Castro's Watching Some Horse Races

He hopes for a Communist win in Russia and a more-conciliatory US

THERE is no more interested watcher of this year's American and Russian presidential elections than Cuba's Fidel Castro Ruz. His political survival may very well depend on who wins these elections.

The Castro regime looks as though it is tottering to an end. Dissent within Cuba has never been more open. Internationally, Castro is isolated and without major friends. In the United States, Republican hard-liners such as Sen. Jesse Helms have pushed through tough new sanctions, confident that more hardship among the Cuban people will hasten Mr. Castro's downfall. A reluctant President Clinton has gone along with them in the wake of Cuba's shoot down of unarmed civilian planes flown by Cuban exiles living in Florida.

Castro is hoping that if Mr. Clinton is reelected, the liberals who had been nudging Clinton toward relaxation of the sanctions before the shoot down will in time start moving him back in a conciliatory direction. Meanwhile, Castro sees the prospect of salvation from Moscow should Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov triumph over Boris Yeltsin.

From his early revolutionary days, Castro gambled on the worldwide triumph of communism. But communism failed, and Castro's former international comrades have abandoned him. The Russians no longer pay him the big subsidies that kept his economy afloat and public dissatisfaction in Cuba manageable. They do continue a payment of $200 million a year for their big electronic monitoring base at Lourdes, which is directed at the US. Castro is hopeful of a return to Communist leadership in Moscow that might once again make Cuba a strategic satellite of Russia. Indeed, he recently dispatched to Moscow as Cuba's new ambassador a former Navy intelligence officer with close ties to Russian hard-liners.

The economic hardships that are feeding disaffection in Cuba are only likely to get worse. Last year's critical sugar crop was an unimpressive 3.3 million tons. This year, in an effort to boost the crop, Castro has borrowed $300 million (on which he must pay interest of $50 million) for fertilizer and spare parts for his agricultural machinery. But wet weather in the past two months has prevented the harvest of at least 25 percent of the crops.

Castro has turned his back on measures he once introduced to loosen the state's grip on the economy and to open it up to private traders. Under the liberalization, for example, many small, private restaurants were opened in people's homes. But excessive fees, along with lowered prices in government restaurants, have put many of them out of business. Meanwhile Castro has no work for some 1.2 million government workers whose factories are at a standstill for want of raw materials.

In tandem with public disgruntlement over the economy, Castro is facing pressure from a new umbrella opposition organization, the Concilio Cubana - 130 dissident groups pledged to peaceful change. Specifically, the organization calls for the freedoms of speech, assembly, and association, rights theoretically guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even by the present Cuban Constitution.

However, Castro has felt threatened by such calls for even these basic rights and has reacted with a campaign of repression. In particular, he has targeted a new breed of Cuban journalists, disillusioned with government control of the press, who have established several independent news agencies to tell the truth about Cuban life.

The Inter American Press Association has denounced this repression against journalists in Cuba, and the regime seems destined for further international censure.

The international Civil Aviation Organization is conducting an inquiry and may find the Cuban pilots who recently downed US civilian planes guilty of criminal action. The current Cuban wave of political repression may come before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Meanwhile international figures including Yelena Bonner, Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel, Margaret Thatcher, and Octavio Paz are pressing Castro to respect the rights sought by the Concilio Cubano.

Once a potential threat to the US, Cuba under Castro is currently no more than an irritation. That could change if a Communist wins the leadership of Russia in the June elections. If not, Castro's mounting problems at home could drive him to more desperate acts and greater repression, turning Cuba into a pressure-cooker.

While hit-and-run raids against the US might seem extraordinarily fanciful, the respected Jane's Defense Weekly reported recently that, for potential operations against American targets, Vietnam is training Cuban Special Forces in seaborne and underwater operations similar to those practiced by US Navy SEALS.

Clearly the next US president, whoever he may be, will need contingency plans for whatever may erupt.

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