Castro's Flickering Revolution

Havana these days has a distinct "after the party" feel. Among other things, the city's classical facades could use about 20 million gallons of white paint.

Fuel remains a critical problem, as do the potholed streets - which challenge even the camp fleet of Chevys, Buicks, and Packards (some powered by Soviet diesels) now ending their fourth decade of service. Cranky elevators, including the one at the US Interest Section, have turned the five-story walk-ups into instant steam baths.

But a respite is found in the "paladores," the 12-seat (sometimes more) private restaurants, which remain delightful. A colorful and popular part of the small dollar economy, they contrast nicely with their state-run competition, whose apparent priority is the convenience of the help.

Cubans worried about relations with Washington are focused on whether President Clinton will, in January, again waive the Helms-Burton provision that would allow Cuban-Americans to lodge claims related to the government's seizure of property. Many Cuban analysts here believe a second waiver would signal Havana that a dim ray of light remains in the relationship. But another waiver, if carried another year to 1998 when a Florida Senate seat is in play, also would set a precedent that could cost Democrats their recent gains among Cuban-Americans - a dilemma for Mr. Clinton that generates otherwise scarce amusement for Washington-watchers.

Helms-Burton, which became law on March 12, has had mixed results. The economic bite, in fact, has sent Cuban diplomats into overdrive. In the United Nations, twin votes in the Security Council and General Assembly this month overwhelmingly condemned the United States embargo and the Helms-Burton legislation. In Santiago, Chile, several weeks ago, Latin nations lined up against Washington.

And in Rome, Fidel Castro Ruz met with Pope John Paul II, who opposes the embargo, and came away with a papal promise to visit Cuba next year. With Cuba's nearly 50 percent Catholic population, and a church that has become a deft and powerful socio-religious critic of the regime, it is a high-stakes gamble for Mr. Castro. The jury is out on who will gain the upper hand: the pope, a tireless and uniquely successful anticommunist crusader, or Castro, the world's longest surviving communist dictator.

But the Cuban calculus is clear. To break its own isolation, Havana believes the US itself must be isolated on the embargo issue, particularly the extraterritorial provisions of Helms-Burton, and will enlist any forum or personality to bring that about.

Failure means the Cuban economy will stall and then contract, followed by social disruption - developments that would sharply challenge the government, with its declining resources, to somehow maintain comparable services or see a sharp loss of support.

In specific terms, the monetary cost to the regime, which has a poor credit record, has gone up - some say by as much as 5 percent, to about 13 percent or 14 percent. The pool of lending institutions is smaller and some, including previously reliable Canadian banks, are afraid to lend at all, even though Havana claims growth will be 7 percent in 1996. As a result, the government is unable to begin new projects - infrastructure, educational, health, or much else. The priority, politburo member and Minister of Economic Planning Jos Rodriguez says, is to convert the short-term debt incurred in the sugar harvest to mid- and long-term debt. But that is hard to achieve. Mr. Rodriguez underscores concern about the cash crunch by pointing to the difficulty of introducing a tax system - something he said was imminent 18 months ago when I last talked with him - and acknowledges that net revenue to Cuba from tourism is not what was expected.

Further, Ibrahim Ferradaz, minister of foreign investment, points out that the Helms-Burton legislation has chilled the enthusiasm of prospective joint ventures, but he declines to say how many new projects have been signed since the act went into effect.

But if the embargo has hurt the economy, it has also challenged Avel Prieta, politburo member and president of the Union of Artists and Writers. Mr. Prieta's job is to generate the images and symbols that mobilize and sustain popular support for the regime - or in Cuba's case, for the "revolution." His product emerges naturally as plays, books, and magazines pass through the political filter of his Artists and Writer's Union.

But with economic strictures pressuring the "social contract" - which holds the state responsible for health, education, housing, and food in return for the citizen's loyal support - his task has changed. Both the revolution's egalitarian principles and support system are on the line. For example, the regime can no longer guarantee equal access for those without dollars or the same quality of life for those who receive nothing from relatives in Miami. As to the latter, Prieta must explain why, after five job offers and three years of subsidized living, the state no longer guarantees a job - that, contrary to the revolution's promise, workers are on their own.

But Helms-Burton has another side, and Prieta is quick to bring it up. He says if Helms-Burton hadn't underscored public fear that the nation is threatened, that it is a wartime situation, his task would be impossible. That leaves Castro's revolution scrambling but coping - and waiting for an opening with Washington that, regardless of the pope, Santiago, and the United Nations, isn't likely any time soon.

Stefan Halper is host of NET Television's "World Wise" and a former White House and State Department official.

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