FIDEL CASTRO, despite the fervent wishes of many in Washington and Miami, is not about to topple from power. Talk about Cuba as the next communist domino to fall ignores at least two distinguishing factors: First, Mr. Castro's socialism was not imposed on Cuba by an external power, as Marxism was forced on Eastern Europe by Soviet occupation. Deep nationalistic revulsion with the system is not at work in Cuba as it was in those countries.
Second, most of the communist rulers of Eastern Europe came, themselves, to recognize they had lost any right to govern. They faced widespread discontent expressed through the spontaneous coalescence of popular opposition groups. They had no ability to do anything to advance their societies out of crisis. Castro, by contrast, is firmly convinced of his right to rule. He still portrays himself - and many Cubans accept him - as the leader of a popular, indigenous revolution.
But that portrayal is fraying. Cuba's economic troubles are deepening by the day. Castro's hard-line response to the controversy over Cuban refugees seeking protection in foreign embassies has alienated key development partners like Spain. Meanwhile, Cuba's former East-bloc friends are demanding hard currency for their goods. Soviet foreign aid, totaling billions of dollars per year, is sure to diminish. Shortages and lines are endemic, as Cuban consumers rush to buy up scarce meat or milk.
Government officials point out that Cubans are not going hungry. State-funded meals programs are widely available. Indeed, the spreading around of basic resources - not only food and shelter, but access to education and training - is held up by Castro partisans as another reason the situation in Cuba is different. Life for many Cubans improved after the revolution.
But those gains were made in the early years of Castro's 37-year rule. What's happened in the last two decades? Some new industry, such as medical technology, has taken hold. But the country is locked in a subsistence economy, and the outlook is darkening. Castro has warned the country may have to go on a war footing to conserve resources.
He has already tightened political controls to squelch any stirring of democratic opposition in Cuba. Still, a fledgling human-rights movement exists and is likely to grow.
What should the US do as Cuba wrestles with crisis? Any tightening of sanctions would only play into Castro's hands, bolstering his nationalistic appeal. Better for the US to keep hands off, and let economic and political conditions work their own change in Cuba.