CUBA is currently facing one of the most critical tests of its existence under Fidel Castro.
The issue is how to harvest the sugar crop. Sugar is the lifeblood of Cuba's economy. With sugar Cuba must pay for desperately needed imports like oil and spare parts. The sugar crop has become even more significant now that the former Soviet Union has turned its back on Cuba, abandoning its purchase of sugar at artificially high prices, and its sale of oil to Cuba at artificially low prices. From here on, Mr. Castro must sell every precious ton of sugar at competitive prices on the open market to pay fo r essential imports.
But in deciding how to gather in the harvest - usually collected between November and April depending on climate and the rains - Castro faces a dilemma.
At Soviet urging, he mechanized the sugar harvesting operation back in the '60s, slashing the work force from 300,000 to 60,000. But now, with the squeeze on the Cuban economy, there is no fuel for the mechanical harvesters. Does Castro divert oil from his precious strategic reserve to get the harvest in mechanically? Or does he dragoon several hundred thousand city workers and send them into the countryside to cut the crop by hand?
Neither alternative is attractive for him.
If he burns up precious reserve fuel, he denies it to other essential services. Havana already looks as though it is being thrust back into the 19th century as fuel and energy supplies dwindle. A million bicycles imported from China have replaced many cars. There are long lines for fewer buses. Electricity is rationed, TV stations are limited to four hours of programming a day, movie houses have had their hours of opening curtailed. Even the official party daily newspaper "Granma" has just announced it w ill publish only three days a week, and then with some issues of only four pages.
But if Castro recruits cane-cutters from the urban work force, he must send them into the countryside with little prospect of proper transportation, housing, or food. Cutting sugar cane is hard and unattractive work. It would be an unpopular project at a time when the Cuban people are reeling under one economic hardship after another.
In the face of all this, however, Castro shows no sign of reform, or easing up. To the contrary, his police and security forces have embarked on a campaign of heightened oppression against those who challenge the Cuban dictator's will.
Castro has scoffed at George Bush's call for elections in Cuba. He keeps on proclaiming that his country's backward slide into the past - including the replacement of trucks with horses and carts, and the replacement of tractors with oxen - is a glorious manifestation of Cuba's dedication to a socialism which most of the communist world has forsaken.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union has badly shaken many of those around Castro. Says one longtime Cuban expert: "A charismatic leader must offer his people a mirage to look forward to. Now there is no mirage - only suffering and a downward spiral to disaster."
For Castro there is probably no escape from this downward spiral; the dilemma over how to harvest the sugar crop exemplifies the insolubility of Cuba's problems under the current regime.
The question is whether those around him are prepared to follow him to a kind of Cuban Gotterdmmerung, or whether they will exhibit the will and seize the opportunity to overthrow and disassociate themselves from Castro's increasingly isolated regime.
Courageous revolutionary democrats have ousted their despotic leaders in a string of communist countries across Eastern Europe. In other dictatorships, the coterie of political lieutenants around a discredited leader has failed to act. One such example is Iraq, where Saddam Hussein remains in power despite blatant urgings by President Bush to his followers to act against him.
Thus, though change is certainly coming to Cuba, nobody can be sure of the manner it will take.