- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Cuba's former ambassador to the United Nations, who recently defected to the United States, said last week that Cuba is primed for a "social explosion," but the military is ready and willing to put down any unrest that might threaten Cuban socialism or coincide with the death of President Fidel Castro.

"The Cuban army has taken all the preparations and measures to take care of" any revolt, said Alcibiades Hidalgo, one of the highest-ranking Cubans to have defected in the past 15 years. "There is a lot of frustration among the people . But the highest levels of the Cuban hierarchy a handful of people with a lot of power would not hesitate. They completely back Fidel."

Mr. Hidalgo who also served for 10 years as chief of staff to Raul Castro, the president's younger brother and heir apparent and Cuba's defense minister was a vice minister in the Foreign Ministry and most recently editor in chief of Trabajadores (Workers), a government newspaper.

He arrived in the United States on July 21 after slipping out of Cuba with 19 others in two boats. Mr. Hidalgo said he had been waiting for six years for a chance to defect, after concluding that Fidel Castro is a dictator who brooks no dissent. His 11-year-old daughter remains in Cuba with his ex-wife.

His trip to Washington was sponsored by the Center for a Free Cuba, a pro-democracy, anti-Castro organization.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Hidalgo said:

•Cuba is in the midst of its worst economic and social crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union.

•The Cuban people, frustrated with massive unemployment and food shortages, could revolt at any time.

•Raul Castro is more in touch with the people than his brother is, but would not hesitate to use the military to repress any threat to Fidel Castro's Communist regime.

•More than 90 percent of all Cuban diplomats assigned to New York and Washington are engaged in espionage.

•Changing U.S. policy to ease the economic embargo or travel restrictions on Cuba would help prolong the regime.

"The embargo has not worked for 43 years. It is a formula for getting rid of Castro that does not work," Mr. Hidalgo said. "However, if the U.S. lifted the embargo, it would be a political triumph for Fidel. If the travel restrictions are lifted, Castro would receive an economic benefit immediately and the result would be to prolong the regime."

Recent moves on Capitol Hill to relax the embargo are misguided, he said, adding that there should be no change in U.S. policy without some economic or political reforms in return.

"As long as there are no reforms improving the level of life for the Cuban people, there should be no friendly discussions toward Castro," he said.

[The first brand-named U.S. food items to be sold directly to Cuba in more than four decades arrived on the island this weekend, the Associated Press reported yesterday. The 132-ton shipment of butter, margarine and cereals is the first half of a $750,000 order that Cuba placed with Marsh Supermarkets Inc. of Indianapolis for its Marsh-brand products. The second half of the order is due later this month.

[The AP said that Cuba has purchased about 770,000 tons of American food, worth about $125 million, since the Communist government started taking advantage of a U.S. law easing the 40-year-old trade embargo to allow direct food sales.

[Cuba annually imports about $1 billion in food, mostly from Europe, Asia and Latin America, the news agency quoted Pedro Alvarez, head of Alimport, Cuba's import food agency, as saying. Mr. Alvarez said Cuba could buy as much as 70 percent of its imported food from the United States if it could get financing. Currently, it has to pay cash for U.S. food.]

Mr. Hidalgo, 56, was 13 years old when Fidel Castro came to power. He became a true believer and spent his life promoting the revolution and representing it abroad in his capacity as a diplomat.

"Of course I believed in the revolution. It was my hope that socialism worked and solved the problems of the people," Mr. Hidalgo said. "Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way."

He said that after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, he began to have doubts about socialism.

"Because of my profession, I was able to travel a lot and I could see what happened in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. You realize the socialist system has not functioned in any country," he said.

He said Cuba is in the midst of an economic crisis.

"There is shrinking in tourism, problems with the price of nickle and a crisis in the sugar industry. They are closing half of the sugar mills. The situation is becoming worse. The people are frustrated," he said.

Mr. Hidalgo was Raul Castro's chief of staff from 1985 to 1993, and was present when the younger Mr. Castro, as head of Cuba's army, ordered the arrest, trial and execution of Gen. Arnoldo Ochoa.

Gen. Ochoa, the popular commander of Cuba's intervention in Angola, was scheduled to take over the "most powerful and important" command in Cuba, Mr. Hidalgo said, but he began speaking out against Cuban "colonialism" in Africa and in favor of "glasnost" (openness), as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called his program of relaxing and reforming communism.

The Cuban general was convicted of smuggling diamonds and narco-trafficking, and executed in 1989 with Fidel Castro's permission, most observers say. With his death, as when Che Guevara died in Bolivia, a popular and powerful potential rival to the president was eliminated.

"The real reason Ochoa was executed was political," Mr. Hidalgo said.

He said Raul Castro, 71, is less inclined toward one-man rule and would be more flexible in allowing reforms, but that he drinks too much and is not very healthy. Mr. Hidalgo said that Fidel Castro, who turned 76 last week, took better care of himself.

Using intelligence culled from a Russian spy facility at Lourdes in Cuba, Mr. Hidalgo worked as part of a high-level Cuban delegation to Iraq in early 1991 that tried to convince Saddam Hussein that he could not win a war against the United States.

"We told him he'd be defeated, and that would be a defeat for every revolutionary force in the world," said Mr. Hidalgo, who has met Saddam on several occasions. "He didn't listen. He was very rude. Saddam is a disgusting person."

In 1992, Mr. Hidalgo was named chief of the U.N. mission in New York, but was ousted from that job a year and a half later for opposing all the intelligence-gathering there.

"The intelligence activities at the United Nations, in my view, were out of proportion. Ninety-percent of all officials were involved," he said. He said that he has no firsthand information on the situation today, but that it was his impression that most Cuban diplomats in this country are intelligence officers.

Back in Cuba, he became editor in chief of Trabajadores, but fell from grace and was closely watched for questioning Castro policy in New York.

"It was the worst mistake of my life not to defect when I was in New York," he said.

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