Cuba Seeks Change, Without Blow to Its System

On the road from Havana's Jose Marti International Airport into the city, a billboard tells passersby, "There will be no transition in Cuba!"

The sign may seem an example of unsophisticated Soviet-style propaganda. But it fairly states President Fidel Castro's response to speculation that a papal visit eight months ago would open the spigots of change in Cuba from a trickle to a gushing flow.

"We will continue to expand our political ties with the rest of the world, and the internal reform process is going to continue," says Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry's United States office. Change will continue "as long as we don't see it as a challenge to our system."

Some signposts of Cuba's evolution already have been planted, although what road they mark remains unclear.

Politically, the Cuban regime is opening up to the Roman Catholic Church, as Pope John Paul II had hoped early this year, and allowing more freedom to all religions. The Catholic Church has gained some access to the formerly off-limits, government-controlled media. At the same time, the demand for church-run schools continues to be rebuffed.

Cuba this year has also reduced the number of political prisoners. But the detention of a group of demonstrators in Havana in August and sedition charges against four other dissidents send another signal. The reform advocates were jailed in July 1997 after they issued a manifesto calling for a multiparty system embracing all Cubans. Since a long list of world leaders have sought the dissidents' release, the charges are a message that action aimed at promoting anything other than Cuba's one-party rule will not be tolerated.

A former US diplomat in Cuba, Wayne Smith, says his visit to Cuba in March provided evidence that political dissidents are "less threatened." "Fewer people are being arrested, while more are being released," he adds. "But beyond that we can't say there has been significant change."

Mr. Smith, now at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and director of an academic exchange program with Cuba, was part of an unusual gathering of scholars, Cuban and US officials, dissidents, and business leaders at a conference in Dallas sponsored by the Dallas Morning News last month.

Some participants expressed hopes for an accelerating evolution in Cuba. But Smith doesn't share the optimism of Miami-based dissident Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, a former comrade-in-arms of Mr. Castro who still meets him occasionally. "Eloy wants to open an office in Havana and become the loyal opposition," Smith says. "I don't see anything to suggest something like that happening any time soon."

Cuban leaders say change will only be allowed that guarantees a "sovereign" Cuba - suggesting not only a traditional fear of US hegemony, but also a contemporary concern that a multiparty Cuba could end up dominated by Miami.

US officials say pent-up political and economic aspirations could lead to turmoil, with "thousands of immigrants in the Straits [of Florida] in a quick period of time," says Michael Kozak, chief of the US Interests Section in Havana. Mr. Kozak says the US hoped the reforms undertaken after the collapse of the Soviet Union were just "the beginning...." But what has happened is "just enough tinkering to avert security problems for the regime." Such "tinkering" does not favor either long-term stability or development of a leadership class capable of managing an abrupt change - such as the sudden passing of Castro, Kozak says. That kind of alarm draws a bitter response from Cuban officials. On Oct. 6, Defense Minister Raul Castro said the armed forces had to remain prepared for a US attack: "The enemy is powerful and continues modernizing its armaments, as in the ... cold war."

Highlighting the 38-year-old US embargo of Cuba as the single-greatest source of the island's problems, the Foreign Ministry's Mr. Cossio says, "Nothing the US could do is more in favor of chaos than its current policy." Acknowledging that economic growth has slowed severely after a mid-1990s spurt, the government continues to push for foreign investment. The government will also scrutinize all state companies, Cossio says, and not hesitate to close those that are not efficient. Tourism continues to grow.

But tight restrictions remain on a fledgling class of about 170,000 self-employed Cubans who are viewed by Castro with suspicion and hostility. New income taxes and a restricting of the types of self-employment allowed have already reduced the entrepreneurs from a high of 200,000 last year - although government officials say they expect the numbers to rise again.

The sum of the last eight months, observers say, is a more internationally accepted Cuba: It is speaking forcefully among nonaligned countries, moving closer to its Caribbean neighbors, and establishing diplomatic relations with former anti-Castro holdouts like Guatemala. But it is also a Cuba stoically resisting pressure for change.

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