Cubans Worry They're Castro's Next Target

WHEN the United States began accepting applications for its second immigration lottery from Cuba this week, few doubted that tens of thousands would apply. But many Cubans say the shoot-down of two private American planes Feb. 24 has swelled the march to leave the island.

"[The shoot-down] was like bursting a bubble. It made a lot of people feel like things don't have any chance of getting better," said Raquel Garcia Conseca, clutching her stamped application in front of the US Interests Section office in Havana. "I'm sure there are more of us here because of it."

The lottery was implemented last year, when 5,398 Cubans, out of 190,000 applicants, won passage to the US. This year it was again certain to attract a large number of applicants, given the country's economic straits. But many of the hundreds of Cubans who braved police surveillance to gather at post offices and near the US office (the US has no embassy here) to submit lottery applications said the shoot-down had made applying more urgent.

Many have reacted to the downing with a new despair that relations with the US will never improve and that Cuba under Castro will never change.

Just what happened in the skies bordering Cuban airspace when two small unarmed planes were shot down by Cuban MIGs remains a controversy between the US and Cuba. But exactly why the shoot-down occurred also remains a controversy within Cuba itself.

There is the official explanation, full of terms like "sovereignty" and "self-respect," and then there's the other - the one heard on the streets.

"The shoot-down was not so much directed at the US or even at the Cubans in Miami. It was above all a message for us," says a merchant at one of Havana's artisan markets who offers only a first name, Emilio. "It says, 'We have no qualms about doing this to Cubans who act up, so watch yourselves,' " he adds.

The shoot-down occurred the very day Cuban opposition groups planned to meet together for the first time.

The four crew members who died in the military action nearly a month ago were Cuban exiles openly hostile to Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz's one-man rule here.

But many Cubans say the various labels the government has pinned on those killed - "pirates," "emissaries of the Miami mafia," "elements of the extreme right" - do not obscure the fact that the four men were Cubans. "It's still our government doing this to our own unarmed people," says Martha, a resident of central Havana, standing on her crumbling stoop.

Despite some noticeable improvement in Cuba's rock-bottom economy over the past year, the country remains edgy, many Cubans say. Economic reforms and wider legal avenues for earning coveted US dollars through self-employment have raised expectations for more economic improvement and even political reforms. But Mr. Castro's reluctance to go further has led to palpable frustration.

Government security forces, known as the Black Berets, who are stationed at various points in the city, are one warning to Havanans not to let this frustration spill over into action, as it did when spontaneous riots occurred in August 1994. The attack on the Miami-based Cubans, according to some Cubans here, was another message.

"This is a government obsessed with holding on to power, and it knows that despite everything it says, the biggest threat to that challenge to that power is within," says Vladimiro Roca, a senior member of Cuba's dissident political opposition. "In that context, the government is saying, 'If we have to send tanks into the streets and ride over any opposition, we'll do it,' " Mr. Roca says.

Cuban officials call such reasoning "absurd" and insist the vast majority of Cubans support the government moving to take control of its airspace. "You don't have to shoot down a plane from another country to show anyone in Cuba anything," says Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, director of the Cuban foreign ministry's North America section.

What does worry Cuban officials, some observers say, is that with the 1980s cold war conflicts in Central America over and with the US Southern Command's move from Panama to Miami, Cuba could still become a military target of the US. Castro has not been seen in public since the Feb. 24 incident. Some Cuban sources say that is because he may be taking seriously the warning by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher that nothing has been ruled out as an appropriate response to the shoot-down, including some military reprisal.

The US says the planes were blasted out of international airspace while Cuba says they were violating territorial limits, as planes from the same Miami group had done recently.

To be sure, the shoot-down of the two planes has fired the nationalist instincts of some Cubans who applaud the downing as a strong action taken against irritating counterrevolutionaries.

"Fidel showed the world we can stand strong as socialists, we Cubans now know we don't have to lose any sleep over these Yankee attacks," says a gas-station attendant of Castro's generation in Bahia Honda, a town west of Havana. If US military tries to attack, he adds, "we're ready for them."

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