Castro won't let the drumbeat die Stamina: Still firmly in power and generally popular in Cuba, Fidel Castro defies U.S. attempts to isolate his nation economically, keeping the island in the world political spotlight.

He is, according to one of his biographers, the Energizer Bunny of world politics.

Fidel Castro, 69, still bearded and seemingly in robust health, moves right along, beating his drum for world socialism and the Cuban Revolution, and against the United States' economic embargo of his country.


These are the themes that he will probably speak upon, and probably at great length, in New York during the festivities next ,, week marking the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

Mr. Castro has been Cuba's leader for almost 37 years and the enduring nemesis of the world's remaining superpower. He has survived the hostility of eight American presidents, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower.


He has shown little enthusiasm for the friendlier overtures of Bill Clinton, his loosening of travel and currency restrictions for Cuban-Americans, or his permitting U.S. charities and relief agencies -- such as Baltimore's Catholic Relief Services -- to operate more freely between the countries.

In the face of it all, Fidel Castro endures. He has survived all attempts to isolate him on his island. In the end, despite a punishing 33-year economic embargo, it is the United States that is isolated, in that it is virtually the only country still adhering to the economic embargo.

"Every Latin American government [except Guatemala and Paraguay] has relations with Cuba, and many are involved in commerce," says Tad Szulc, author of "Fidel: A Critical Portrait."

"The Catholic Church is now involved in efforts to establish a dialogue with him. The American business community is dying to get in before the Canadians and Mexicans beat us out," he said.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Many diplomats and sharp minds in Washington's think tanks had expected Mr. Castro to be sucked into oblivion when the Soviet Union sank. That event, in 1991, was to do what the Bay of Pigs invasion and the subsequent American embargo failed to do.

But despite the deep recession visited upon Cuba by the demise of the Soviets, the ravages of a hurricane or two, and allegations of drug dealing within the army, Mr. Castro still appears to be pre-eminent in Havana.

So how does he do it? He is a dictator; Cuba knows no democracy. Mr. Castro still has a thousand or more dissidents in prison. He is a communist, seemingly a doomed breed in this age. Americans have been told all this and have dutifully waited for him to fall. And waited.

Fidel Castro's political durability flows from a variety of sources, according to those who know him. He understands the history of Cuba. He understands the play of world politics. The best proof of the latter is the way he has projected his personal image, and that of Cuba -- a tiny, poor, agricultural state -- across the wide screen of the world's consciousness for more than three decades.


He has made Cuba seem larger, more important than it really is.

"Castro achieved real independence in 1959," says Mr. Szulc. "He put his country on the map. Today nobody is unaware of Cuba, or unaware of Castro. He remains a hero to Latin Americans, because when all is said and done, he is the only guy to take on the United States, which to Latin Americans is a big deal."

The image of Fidel Castro entertained by most Americans does not jibe with this. Few here admire him. He is hated and demonized by most of the Cubans who have fled to these shores, and many of their progeny born here, well over a million people in all. He is ridiculed by many non-Cuban-Americans as a tin-pot dictator.

These perceptions collide with two facts. First, he is admired throughout the Third World. Second, there is the absence of serious internal opposition to him among most Cubans not resident in southern Florida. That is, in Cuba itself.

Wayne Smith, a Johns Hopkins University professor of Latin American history and one of the more active opponents of the U.S. embargo, also speaks of how Fidel Castro was helped by his understanding of Cuba's past.

Dr. Smith, whose experience in Cuba predates the arrival of Mr. Castro to power, headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982. And Mr. Castro, says Dr. Smith, "touched a very responsive chord within the Cuban people." He assuaged a painful wound inflicted upon the island at the turn of the century, during the period of Washington's "gunboat diplomacy" in the Caribbean.


Cuba's drive for complete independence from Spain had been frustrated by the United States' imposition of an amendment onto the island's constitution. It turned Cuba into a protectorate. The provision arrogated to Washington the right to intervene in Cuba's domestic affairs whenever it felt the need to.

"Jose Marti, Cuba's great leader, the father of Cuban independence, had called for a redemptive revolution, one in which all would be equal," says Dr. Smith. "Well, they didn't get it, and they resented it."

Sixty years later, "Castro comes in and says he will continue the work of Jose Marti, free Cuba of U.S. domination, make Cuba a fully independent country."

To do it, he turned to the Soviet Union for protection from the United States. He also put himself in a position of dependency. Through the years Mr. Castro served Soviet purposes, and vice versa. The Soviets are gone now, but so too are the inclinations in Washington to invade the island, which prompted some of Mr. Castro's affection for Moscow in the first place. All this is proof to Mr. Castro of the wisdom of his choices.

There is a good possibility that the next challenge to confront Fidel Castro could be his undoing, if that challenge is allowed to unfold.

The anti-embargo forces in the United States, which include the Catholic church and many business leaders, are convinced that an opening to Cuba would challenge him the most.


In other words, drop the embargo and all attendant travel restrictions. Let ordinary Americans visit, spend money and proselytize about the benefits of democracy to the 11 million Cubans.

The idea has its appeal, even if the liberating potential of tourism is not proved. Waves of tourists from democratic countries never did much to democratize Spain under Franco, Portugal under Salazar, or China under Deng Xiaoping.

Consumerism is something else entirely: It may have had as much influence on the undoing of communism worldwide as did the allure of democracy. Levi's blue jeans and Coca-Cola are ferociously subversive of communism's ascetic rigidities.

They are a staggeringly seductive force among people starved for the pleasures of a bounteous market.