THE overriding reality of today's Cuba is economic crisis. The government admits that things are bad. One of the men at the top, Juan Escalona, president of the National Assembly and member of the Cuban Communist Party Politburo, was disarmingly candid. "Cuba," he told a visiting group of journalists, "is undergoing the most difficult situation in the history of the revolution." In fact, things are getting worse.
Candor is easy when facts speak for themselves. The collapse of the Soviet bloc dealt Cuba a double blow. It shut a secure market for 80 percent of Cuba's trade and abruptly ended the massive subsidies that Moscow paid for Cuba's services as the USSR's strategic spearhead in the western hemisphere.
Before Moscow cut Cuba adrift, Soviet oil came into the island below the world price and in sufficient quantity to let Havana re-export some of it for dollars. Additionally, Cuba received large, low interest credits for major projects such as a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant near Cienfuegos on the south coast. Meanwhile, a total economic embargo imposed more than 30 years ago by Cuba's best natural trading partner, the United States, remained in force.
Today, Cuba trades in barter - for instance, Cuban nickel for Canadian oil - or for hard currency. It lives from hand to mouth. When, in 1990, the roof started to fall in, President Fidel Castro did not make the mistake of denying it. He proclaimed a "Special Period in Time of Peace," a program of progressive austerity to mobilize Cuba's economic, political and psychological resources.
It has not been easy. Electricity is rationed. Brownouts are routine, blackouts frequent. A bitter blow, an admission that things could not soon improve, came last month when Mr. Castro announced that construction of the Cienfuegos power plant, more than 70 percent completed after investment of more than $1 billion, was being suspended.
Motor transport is sharply reduced. Large clusters of people wait at bus stops and are happy to find standing room on the back of a truck. A million Chinese bicycles fill the gap only partly. Many farm tractors stand idle for lack of fuel, replaced by 120,000 oxen, whose employment aggravates the meat shortage.
Events have forced Castro to a new realism. Marxism-Leninism is out the window. Propaganda emphasis is on "socialism." Never defined, it is meant to command discipline and obedience to whatever the party says it means. Most recently, socialism has been expanded to include foreign investment in every field of production and service, with remittance of profits abroad in hard currency. And it covers what looks like an act of desperation. Henceforth, to increase output and to cut costs in the production of s ugar, Cuba's largest source of income, workers in the sugar-cane fields will be paid piece work for set quotas.
In fact, the whole of labor is being readjusted. Many people, combed out of unnecessary office and production jobs, are sent "voluntarily" into the fields to grow food. The incentive, or consolation, is that they are paid their old salaries. This practice is, of course, wildly inflationary. People already have much more money than there are things to buy. Mr. Escalona was frank. As a stopgap, the regime would rather risk inflation than the social shock of unemployment.
Another side of the Special Period is a crash program to earn hard currency, primarily through tourism. Tourists are money on the hoof. Spanish investment is already in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The climate is fine, the beaches beautiful, and the people friendly. One Spanish manager thought the most important attraction to be tranquillity - "no robbery, drugs or rapes." (Actually, hard times have increased petty crime in towns and cities.) But being a tourist is not much fun. Outside the hotel s, there is little to do. Life is tightly rationed and uninvitingly dreary. The once great city of Havana is depressingly decrepit.
The regime, unable to improve this ambiance, preaches that hardship is the price of preventing return to the corruption and Mafia-led degradation of the pre-Castro dictatorships and for warding off the Yankee menace. The US embargo is blamed for the shortages, particularly of medicines. In fact, Cuba is free to buy them elsewhere when it can pay.
But there is not doubt that the specious accusation hits home. It raises the question of why the US maintains restrictions in this regard on Cuba, which today is in no way a strategic problem, while not imposing them on Iraq, which certainly is. Allowing free sales and donations as a humanitarian decision would benefit the people considerably but the regime only minimally and would deprive it of an important propaganda weapon.
There is also the bogeyman of imminent American invasion. The government is accelerating construction of air-raid shelters dug into hillsides all over the island. We saw one being dug by hand in Havana, a silly little enterprise in a shallow hill. It may well be serving another purpose, work for people displaced from other jobs.
Behind strident appeals for sacrificial patriotism is a multiple network of social control. Increased harassment and arrest of human rights activists demonstrate the will to use it. But people are passive. Foreign diplomats see no organized opposition. Asked how long Fidel Castro and his system will govern Cuba, Foreign Minister Ricardo Alarcon replied without hestiation, "Forever."