- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2010

When satellite communist countries imploded with the Soviet Union’s collapse, the debris scattered. A united Germany still copes with moral as well as economic degradation left behind by the Soviet blocs star performer, East Germany.

Unfortunately several misbegotten regimes still hang on, relics of a totally discredited past. And communist Cuba, perhaps the most anomalous, staggers on only 90 miles from the U.S. The Havana regime has its peculiarities - just as East Germany had its omnipresent surveillance; Czechoslovakia its trade union base; Romania its megalomaniac Ceausescus. Cuba has Fidel Castro, the charismatic dictator who recently returned from a near-death experience.

Fidel waxed philosophical recently in a lame-leading-the-blind interview by an American reporter with no knowledge of Cuba - slightly aided by an apologist from the Council on Foreign Relations. Although he later backtracked, Castro made one of his few honest statements: Communist Cuba doesnt work. That doesnt surprise the more than a million Cuba-born Americans. Their former countrymen still risk body and soul to swim to freedom, if they can touch down on American soil after evading both Fidel and before U.S. interdiction at sea.

Whatever Fidel intended, his words shortly were followed actions by brother Raul Castro, the familys generalissimo who has taken command of the sinking ship. Raul announced he would drop by March next year a half-million workers from the bloated, 5 million-strong government “work force.” In a country of some 12 million, with 20 percent of the population under 14, that would constitute a huge shift. Absorption into a harassed private sector that was almost wiped out in the decades of ruthless Soviet social engineering is a fantasy, withconditions worse now than when the Moscow dole ended in the 1990s.

Only repression, guile and luck - and the naivete of would-be friends - have kept Cuba going. Spain, former colonial overlord that held on for a half-century after losing the rest of Iberoamerica, has invested modestly. European tourists have trickled in. More recently, Fidels ideological blood brother, Venezuelas Hugo Chavez, has partially picked up the energy bill. But Fidels attack on Mr. Chavezs newfound friend, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, indicates that the help from Caracas may be ending, given Mr. Chavezs own difficulties.

Can Rauls Cuba muddle through to a new era when, inevitably, even the now-straitened Western world would extend aid?

The brothers Castro, and much of the rest of the world, had counted on the Obama administration lifting the U.S. embargo to encourage reform. Lifting the blockade is debated - even among embittered Cuban-Americans. But as always, the Castros are their own worst enemies. Havana recently reneged on releasing some political prisoners to the Catholic Church, with some trying to take their lives in hunger strikes. Thats one reason why, despite minor concessions on travel for Cuban-Americans and despite lobbying by sympathetic U.S. business groups, the blockade remains in place.

If and when Cuba re-enters the real world, the road couldnt be more difficult. Sugar, the monoculture that at the beginning of the communist era gave it one of the highest per capita gross national products in Latin America, is moribund - with half the agricultural land lying fallow. Moreover, Cubas once-cartelized U.S. market is gone. Havana now would face competition from corn fructose, beet sugar and synthetic sweeteners, as well as the difficulties of just getting access to one of the worlds most heavily protected industries.

In the new global economy, there would be plenty of other pitfalls for a late arrival. Cuba, the worlds ninth-largest nickel producer with a third of the globes reserves, finds its No. 1 foreign exchange earner threatened by new Chinese techniques that can refine Asias poorer quality ores. That hasnt stopped Beijing from selling to the U.S. stainless steel products using Cuban nickel that circumvents the embargo, however. Canada, one of Cubas major trading partners, is also on the nickel - and cobalt - take. But its Cuban sales dropped 60 percent in 2009. Beijing, too, is involved in a search for oil just off the Florida Keys - something American opponents of deep-water drilling will eventually have to face - but so far with dry holes. There likely wont be any magic solutions.

Remembering how suddenly other seemingly iron-clad communist regimes fell, the possibility of a Cuban implosion is real. That, of course, would be a nightmare for the U.S. The memory of Fidel Castro dumping 125,000 political opponents and jailbirds he called “worms” on Miami in the summer of 1980 is all too vivid in Florida, now the fourth-largest state. A sudden refugee flood would tax U.S. facilities already inadequately handling illegal Mexican immigration. Although Cuba crisis studies are stacked in dark corners at the State Department and the Pentagon, Washingtons response - given all the other crises the U.S. faces - might be Katrina-like to a sudden Cuban collapse.

Maybe it wont happen. But it is one of many largely unanticipated events that could turn U.S. policy upside down overnight. In the longer term, a post-Castro Cuba on Americas doorstep is likely to be more bereft than Fidelista propaganda has led us to believe and eventually will put new demands on American generosity.

Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders@cox.net.