- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

During the week the war in Iraq ended, Fidel Castro sentenced 75 dissidents to a total of 1,454 years in
  prison for owning faxes and computers, writing unapproved reports, meeting with American diplomats and surfing the Internet.
  He finished the week executing three men for hijacking a motorboat in Havana harbor. It was no accident, or sheer coincidence. It was the culmination of a deliberately planned operation aimed at setting the stage for Mr. Castro’s grand finale, his Goetterdaemmerung: a conflict with the U.S.
  Sen. Christopher Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, is disappointed once again by Mr. Castro’s antics. In 1996, Sen. Dodd had bottled up a House-Senate conference final approval of the Helms-Burton Law. On Feb. 24 that year, Mr. Castro downed two American civilian planes of the organization Brothers to the Rescue, killing the four crewmen. Three of them were American citizens and Vietnam veterans. Mr. Dodd gave up his blocking of the legislation and the law was enacted. President Clinton signed it.
  Why did Mr. Castro ensure approval of Helms-Burton? For two reasons:
  (1) That same day, the Cuban dissidents, under the banner of Concilio Cubano, had convoked an assembly of more than 300 organizations.
  (2) And he needed to prolong the role of the U.S. as the enemy of his regime, so he could wrap himself in nationalism before Cubans, and anti-Americanism internationally.
  Afterward, the Elian Gonzalez crisis offered Mr. Castro a golden opportunity to isolate the Cuban-American community from mainstream America and reawaken the revolutionary appeal of his regime to younger Cubans. This while modest economic reforms, in particular legalization of dollar circulation, and development of tourism, attenuated the economic hardships resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union. But this also required a softening of repression, and the dissidence continued to grow, challenging his monopoly of power.
  Mr. Castro’s high-ranking spy at the Pentagon, Ana Belen Montes, the top Cuban analyst at the Defense Information Agency, had managed to sell to the Southern Command and the CIA the idea of a succession by his younger brother Raul. This was advanced, and accepted under President Clinton, as the formula most likely to satisfy basic U.S. security needs in a post-Castro Cuba: no mass migration, no civil war requiring a U.S. intervention, and cooperation in drug interdiction. The fact that it ignored completely the interests and possible behavior of the Cuban people, seemed irrelevant to its advocates.
  Mr. Castro’s wildest dreams of prolonging his regime beyond his departure from Earth all of a sudden became feasible with the cooperation of Gens. John Sheehan, Charles Wilhelm, Edward Atkeson and Barry McCaffrey. Pentagon policy institutes started promoting the rationale for such a solution, and all these retired generals started visiting Cuba and a Cuban military policy institute was even established to organize and facilitate such cooperative efforts. Mr. Castro’s charisma overtook American generals as if they were Hollywood stars.
  But, three events changed the situation: George W. Bush was elected president, al Qaeda launched the September 11, 2001, attack and the United States shed the passive policy against the third-rate powers and terrorist organizations that emerged during the Cold War. Under the banner of fighting the axis of evil, the U.S. dismantled Taliban rule in Afghanistan, rejected Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization and now has crushed Saddam Hussein and Ba’ath Party rule in Iraq.
  Ana Belen Montes was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison without parole. Russia withdrew its electronic monitoring base in Lourdes after a meeting between Mr. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  Economically, tourism has lost its momentum, low sugar prices continue to make Cuba lose money with that crop, forcing the closing of half of the sugar mills and displacing more than 100,000 workers. Mr. Castro made a bold gamble of diverting $250 million from paying old debts to buy U.S. agricultural products for cash. The goal was to wet the appetite of farm states’ congressional delegations to approve amendments allowing private financing of such purchases and allow American tourists to visit Cuba to earn several hundred million dollars. These amendments were blocked by President Bush’s threat to veto the appropriations bill where they were inserted.
  Mr. Castro’s ally Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who is shipping oil to Cuba without payment, is now in serious trouble and may have his mandate revoked by the end of this year. The European Commission’s moves to admit Cuba into the Cotonu Agreement, giving Cuba access to a $13.5 billion pool of financial assistance and preferred markets for certain exports, required an unattainable unanimity.
  Meanwhile the Varela Project, proposing a referendum on opening Cuban society, was sneaked into the Cuban legislature and obtained worldwide recognition by the Europeans granting to its promoter, Oswaldo Paya, the Sahjarov Prize. An assembly to promote civil society, gathering several hundred dissident organizations, was started by dissident economist Martha Beatriz Roque. More than 200 independent libraries distributed all classes of unapproved materials.
  In addition, the U.S. announced a policy of expanding support for the Cuban dissidents, which is implemented aggressively by the new head of the U.S. Interest Section. And, the firm and determined attitude of President Bush in ignoring the United Nations in the case of Iraq persuaded Mr. Castro that he faces a serious challenge to his political control inside Cuba, including evident disaffection within his repressive apparatus.
  The desertion of four members of the Coastal Patrol, who took their boat into Key West last month, must have infuriated Mr. Castro and scared him witless, since it revealed serious cracks in his repressive apparatus.
  The repression of the dissidents and the resort to firing squads indicates the desperation of Mr. Castro’s predicament. It is the culmination of a response that started last year when, after Jimmy Carter’s public appeal for support of the Varela Project, Mr. Castro convoked mass demonstrations in support of his one-party rule and forced through the legislature a constitutional reform making Marxism irrevocable.
  He decided to make a last stand. Economic success requires concessions that undermine his political control. No more reforms, no more concessions. Rule by fear and repression.
  The pathetic collapse of his friend Saddam Hussein may have convinced Mr. Castro his regime is also unlikely to survive this crisis. He realizes that many around him are willing to accept reforms such as the Varela Project. That is why he purged the legislature, with 60 percent of its 609 members not nominated for re-election.
  The possibility of provoking the U.S. to attack him by creating another immigration crisis — which he can claim is out of his hands to prevent — is an idea surfing within his head and occasionally leaking through his mouth. In an article in the Mexican daily Reforma, even a writer sympathetic to him, like Carlos Fuentes, expressed the suspicion that Mr. Castro may be preparing to go down in flames, causing the death of millions of Cubans.
  After all, in June 1958, he wrote to his secretary, Celia Sanchez, that “he felt his destiny was to end in a war against the United States.” The time may have come.
  Ernesto Betancourt represented Fidel Castro in Washington during the insurrection against Fulgencio Batista, was the first director of Radio Marti and is the author of “Revolutionary Strategy: A Handbook for Practitioners.”

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