Can Castro avoid democracy?

The dramatic power play in Ukraine, where huge crowds demonstrating for democracy forced the Russian-backed regime that had run a rigged presidential election to run another vote this Sunday, has captured headlines in most countries around the world.

But not in Cuba. Not a word about this drama has been uttered on the state-controlled television and radio news programs, or appeared in the state-controlled newspaper Granma. It is too touchy for Fidel Castro's regime, which itself bars democratic elections, imposes censorship, imprisons dissenters, and resists pleas from the international community to abandon its dictatorial ways.

Instead, perhaps as a bizarre diversion from political pressures without and economic travail within, Mr. Castro last week ordered a military mobilization of his people, ostensibly to prepare for a US invasion of Cuba.

It came on the heels of more trying economic setbacks that have thrown many thousands of Cubans out of work. In November, the regime was obliged to close down 118 manufacturing plants for want of electric power. Since Russia pulled the plug on its subsidization of Cuba, the regime has been unable to pay the market price for Russian oil and has been obliged to rely increasingly on its own oil production for the generation of electric power. But Cuban oil has a 10 percent sulfur content, which is highly corrosive, causing damage to Cuba's aging machinery, for which there are few replacement parts.

Compounding these industrial problems is the drought-induced collapse of the critical sugar crop, ordinarily harvested in November, but now postponed to January. Only 56 sugar mills will be processing the crop, about a third of the usual number, and some 200,000 of the half million Cubans who normally process the crop will be out of jobs.

Castro has recently suffered other setbacks and disappointments.

The recent visit to Cuba by China's President Hu Jintao did not result in the hoped-for Chinese investment of major proportions.

Cuba has also lost revenue from an apparent money-laundering scheme shut down recently by the New York Federal Reserve. The US Senate Banking Committee uncovered cash deposits of some $3.9 billion from Cuba in a Swiss bank. Ernesto Betancourt, a onetime senior economic adviser to Castro who became disenchanted and later headed the US government's Radio Martí, says it is unlikely that Cuba could generate that dollar volume itself. He suspects the cash, of dubious origin from sources outside Cuba, was funneled through Havana's Banco National - with a substantial discount to Castro - and on to the Swiss bank.

Castro has had a chronic shortage of foreign exchange. Last month, he outlawed the dollar for internal commercial transactions. Cubans must now trade dollars they hold, largely from Cuban exiles in the US, for "convertible pesos," paying the state a 10 percent commission.

With increasing economic problems at home and little prospect of a mellowing relationship with newly reelected President Bush, Castro has been turning to the European Union for help. He would dearly like to tap a $30 billion EU foreign aid fund and get favorable duty-free treatment from Europe for Cuban exports. But there is this problem of disaffection in some European countries with Castro's deplorable human rights record.

In an attempt to sweeten European opinion, Castro has recently released 14 of 75 prominent dissidents arrested last year and sentenced to decades-long imprisonment. The catch is that they are released under a licencia extrapenal, which means they can be hauled back into prison at any time and are thus living with a sword of Damocles suspended over them.

Castro wants the European Union to change the rules that presently admit all Cubans, including dissidents and relatives of political prisoners, to EU embassies in Havana.

In an impassioned Wall Street Journal article last month, Martin Palous, the Czech ambassador to Washington, said closing EU embassies in Cuba to dissidents would send a message of appeasement to Castro that would badly harm the dissidents. A former dissident himself in the Czech "Velvet Revolution," Ambassador Palous said the Czech Republic has worked hard to unite the free world in support of Cubans. Because Czechs had lived under a communist dictatorship themselves, they understood the crushing weight of totalitarianism. They knew well the situation of the "brave Cuban people ... being harassed, blackmailed, ridiculed, persecuted, and jailed."

Palous deplores some in Europe who want to adopt a "new policy of détente with the Cuban dictatorship," by closing their embassies to dissidents. It would be, he wrote, "an unconscionable act."

Amen to that.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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