Is Cuba Next?

UNLIKE the May Day scene in Moscow, where Mikhail Gorbachev was booed, Havana's May Day parade seemed a well-ordered demonstration of support for Fidel Castro. But in fact, Castro is in political trouble, and uncertainty swirls about his future. Increasingly isolated from his former communist allies around the world, he may be more vulnerable than even Gorbachev.

The Cuban economy is in shambles from Marxist mismanagement. Store shelves are empty of many necessities. Earlier this year, egg prices doubled and bread prices increased sharply. Housewives hunt for goods both on the rationed list, and unrationed. Some economists see the Cuban economy disintegrating by the end of this year.

Till recently, Castro could count on aid from his communist friends to keep his tottering economy under way. The Soviets bought Cuban sugar at artificially high prices; sold Castro Soviet oil at below-market prices so he could re-sell it at a profit. Eastern European countries traded with him at favorable rates. East Germany was a stalwart supporter.

But sweeping change has overtaken Eastern Europe. East Germany is destined to be reunited with West Germany and the new Germany will have little patience with Castro's Marxist approach to economics.

The Soviet Union, although mindful of the advantages Cuba provides it, is increasingly testy with Castro. Cuba provides the Soviets with important facilities for refueling Soviet submarines, but more importantly, a base for eavesdropping on the United States. The Soviet-manned listening post at Lourdes, near Havana, permits the Soviets to tap into phone calls and the transmission of commercial data by satellite across a broad swath of the US. Some American intelligence officials think that new construction is under way at the facility.

But the Soviets have been playing increasing hardball with Castro on the need for economic change. The Soviet press has been calling for reappraisal and renegotiation of the Soviet aid and trade arrangements with Cuba. The Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda recently called for a ``radical overhaul.''

That the Soviets should divert substantial resources toward Cuba when their own economy is in trouble is bad enough. But what is particularly galling for Gorbachev is Castro's public contempt for glasnost and perestroika, the reform planks in Gorbachev's policy. Castro remains a hard-line revolutionary, preaching austerity at home and practising confrontation with the US.

Castro says he is prepared to defend his socialist principles to the end, whatever the cost. Recently one of Cuba's big steel plants was directed as an experiment to burn wood for a day instead of Soviet oil. The University of Havana has been dimming its classroom lights. There are plans to use oxen instead of tractors if the oil dries up.

Just how all this will sit with a restless population remains to be seen. Because of Castro's pervasive security system, and the jailing of those who speak out, there is not much outspoken criticism. But when they think they are free of surveillance, Cubans mutter and splutter about how bad things are.

Despite a press and broadcasting system that is controlled, Cuba's youth are aware of the better life available outside Cuba. Castro seems to have targeted the young for special attention of late. ``This youth is happy, this youth has a political conscience, this youth has a destiny of happiness, a destiny of freedom,'' he told a recent communist youth rally. ``We want your security, we want the most we can achieve for you. We don't want for youth the abyss of capitalism, the egoism of capitalism....Therefore we prefer death to slavery.'' But the signs are that many younger people are unmoved by such tired old oratory and signals of this discontent are emerging even in official youth publications.

Such youthful resentment may be the most sombre warning signal of all for Castro as he plods his increasingly isolated course.

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