that Mr. Castro should stay in power and that free elections are out.

The fiercest "battles" are fought over the direction of the economy, with the liberals succeeding in maintaining the push for foreign joint-venture investments that will yield hard currency and halt the rapid dollarization of the economy.

The crunch may come a few weeks from now when the sugar cane crop is ready for harvest but without the manpower and fuel to cut it. Sugar, the nation's principal export, is expected to be under 4 million metric tons, a historic low for modern Cuba in good weather.


To meet the need for cane cutters, the government may be forced to draw on the surplus of labor in Havana and other cities, creating a potential crisis if unwilling urbanites are dragooned into the countryside as they have been in the past.

People don't give their full names when they criticize the government here, but a schoolteacher named Marcela gives an indication of how the zeal that drew volunteers to practically any task in the early days of the revolution has disappeared.

"They can appeal to my revolutionary fervor all they want, but I'm not going unless they pay a good wage. The days of working for free are gone," she said.