Despite close ties with Moscow, Havana balks at pursuing glasnost

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Even in Cuba, the Soviet magazine Moscow News never used to attract much of an audience. But suddenly the weekly has become required reading, as Cubans flock to their news kiosks to learn about reforms in the Soviet Union that they do not dream of at home. For, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev urges his policies of political and economic ``renovation'' on Moscow's allies, Cuba has proved reluctant to follow suit.

Communist government officials here are publicly wary when asked what they think about the Soviet stress on glasnost (``openness'') and perestroika (``reform''). But behind the scenes, foreign diplomats and senior Communist Party members say privately, the Cuban leadership is keeping a close and concerned eye on developments in Moscow.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro has referred over the past few months only vaguely to Mr. Gorbachev's major new direction. In his most recent major speech, Mr. Castro showed little enthusiasm.

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``We are not obliged to copy ... the socialist countries' experience,'' he told a meeting of small farmers last month. ``Often when you get into the habit of copying, you make grave mistakes.''

Deputy Foreign Minister Ricardo Alarcon explains, ``We don't like to comment on the ways each country chooses to construct socialism. The form in which it is established is entirely a matter for that country. There are real cultural, physical, and economic differences between socialist countries.''

``We have to maintain a correct balance between the value of foreign experiences'' and the Cuban government's own methods, Mr. Alarcon adds.

For the past year, Cuba has been engaged in a grand Castro-inspired campaign for ``the rectification of errors and struggle against negative tendencies.'' This has involved tightening central control of the economy and emphasizing a revolutionary's moral duty to work harder and more efficiently.

Castro enlisted the help of the press in this campaign last year, and in a move bearing some resemblance to glasnost urged journalists to give more critical coverage of events. But Cuban journalists have shown themselves far less bold than their Soviet colleagues, and their freedom of action seems limited.

``This is not a Czechoslovakian 1968-style liberalization of the press,'' cautions Julio Garc'ia, the president of the Journalists Union. ``This process is being carried out within the revolution, and within our concept of a socialist press.''

In practice, that means that the mass media carry some criticism of individual factory managers, for example, and report instances of waste or inefficiency. But when Mr. Garc'ia was asked to recall a big story that reporters had broken themselves, from their own investigation, he came up empty handed.

``The problem,'' suggests a foreign resident here, ``is that Fidel is the only investigative journalist in the country.''

On the economic front, ``rectification'' has meant greater government control, taking back from enterprise managers responsibilities they had been given in the past, and clamping down on the beginnings of a free market that had emerged.

This policy, Western diplomats here point out, runs directly counter to Gorbachev's current initiative.

Cuba has its own reasons for reversing earlier reforms, government officials say. When individual state enterprises were competing among themselves for resources, says top planning official Gilberto Valdez, ``managers were saying that, for them, the most important thing was their enterprise - above the interests of society as a whole.''

Castro has repeatedly explained that the peasants' free market in agricultural produce was closed last year because some farmers were getting too rich from their private sales. ``It seemed as if the revolution had come up with a new slogan,'' Castro told the small farmers' meeting. ``Not `proletarians unite,' but `proletarians and peasants, enrich yourselves, enrich yourselves.'''

These ``negative tendencies'' - fruit of the same sort of policies Gorbachev is espousing - have prompted a more moral approach to Cuba's economic problems, seeking to draw on revolutionary spirit.

In a mood reminiscent of the early years of the Cuban revolution, Castro is now emphasizing ``voluntary work, the spirit of human solidarity ... that led combatants to fight and die in the Sierra Maestra'' against the former dictator Fulgencio Batista.

``A revolutionary should think more with his heart and soul than with his stomach,'' says planning official Valdez, explaining the government's stress on moral, rather than material, incentives to work harder. Moral incentives include, for example, being a vanguard worker of the month.

But this route to higher productivity has yet to show results. Productivity was down by 1 percent during the first half of last year. And although the government has released no figures for the past 12 months, officials acknowledge it is still falling.

Explaining why Castro has been reluctant to follow Gorbachev's reforming example, some foreign observers see the Cuban leader's return to the idealism of the 1960s as an illustration of his natural political bent.

``Fidel personally feels most at home with the ideas of Che Guevara: a very leftist, egalitarian system of economic management,'' a Western diplomat says. ``What's happening in the Soviet Union must make him very uncomfortable.'' At the same time, the diplomat adds, ``there is a fear that liberalization could dilute power at the center, and make people less malleable to Castro's policy whims.''

Alongside that, other observers point out, the state of Cuba's relations with the United States - which Alarcon describes as being ``at their lowest point in recent years'' - does not encourage much experimentation at home.

``You cannot evaluate Castro's reaction to glasnost without bearing in mind how he sees the enemy, 90 miles away,'' says a Western diplomat here.

A European diplomat adds, ``There is a fear that if Fidel loosens up at all, the Americans would pounce on it to undermine the revolution.''

A senior Cuban journalist, speaking privately, makes the same argument: ``The tensions [with Washington] influence this. What's blocking everything is the proximity and pressures of the US.'' He has not given up hope that Castro will introduce some Soviet-style reforms. It is early days yet for Gorbachev's initiatives, he says, and they appear to be meeting considerable opposition within the Soviet Union itself.

Despite the myriad differences between Cuba and the Soviet Union, he believes that, if Moscow's reforms work, similar changes might be given a chance here. Meanwhile, he says, ``our leaders are just waiting to see what comes out of all this.''

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