Obviously, Fidel Castro's days are numbered. But the number is a matter of speculation. Fidel watchers last week noted that his beard is thinner, and there is a touch of gauntness in his face - he has lost weight. But there was no hint of stoop or frailty as he stood, fidgeting a bit and clenching his jaw, listening to Pope John Paul II's counterrevolutionary remarks.
The time of Mr. Castro's departure remains unknowable, but the process of change begins to have intimations of transition. The national economy has sunk to the point where recovery is unlikely, despite Castro's Houdini-like talent for escaping from seemingly impossible traps. For instance, the largest industry on the island is sugar. This year's cane harvest, now in progress, is expected to be smaller than last year's, which was well below the average of the 1980s. There is a shortage of fertilizer. More important, the fields are in bad shape. In the 1960s, Castro had the bright idea of mechanizing production through a generous Soviet aid program, but the heavy cutters and tractors progressively compacted the soil - a disaster that will take years to correct.
Overall, the Russian technology that replaced the American-built infrastructure of prerevolutionary times is falling apart. It can't be fixed and must completely give way to Western equipment. This would be a gigantic undertaking even for a thriving economy. Central planning, mismanagement, and corruption are Cuba's albatross.
Castro has been throwing revolutionary ballast overboard: He avidly seeks foreign investment in joint ventures, mainly in tourism but even in the sacrosanct sugar industry, whose antique mills were expropriated from American owners and are therefore not attractive to foreigners. US dollars are the currency of value in Cuba today, dividing the population into those who can get some to purchase inadequate rations and those who live on, or over, the edge of malnutrition.
So much for revolutionary equality. For many, only native ingenuity stands between them and starvation.
The greed of international bankers has come to Castro's aid. When Soviet aid ended in 1986, he simply stopped servicing about $6.5 billion in foreign loans. After a period of strictest austerity, he began once more to borrow more than $6 billion from foreign banks willing to overlook 1986. They lent at interest rates up to 20 percent, with government guarantees of repayment by a stable regime. This is not productive investment. In 1996, half of Cuba's imports were bought on credit, and interest payments ate up $320 million.
Despite the economic embargo, major help has come from the United States. An estimated $800 million in currency and gifts is sent each year, more than the income from sugar and tourism combined. At the same time, foreign observers here believe that the US embargo has been politically invaluable. Castro has blamed it for every shortage and failure and held it up as proof of American malevolence, an external all-purpose enemy to rally the people. Here is where the matter of transition comes in.
Miserable though life may be, there is no sign of political unrest, and there is no visible political alternative. A simple collapse into anarchy would be intolerable for the US, both for the flood of refugees to Florida and for the added cost of disorder that would, one way or another, end up at the US Treasury. Intervention would be necessary. A smooth transition is desired; and a vehicle exists, acceptable to both Castro and Washington. It is the Cuban military.
Castro's officially designated successor is his brother Ral. Ral is minister of defense and in charge of the armed forces. Long the pale shadow of the charismatic Fidel, Ral has in recent months emerged.
Ral Castro has gained a reputation as an organizer by transforming the Army over the past nine years from a Soviet auxiliary expeditionary force in Africa to a domesticated military-industrial resource. The Army is the biggest business enterprise in Cuba, with its fingers in almost everything. It has a monopoly on imports and exports and is the third biggest tour operator, with hotels and air and ground transport. It owns a major bank, handles foreign joint ventures, produces 80 percent of the food for the city of Havana, and, as a last resort, is now running the sugar harvest. The Army has clout that civilian ministries do not have in the tangled bureaucracy. It gets things done, with the help of capitalist bonuses and incentives. And it is in good standing with the people. Never has it been used against them; there have never been tanks in the streets.
This has not been lost on Washington. A year ago, the White House sent the Cuban armed forces a Valentine, conspicuously sensitive to their "core interests." The report to Congress found "... they could potentially play a positive role in Cuba's transition." It went on: "A professional military that is sized to Cuba's needs, supportive of civilian democratic government, and respectful of human rights can expect to participate in the Inter-American Defense Board, be welcomed to participate in international peacekeeping efforts, and benefit from an array of military-to-military cooperation arrangements, including with the United States." No such message has gone to Castro or the Communist Party.
* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on foreign affairs.