IT is generally assumed that Fidel Castro does not have much longer to go. But this is not necessarily true - which makes a difference for the tangled Cuban-American relationship.
There is, to be sure, sound reason to think that the Lider Maximo's days are numbered. His great patron, the Soviet Union, has collapsed. Gone is the time when Moscow would buy Cuba's sugar for well above the world price and sell it oil in the bargain basement - an annual subsidy of more than $4 billion in economic and military aid. The other benefits Castro received as a Soviet satellite were not inconsiderable, as well. He was lifted out of his little island to play an international role in Moscow's sc heme of things. The Kremlin supported Castro's own revolutionary games in Central and South America. Both enjoyed his being a thorn in Uncle Sam's side.
All that is past. (The worldwide failure of communism, incidentally, is relatively unimportant to Castro. The consummate narcissist, he was interested in communism only as a rationale for consolidating his power and then in keeping it.) Now Castro must cope in other ways. The picture is grim. Lack of oil has cut transportation to the barest minimum. Food and consumer goods are even scarcer. Castro's "Option Zero" is phasing in: doing without what cannot be grown or made in Cuba. He is importing Chinese b icycles, 600,000 so far. Oxen are replacing tractors.
Castro's greatest asset is his propaganda power to blame the United States for his country's miseries, with him as the champion of Cuban independence against Yankee imperialism. He also points to the troubles of Eastern Europe's new democracies. Backing it all up is the well-oiled machinery of repression.
Apart from these negative assets, Castro has positive resources. Cuba is a beautiful island with a fine climate. Castro has attracted foreign investment in hotels and resorts. European tourists are coming, money on the hoof. In recent months he is said to have signed some 50 joint ventures in fishing, oil exploration, telecommunications, and the food industry. He can offer an educated, hard-working labor force - and no strikes. For all their troubles, the people are not dangerously restive. One leading exile in Miami who despises Castro and his regime says, "Poor people in Cuba today live better than the poor anywhere else in Latin America - Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil...."
Free education through university, whose medical and veterinary training is respectable, is not only a vaunted "accomplishment of the revolution" but also convertible into hard cash. One report has it that 50 doctors were recently sent to Brazil to deal with the threat of cholera. Cuba collects a "rental" fee of $50 a day per person. Foreign patients have come to Cuban clinics for treatment of eye, heart, and other ailments. Castro is pushing the expansion of a biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry w hose export earnings may already surpass tobacco and cigars.
IT appears that the Castro regime is not, as imagined, totally bankrupt and isolated. This raises the question of what the US can do to hasten its departure. Some want to tighten the trade embargo. A bill before Congress demands foreign cooperation in this, even the compliance of foreign subsidiaries and affiliates of American companies. Such a questionable assertion of extraterritorial rights was directed in the early Reagan years against the sale of oil pipe to the Soviet Union. Today, it would help Ca stro argue that the US was punishing the people of Cuba. Others want simply to lift the embargo, depriving Castro of the enemy he needs to rally the people. However, ending the embargo after 30 years without a comparable concession from Castro would be a victory for him and would strengthen his position.
There is a third course. Without changing the status quo, Washington could make the first unequivocal statement of its aims in Cuba. On the positive side: self-determination by the people with no foreign interference; election of a constituent assembly supervised by the Organization of American States or the United Nations, or both, as in Nicaragua; renunciation of any special privilege for the US, and the offer of trade and aid in the difficult transition to democracy.
On the negative side: no reversion to the autocratic and corrupt practices of the Batista years; no return of the Mafia and its vice rackets; no blanket guilt and revenge nor repossession of confiscated property except under the law of a democratic government.
Success is not certain; but the embargo did not bring it either. The Cuban people themselves must deal with Fidel Castro. Such an overture would at least help them make up their minds.