- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

Cuba marks tomorrow the centenary of its official independence from the United States, granted to the newly constituted Republic of Cuba on a spring day in 1902 shortly after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.
But an extraordinary week of political and diplomatic jousting, featuring a president and a former president of the United States and a strongman who has dominated virtually all aspects of Cuban life for nearly a half-century, underscores the uneasy yet unbreakable links that still bind the two nations 100 years later.
President Bush travels to South Florida tomorrow for what aides bill a major address on Cuba, one that is expected to disappoint 75-year-old Cuban dictator Fidel Castro by strongly reaffirming the U.S. trade embargo against the island.
"We certainly don't have any intention of weakening or diluting the embargo," a senior Bush administration official said. "The president has been pretty clear on that."
The administration upped the ante considerably when it aired suspicions earlier this month that Cuba could be seeking to develop offensive biological weapons, perhaps in coordination with Iran and other rogue states, a charge immediately denied by the Castro regime.
Many expect Mr. Bush to push for an even tougher line on Cuba, despite growing pressure from U.S. agribusiness and other commercial interests to ease trade restrictions on the Caribbean island-nation. Among the possibilities discussed: tighter travel restrictions on U.S. citizens visiting Cuba and increased U.S. government broadcasts to Cuba to support dissident political movements.
But a precedent-setting visit to the island last week by former President Jimmy Carter the first to Cuba by an American president, in or out of office, since Mr. Castro seized power in 1959 has focused renewed attention on the deeply mixed legacy of the Castro regime, one receiving extra scrutiny as the aging dictator confronts a vastly changed world and his own looming mortality.
Mr. Carter pleased his hosts and angered anti-Castro activists back home by praising the government's health and education record and casting personal doubts on Bush administration charges that the Castro government was working to develop biological weapons.
But he also stunned a nationwide Cuban audience when, with Mr. Castro at his side, he delivered a 20-minute address in Spanish on Tuesday calling on the government to respect democracy and human rights and explicitly identifying a new petition drive organized by dissidents demanding a referendum on political reforms.
"Cuba has adopted a socialist government where one political party dominates, and people are not permitted to organize any opposition movements," Mr. Carter said. "Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government."
The long-term effect of the Carter visit is impossible to predict. Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998 created similar uncomfortable moments for the regime, but analysts say Mr. Castro's hold on power remains secure.
"If the pope couldn't do it, I don't think Jimmy Carter can," said Jamie Suchlicki, director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. "At the end of the day, human rights will remain the same. Castro will continue to violate them."
President Carter "has a faith in negotiations, but negotiations can't solve every problem. Some things you just have to wait out," Mr. Suchlicki said.
In a 1971 speech to university students in Chile, Mr. Castro recalled how he became a revolutionary out of disgust at the sharp class divisions and unfair distribution of wealth he had seen in Cuba as a boy.
After more than four decades as undisputed leader of his country's experiment in egalitarian socialism, Cuba under Mr. Castro presents its own sharply divided face to the world.
Its politics are defined by hostility to the U.S. government, while the economy is largely underwritten by the power of the U.S. dollar. A glittering array of new European- and Canadian-financed hotels and resorts contrasts sharply with the food shortages, decaying infrastructure and rationed daily supplies that ordinary Cubans must endure.
The notoriously puritanical Mr. Castro presides over a tourist economy that traffics openly in sexual opportunities.
"Here is Stalinism beneath the palm trees," wrote British journalist Ed Vulliamy after a recent trip to the island, "a crossroads of the senses leading in all directions, toward both hedonism and the austerity of communism; contradictions crashing into one another."
Mr. Castro's ideological convictions have cost his country dearly.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban leader's longtime patron, meant the end of $5 billion in annual economic subsidies. The decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin last year to close a Cold War-era intelligence listening post in Lourdes was a $200-million-a-year blow to Cuba's economy.
Tourism took a major hit after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the U.S. economic slowdown has cut into remittances sent by increasingly prosperous Cuban-American exiles to their families back home.
Commodity prices for key Cuban exports, notably nickel, have been falling, and Cuban agriculture was devastated by Hurricane Michelle, which struck in November just as the sugar and citrus crops were about to be harvested.
"Cuba's economy is besieged on all sides," according to an analysis by Stratfor.com, a Texas-based private intelligence service.
The London-based Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts a modest 2.7 percent growth this year, picking up to 5 percent in 2003. While the government has welcomed foreign investment and has cautiously experimented with carefully controlled private enterprises, centralized planning and state control of the economy remain the rule.
Much in line with the experience of China's Communist Party, Mr. Castro and his aides have sought to ensure the allegiance of the military by allowing the Revolutionary Armed Forces a major stake in the economy. The effort has been spearheaded by Mr. Castro's younger brother and heir apparent, Raul Castro, who serves as vice president and minister of defense.
The division of the economy between the hard currency, international sector and the struggling domestic market is symbolized in the dual exchange rate maintained by the government one for tourist and international transactions, and one for everyone else. "Dollar stores" stock many much-needed items, but accept only the American dollar as payment.
Despite tight budgetary times, Mr. Castro has carefully protected the revolution's social gains. Life expectancy is 75 years, exceeded only by Panama among South and Central American countries. Infant mortality and literacy rates also are far above regional averages.
But ordinary Cubans, faced with rationing and inconsistent supply lines, encounter daily difficulties in obtaining consumer goods.
Under Cuba's rationing system, a family of four is allowed a single 4-ounce tube of toothpaste a month. The Grupo Decoro news service reported that toothpaste sells on the black market for up to 10 pesos a tube. This in a country where the average monthly salary for many workers is about 10 pesos.
Despite the one-time purchase of $35 million in U.S. food stocks after Hurricane Michelle, Mr. Castro's efforts to expand Cuba's international economic presence have not been smooth. The government defaulted on loans for food purchases from France and Spain, and Chris Patten, the European Union's commissioner for external relations, said last week that Cuba's repressive political system stands in the way of expanded ties.
"We provide the largest amount of development assistance [to Cuba]," Mr. Patten said at an EU-Latin American summit in Madrid on Thursday. "It would undoubtedly be larger if Cuba had a better human rights record."
Diplomatically, too, Mr. Castro has hit a rough patch.
Mr. Bush made clear last week that he had no plans to ease his tough anti-Castro stance despite Mr. Carter's visit. But Cuba has also found itself at odds in recent months with Latin American countries that have long supported it.
Mr. Castro enraged Mexican President Vicente Fox last month by airing a private telephone conversation about the Cuban leader's hasty exit from a development conference in Monterey, Mexico, before Mr. Bush's arrival. The incident further strained Cuban ties with a nation that had once been a reliable ally and a critic of U.S. efforts to isolate Havana.
And Uruguay, another critic of the U.S. embargo, broke off ties with Cuba last month after Mr. Castro denounced President Jorge Batlle as a "Judas" for sponsoring a resolution before the U.N. Human Rights Commission censuring Cuba.
The Castro regime's only prominent friend in the hemisphere is Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, who was nearly toppled in an aborted coup last month. Mr. Chavez has supplied subsidized oil to Cuba, but his authority at home remains shaky.
Mr. Castro's advanced age is another question mark hanging over the island's future.
While he has given no indication that he plans to step down and still delivers the occasional trademark eight-hour, all-night speech, Mr. Castro briefly fainted during an address in Havana last June. At the time, he made clear that his 70-year-old brother would be his successor.
Analysts give Raul Castro credit for trying to prepare the ground for a post-Fidel Cuba, promoting a number of younger party cadres to key regional and central government positions. But whether a second generation of Communist Party leaders can keep the same grip on power enjoyed by the charismatic Fidel Castro is an open question.
"While Raul Castro may succeed his brother as supreme leader of the Cuban Revolution, the reality is that decision making at the highest levels of a post-Castro regime will likely become a collective exercise in shared responsibility and authority," according to Stratfor.com. "This will open multiple opportunities for economic and political reforms as the regime focuses more on its own survival and less on defending the ideological purity of the revolution."
Two issues highlighted by the Carter visit last week may loom large in the course of future U.S.-Cuban relations.
In his speech, Mr. Carter made explicit reference to Project Varela, a petition drive organized by dissident Oswaldo Paya Sardinas. Mr. Paya last week delivered to the Cuban legislature 11,000 signatures on a petition calling for a national referendum to guarantee free speech, a free press, and business and electoral reforms.
Mr. Castro has brutally quashed past political challenges to his authority, but Project Varela named after a 19th century Cuban priest who pushed for the abolition of slavery enjoys Mr. Carter's imprimatur and also closely follows the procedures laid out in Cuba's own constitution.
Mr. Paya, who met with Mr. Carter during his visit last week, told the Miami Herald in March that the petition drive would send a powerful message inside Cuba.
"What the government is most afraid of is not an American invasion," he said. "It is thousands of ordinary Cubans openly demanding change."
And the already frosty U.S.-Cuban relations took on an even cooler tone when Undersecretary of State John Bolton, the department's leading arms control official, apparently including Havana in a second-tier axis of evil along with Libya and Syria, raised concerns on the eve of Mr. Carter's trip that Cuba was developing biological weapons.
U.S. suspicions about Cuba's bioweapons program date at least to the 1998 revelations of Ken Alibek, who defected to the United States in 1992 after a career in the Soviet Union's advanced biological weapons program.
In a book he published that year and in subsequent interviews, Mr. Alibek said that Cuba had begun developing an extensive biotechnology program with Soviet aid in 1981, and that a decade later Soviet officials were seeing "irrefutable signs of biowarfare production" in Cuba.
Mr. Alibek's charges were given new credence when the former head of South Africa's covert chemical weapons program said his country had been forced to develop such weapons in response to their use by Cuban troops fighting in Angola before 1990.
Mr. Castro has indignantly denied any suggestion that his country is developing biochemical military agents, and Cuban officials gave Mr. Carter a tour of some of their biotechnology facilities. Mr. Carter said he had neither seen nor heard any evidence to back the U.S. charge, but Bush administration officials insist they remain concerned.
"The point we're trying to make is that Cuba has been involved in discussions with other rogue states, with Iran and Libya, in ways that we find very troubling," one U.S. official said in a background briefing last week.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide