Castro grabs reins to put Cuba back on course

Fidel Castro has decided to take a personal hand in dealing with a daunting array of Cuban problems. With his usual frankness, the Cuban leader admits that many shortcomings exist in both the government and the economy of his Caribbean island. He has not gone so far as some Western analysts, however, who suggest that Cuba may be experiencing its worst economic slump since Dr. Castro came to power 21 years ago.

For his part, President Castro has been singling out a host of problem areas: lagging production, lack of labor discipline, shoddy workmanship, bureaucratic red tape, and even sabotage.

Now, he has taken personal charge in a big way. Naming himself the ministers of defense, interior, health, and culture, he also has shuffled the ministries dealing with the economy and put his favorite aides in these posts.

The steps amount to the biggest Cabinet reorganization in those 21 years and confirm the seriousness with which Dr. Castro views the island's present troubles.

The Cabinet shuffle, announced Jan. 11, followed by only two days reports of the appearance of a sprinkling of anti- Castro posters on walls around downtown Havana -- clear evidence of a least a growingly open opposition to the Castro government. These posters come on the heels of reports that bomb blasts have hit several industries, port facilities, and military installations. Confirmation of the reports has been lacking, but they come from sources favorable to Dr. Castro as well as anti-Castro groups.

In taking over the Defense, Interior, and Culture Ministries, Dr. Castro assumes direct control of security and ideology. Just what this new arrangement does to his brother Raul's role is not clear.

Raul Castro has long been regarded as heir apparent to Dr. Castro in the Cuban hierarchy. He had been minister of defense -- and, while he remains head of the armed forces in the shuffle, the announcement of the changes says merely that he will "collaborate" with President Castro on the operation of the military.

Observers have noted that Raul has been even less in the limelight than usual in recent months, a fact that suggests to some Cubanologists that his star could be fading. It is probably too early, however, to make such assessment.

But assessments of the island's poor economic showing are not premature. Cuba's economic situation has been worsening for several years, leaving Dr. Castro facing many economic dilemmas.

World market prices for traditional Cuban exports -- sugar, coffee, and tobacco -- are depressed. At the same time, inflation is boosting the prices of the goods Cuba must import. And Cuba's heavy reliance on Soviet assistance is likely, if anything, to increase.

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