CUBA has long been portrayed as the former Soviet Union's regional puppet and the base of Soviet power projections. Certainly, Gen. Fidel Castro Ruz got money, arms, and whatever was needed to support leftist insurgencies in Central and Latin America. But, Cuba specialists say, the Cuban leader has always played his own hand.
However, the collapse of the Soviet empire has made the debate almost moot. President Castro has lost his benefactor. The few remaining political, economic, and military ties are mere shadows of the former relationship.
The isolation has helped produce what Cuba expert Philip Brenner considers the most significant change in the communist island state's foreign policy: no more aid to leftist revolutionaries.
"Castro now says that internationalism must begin at home," says Professor Brenner of American University in Washington. "The best thing Cuba can do for the third world is be a beacon of hope.... That means they've got to survive."
The United States has no intention of making that easy. Last month, President Bush directed the US Treasury Department to tighten the three-decade-old embargo. Any cargo, passenger, or recreational ship that carries passengers or goods to Cuba will now be barred from US ports.
Some analysts say Cuba's new nonintervention policy reflects the fact that Castro no longer has the means to export revolution.
The nation of 11 million people is desperately courting Latin American countries to try to replace sweetheart deals it enjoyed with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which accounted for up to 85 percent of Cuba's trade. In the last year, Cuba has restored relations with Colombia, Chile, and Bolivia. The government is giving top priority to Latin corporations interested in joint-venture deals with Cuba in tourism and other industries.
But Brenner notes that further evidence of the depth of change is the recent removal of Manuel Pinero, longtime head of the Americas Department in the Cuban Foreign Ministry. Cuba watchers consider Mr. Pinero to have been the hard-line coordinator of Cuba's efforts to subvert governments in the hemisphere.
His replacement, Jose Antonio Arbezu, formerly Cuba's chief diplomat in Washington, is seen as a skilled diplomat and a moderate.
Changes in Cuba's domestic political policy are less apparent.
Coming on the heels of the aborted hard-line coup in Moscow, last October's Fourth Communist Party Congress was expected to produce some fireworks, possibly including limited free-market economic reforms.
"Looking at the Soviet experience, you might have expected somebody or a small group from within to challenge the leadership," says Marifeli Perez-Stable, Cuba specialist at the New School for Social Research in New York. "It didn't happen. The ruling elites seem to be uniting around Fidel.... That's an important factor in preventing radical change."
But Castro is being encouraged by Latin American leaders to enact democratic reforms and curb human rights abuses. And the Party Congress did approve minor political reforms: direct elections of representatives to the national legislature in October 1992 and an offer of party membership to religious believers.
Cuba's Roman Catholics have been cool to the offer of membership in an officially atheist party, and Brenner sees the overture to the churches primarily as a bid to win support from the largely Roman Catholic populations of Latin America.
The legislative elections are starting to pique the interest of Cuba watchers and potential candidates following the publication in March of interviews given by close Castro aide Carlos Aldana. "Those in opposition have all the available opportunities that the rest of the people have. The only limit is the law," the party ideologue told the German press agency DPA.
`BE [he] a member of a human rights group or X party ... if, for example, a person is not under house arrest, he can aspire to membership [in the National Assembly]. If he is elected by the people he will be a candidate and must appear on the ticket," Mr. Aldana added. He said it was unlikely such candidates could garner enough votes to gain office.
Within days of Aldana's statements, dissident Oswaldo Paya Sardinas of the Christian Liberation Movement announced his candidacy. Ms. Perez-Stable notes that if other dissidents, or Christians, or disgruntled veterans of the Angolan campaign announce their intention to run, the elections could become interesting indicators of political dissent not heretofore openly tolerated.
But Aldana and Castro have made it clear that there is no room for multiparty politics. The Cuban Constitution of 1976 provides for only one party. Aldana expressed concern that if Cuba allowed multiparty elections, "500 parties would spring up" and some would be funded by Miami exiles or the US government with the intent of overthrowing Castro.
Many questions remain concerning the election process. Will self-declared candidates have to be screened by a local committee or must they gather a certain number of signatures? Will they be allowed to campaign? When does a differing opinion become a threat to the state and therefore a violation of the law?
Currently, human rights activists and dissidents are prosecuted for violating laws covering such things as "enemy propaganda," "illegal association," and "clandestine printing."
And it is not yet clear what will be the role of deputies elected to the National Assembly of People's Power. In the past, the Assembly met twice a year for a week to hear reports from the ministries about such things as sugar production. "It's supposed to be the legislative branch of the government, but there are no checks and balances with the executive. It has only a supervisory role," says Perez-Stable.
There are rumors that the Assembly representatives will become full-time professionals, possibly with permanent committees, some power, and an opportunity to voice dissent. "That could be really interesting," Perez-Stable.
Juan Escalona Reguera, current speaker of the Assembly, said April 14 that the electoral and constitutional reforms are being prepared now for approval by the Assembly in July.
"We can show the world how more democratic elections can be held in a country with a one-party system," he said, according to the official Cuban newspaper, Granma.