Shortly after the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989, bumper stickers promising "Christmas in Havana" appeared in the streets of Miami, home of the largest Cuban community outside of Cuba. The slogan reflected the exiles' conviction that Cuba, whose economy is almost totally dependent on aid from what was the Soviet bloc, would soon collapse in the aftermath of democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe and the economic and political reforms in the Soviet Union.

Fidel Castro may still be in power by next Christmas, but it is doubtful that he will be able to withstand indefinitely the pressures that are steadily building on the island. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and its disintegration in the Soviet Union present Castro with his most serious threat to date. The threat is political and ideological as well as economic. Only yesterday history was supposedly on the side of socialism, which placed Castro among the world's winners. Today with democracy triumphant the Cuban leader has suddenly become a "fossil dictator."1

Even before the events of last winter, signs of decay within the Cuban system were apparent. Growing evidence of the Cuban government's corruption and involvement in drug trafficking, combined with the Moscow-style show trial and execution of the popular general and war hero Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez, indicated that the Cuban revolution and its leader had begun to lose their moral authority. The February 1990 elections in Nicaragua, which produced the stunning defeat of the Sandinista government, focused attention on the fact that the Cuban people had never had an opportunity to vote for or against Fidel Castro during his 31-year rule. Following hard upon the U.S. invasion of Panama, which removed General Manuel Antonio Noriega from power, the Nicaraguan elections also left the Cuban leader bereft of allies in the region.

Confronted with these international and domestic developments, Castro reiterated his commitment to socialism and began elaborating contingency plans for coping with expected economic disruptions and political unrest. His defiant vow of "socialism or death" may reflect his view of the only alternatives open to him. Yet Castro has abruptly shifted course before. From the late 1970s into the early 1980s he experimented with market mechanisms, and in the late 1980s with limited political pluralism, only to subsequently reassert his control. If Castro were to introduce such reforms again as a way of diffusing growing pressures, it is not clear that the genie of political and economic liberalization could again be so easily put back into the bottle.


It is difficult to overstate the importance of Soviet aid to Cuba. A small island of over ten million people, it receives between three billion dollars (according to Soviet sources) and five to six billion dollars (according to U.S. sources) of Soviet economic aid annually. Military aid is estimated at $1.2 billion annually. Economic and military aid combined account for up to 19-21 percent of Cuba's GDP.

Much of the aid takes the form of trade subsidies. Cuba imports nearly all of its petroleum from the Soviet Union at below world market prices. Since the late 1970s Moscow has allowed Havana to import more oil than it consumes and to sell the excess on the world market at commercial rates. As a result petroleum sales have become the single most important source of foreign exchange for Cuba. The Soviet Union also buys sugar from Cuba at prices that have averaged between three and five times the world market price.

Cuba's dependence on subsidized trade with the Soviet Union has grown since 1981, when 60 percent of its trade was with Moscow; today that share is nearly 75 percent. Almost 90 percent of Cuba's trade is with socialist countries, an increase from 74 percent nine years ago.2

The increased trade with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe reflects in part Cuba's inability to service its $6.8-billion debt in convertible currencies to the Western governments since July 1986. Unable to obtain credits to purchase goods in Western markets, Cuba was obliged to increase its trade with the nonmarket economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with which Havana could barter rather than spend scarce foreign exchange. Cuba remains a monoculture economy whose main export is sugar. Its economic productivity is more or less what it was in 1958, during the last days of the Batista dictatorship, when Cuba had three million fewer people than today. Without Soviet aid, it is also unlikely that Havana would have been able to withstand the U.S. economic embargo, which dates from 1961.

The Soviet Union has bankrolled the Cuban Revolution over the years, despite periods of open disagreement between Moscow and Havana, because Cuba has been extremely useful to the Soviets. It is an important outpost and ideological ally in the U.S. sphere of influence. It serves as a base for Soviet submarines and reconnaissance aircraft and greatly enhances Soviet intelligence-gathering capabilities along the Atlantic coasts of North and South America. Cuba has also advanced Soviet interests in the Third World by engaging in behavior that would be unacceptable if done directly by the Soviets (e.g., training and arming Marxist guerrillas and deploying tens of thousands of troops to prop up Third World regimes friendly to the Soviet Union, such as those of Angola and Ethiopia). Diplomatically Cuba has increased Soviet influence and contacts with developing countries in a variety of international forums.

The ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the Soviet Union and his policies of glasnost and perestroika plunged Moscow and Havana into another period of public conflict. Castro has made no secret of his disapproval of Gorbachev's policies or his fears that they will destroy the Soviet Union's ability to maintain its status as a superpower. Instead of following Moscow's lead, Castro launched in 1986 a so-called rectification campaign, whose declared purpose was to eliminate all traces of liberal economics and to reaffirm and consolidate further Cuba's socialist command economy.

This time, however, the past may not be a valid guide to the future of Soviet policy toward Cuba. First, as the Cold War winds down, Havana's value to Moscow has declined. Technological advances have reduced Cuba's importance for intelligence gathering and even as a military base. In addition, because Gorbachev's policies no longer involve active support of "wars of national liberation" in the Third World, Cuba's continued support of Marxist guerrilla groups in Central America and elsewhere directly challenges Gorbachev and undermines his efforts to change the Soviet Union's international image. Finally Cuba's revolutionary foreign policy jeopardizes the growing rapprochement between the Soviet Union and the United States, since Washington holds Moscow accountable for Havana's behavior. President Bush made this clear during the Malta summit, and Secretary of State James Baker did the same, both during his unprecedented appearance before the new Soviet parliament and in his speech to the Organization of American States in late 1989.

Internal developments in the Soviet Union also are contributing to Gorbachev's reduced tolerance for Soviet-Cuban conflict. Glasnost and perestroika have produced greater public scrutiny over foreign policy by the Soviet press and the new parliament. The result has been an unprecedented questioning of Moscow's traditional foreign policy commitments and a growing unwillingness to sustain the costs of an empire when the Soviet economy is experiencing severe problems.

The pages of Moscow News have served as a forum for the growing debate over Soviet foreign policy. Writing in 1989, Andrei Kortunov of the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada stated that Moscow had given more than 25 percent of its foreign aid to Cuba in 1988-89. He noted that the Soviet Union's total foreign aid budget was almost six times greater, on a per capita basis, than that of the United States and asked why aid was being given to Third World countries that are dictatorships and engage in "adventurist" foreign policies. Moscow News also quoted a Moscow deputy as saying, "We can't tolerate that sort of situation when our own people have to get ration cards for soap and sugar and can't find a decent cut of meat in the stores."

More recently, opposition members of the Soviet parliament put a "deputies' question" to Nikolai Ryzhkov, the Soviet prime minister. "Before the congress decides on the proposed government measures to improve the economy," they said, "we ask you to tell the deputies the scale of foreign states' debt to the Soviet Union and its size, state by state, as well as the terms of repayment procedure." In response, the government newspaper Izvestiya published an article by Ryzhkov with figures on debts owed to Moscow by foreign borrowers. Cuba was at the top of the list, with a cumulative debt of 15 billion rubles, or more than $24 billion at the official exchange rate of one ruble for $1.60. Cuba's debt was more than double that of the second-place debtor, Vietnam.3

Despite increasing debate within the Soviet Union, there has not yet been a significant reduction in Soviet aid to Cuba. Instead a new one-year Soviet-Cuban trade agreement, signed in April 1990, reportedly increases trade and technical assistance by 8.7 percent over 1989. Military aid decreased from 1988 to 1989, but only to $1.2 billion from $1.5 billion. On the other hand, Moscow delivered six new MiG-29s to Havana in 1989 to replace Cuba's aging MiG-23s.

Although Soviet aid has not yet decreased, the odds are good that it will be cut significantly in the coming years. Soviet-Cuban economic relations are still governed by the 1986-90 Soviet Five-Year Plan. The unprecedented public discussion of the Soviet Union's foreign aid policy, particularly with reference to Cuba, must be evaluated in this context. The new five-year plan is also being negotiated in the context of the continuing deterioration of the Soviet economy, which may account for recent reports that Moscow wants to sign an agreement for only two years instead of five.

In the meantime Soviet-Cuban trade has become increasingly unpredictable since 1988 when, as part of perestroika, Soviet enterprises obtained the right to trade directly on foreign markets. This has meant that Cuba has had to deal directly with individual Soviet enterprises, which prefer to sell to customers who pay in hard currency.

The impact of this situation on Cuba was clearly visible by the summer of 1989, when a delay in a shipment of Soviet wheat and flour caused pizzerias and bakeries in Havana to reduce their hours or close their shops temporarily. Subsequently ships carrying wheat and flour scheduled to arrive in Cuba in December 1989 were unable to complete their deliveries until January 22, 1990. This relatively short delay forced the Cuban government to buy 20,000 tons of wheat from Western countries for hard currency. The wheat shortage immediately affected egg production and caused the price of eggs to double. It also caused a reduction in daily bread rations outside the capital and price increases in Havana for baked goods.

The fact that a three-week delay in the arrival of wheat and flour was so quickly translated into widespread shortages, rationing and price increases highlights Cuba's extreme vulnerability to the ripple effects of perestroika. Any fundamental renegotiation of the terms of trade between Moscow and Havana in the next five-year plan that adjusts the prices of Soviet oil and Cuban sugar to their real market value, as Soviet officials have proposed, would clearly create severe economic problems for Cuba.


Although Cuba's trade with Eastern Europe accounts for only about 15 percent of the island's trade with socialist countries, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe will ultimately prove more economically destabilizing to Cuba in the short run than the implications of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe has traditionally supplied Cuba with the technology, manufactured goods and spare parts that the Soviet Union has been unable to provide. These include electric generators and centrifuges for Cuba's sugar mills, as well as trucks, buses and other vehicles for Cuba's transportation system.

Unlike the Soviet Union, which has never known capitalism and continues to shrink from a total commitment to a market economy, Eastern Europe is racing to recapture its capitalistic past. In the process, it is rejecting barter agreements in favor of transactions in hard currency wherever its products are internationally competitive. Also, in contrast to the Soviet Union, the new East European governments feel no gratitude or responsibility toward Cuba.

The impact of Eastern Europe's democratic revolutions is already being felt in Cuba. Factories have closed; transportation and construction, which depend on imports from Eastern Europe, are in decline; workers are having difficulties getting to their jobs and, if and when they arrive, they often remain idle because some crucial input or spare part is unavailable; consumer goods such as toothpaste and razor blades are in short supply, and interminable waits for television sets awarded to model workers have become commonplace. In a recent speech outlining what might lie ahead, Castro acknowledged that an agreement for the 12,000 tons of poultry that Cuba anticipated receiving from Bulgaria had not been signed. The same was true of the agreement with Czechoslovakia on barley, which goes into the production of beer and malt. Castro added that buses and spare parts from Hungary may not arrive and that Cuba could not count on receiving parts for their Czechoslovak thermoelectric plants.

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe is also having a political impact on Cuba. In March 1990 the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, meeting in Geneva, voted to ask the Cuban government to comply with its pledge not to detain, repress or otherwise mistreat Cuban human rights activists. The resolution also asked Cuba to provide answers to questions that the delegation had posed during its 1988 visit to the island. The resolution, which Cuba vigorously opposed, was cosponsored by Czechoslovakia and Poland, in their capacity as observers. Voting with the United States in favor of the resolution were Bulgaria and Hungary. Prior to the events of late 1989, Eastern Europe had always voted as a bloc with Cuba on the human rights commission.

Only a decade ago, Castro presided over the so-called nonaligned movement. Now it remains unclear whether the nonaligned movement has a future and whether Cuba will have the votes within the United Nations to continue its anti-imperialist crusade against the United States.

There is also a psychological impact. The rush to democracy and market economies in the old Soviet-bloc countries leaves Cuba almost alone in the world, defending a system that former allies are repudiating. The sense of moral righteousness and the belief that history was on Cuba's side, which bolstered Castro's authoritarian rule through the years, have been undermined. The Cuban leader now has to deal with growing economic problems while armed with a severely diminished reservoir of political legitimacy.


In an effort to undo the political damage wrought by democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, Castro argued that those events were irrelevant to Cuba. Communism was imposed there by an outside power, he emphasized, while Cuban communism was the result of a popular revolution by the Cuban people. His conclusion: Cubans strongly support their political system and its leader and a vote is not necessary to prove this, since the Cuban people "voted" by revolting against Fulgencio Batista over 31 years ago.

Unfortunately for Castro, the February elections in Nicaragua undermined his argument. Like Castro, the Sandinistas had believed that events in Eastern Europe were irrelevant to Nicaragua. Like Castro, they considered themselves to be highly popular because they had overthrown a hated dictator a decade earlier. And like Castro, they minimized the importance of their control over the military, intelligence and the police in accounting for their continued leadership. The Sandinistas' electoral loss to a candidate promising democracy and a market economy undermined Castro's rationale and further weakened his political legitimacy.

The Sandinistas' defeat was Castro's second serious setback in Latin America. In December 1989 General Noriega, who had become the Cuban leader's other close ally in the region, was removed from power by the U.S. invasion of Panama. Noriega's cooperation had helped Castro circumvent the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba by allowing Havana to establish dummy corporations in Panama. Castro, in turn, had authorized the training in Cuba of officers of Noriega's "dignity battalions," the thugs he used to attack the political opposition. In addition, Cuba had made an estimated $70 million over the last five years by selling visas to Cubans wanting to leave the island for Panama. Havana also used Panama City's very liberal banking system to launder money obtained from its involvement in drug trafficking.

Noriega's fall also negatively affected Castro's revolutionary plans for the hemisphere. The Cuban and Panamanian leaders had cooperated in smuggling weapons and ammunition to the Salvadoran guerrillas, principally through Panama's fishing port at Vacamonte, on the Pacific coast.

Castro's isolation in the hemisphere was further compounded by elections in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras, which brought to power conservative presidents. These new presidents made it less likely that Castro would be included in diplomatic efforts to end the war in El Salvador.


The new challenges presented by developments abroad worsened the already deteriorating economic situation at home. Between 1986 and 1989 the Cuban economy declined at an annual rate of 0.8 percent. Labor productivity fell by an estimated 2.5 percent during the same period, while the budget deficit increased 4.5 times. The foreign trade deficit exceeded two billion dollars annually, and Cuba's hard currency debt almost doubled to over six billion dollars.4 The unpaid debt to the Soviet Union increased sixfold,5 and Cuba's hard currency reserves fell by $9.5 million to $87.9 million in 1989. This represents half the average level of reserves available between 1975 and 1985.6

The economic decline can be attributed partially to the fall in oil prices on international markets, which caused Cuba's hard currency earnings from the sale of surplus Soviet oil to decrease from $621 million in 1985 to $189 million in 1988. The 1989 figure is expected to reach almost zero.7 Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is no evidence that the decline in Cuba's hard currency earnings from the reexport of Soviet oil was caused by a significant cutback in the supply of that oil.

The other explanation for the economic decline is Castro's rectification campaign. Launched in April 1986 and still in effect, the rectification campaign reversed an experiment with market mechanisms by recentralizing the economy and substituting moral for material incentives. An ideological update of Castro's revolutionary offensive of 1968, the rectification campaign has failed dismally. Productivity has continued to decline as Cubans refuse to work hard to build a better future under socialism that never seems to arrive. Despite the glaring failure of the rectification campaign, however, Castro so far has refused to give even limited economic liberalization another try, claiming it generated a class of high-paid middlemen who exploited the Cuban people by charging exorbitant prices for food and services. What he does not emphasize is that the experiment with market mechanisms led to spectacular increases in agricultural productivity as well as to the creation of a class of Cubans who were less dependent on the government and less subject to its control.

Instead of opening the economy, Castro has responded to the worsening economic situation and the threat of a substantial reduction in Soviet aid by trying to diversify his trading partners. In 1989 he signed trade agreements with North Korea, Albania and China. It is doubtful, however, that those countries will be able to fill the void. Trade with China doubled in 1988, but increased by only 12 percent in 1989. Efforts to increase trade with Japan and Latin America also have not brought good results, since Cuba's lack of hard currency and its monoculture sugar economy make it a relatively unattractive trading partner. By the end of 1988, Japan accounted for only 1.5 percent of Cuba's trade and Latin America for less than two percent. Finally, according to foreign diplomatic sources accredited in Havana, Cuba also tried unsuccessfully to obtain petroleum at preferential prices from the governments of Mexico, Venezuela and Ecuador.

Castro has announced a series of emergency contingency plans to cope with the anticipated accelerated disruption of Cuba's traditional trade relations. In an apocalyptic speech to the National Council of the Federation of University Students in March 1990, the Cuban leader declared that in the coming "special period in a time of peace," production levels will decline because of shortages, and social development projects may have to be temporarily halted. The work week may be reduced from five to three days. Three-fourths of the island's cement factories may have to close, and electricity may have to be rationed. The most serious problem will be energy, given Cuba's dependence on 12,000 tons of oil annually from the Soviet Union. Castro concluded his speech, however, by reiterating his commitment to socialism, since "the end of socialism, the end of the revolution, would be the end of the Cuban nation."


Although signs of Cuba's economic decline have been apparent for some time, the summer of 1989 provided unprecedented evidence of serious political problems as well. General Ochoa, who had led Cuban troops in Angola, was suddenly accused of drug trafficking and corruption. The Stalinesque show trial and subsequent execution of Ochoa reinforced popular suspicions that Ochoa's real crime was his potential for challenging Castro's leadership.8

Also accused and executed for drug trafficking was Colonel Antonio de la Guardia, a high-ranking official of the Interior Ministry. His operation had allegedly involved officials of a special department within the ministry, which Castro had created to smuggle goods into Cuba and thereby bypass the U.S. trade embargo. In the aftermath of de la Guardia's execution, José Abrantes Fernández, interior minister and third most powerful man in Cuba after Fidel and his brother Raúl, resigned and was subsequently arrested. General Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, who was then put in charge of the Interior Ministry, restructured it by replacing many of its civilian officials with military men.

The "militarization" of the Interior Ministry was not an isolated event. Castro named General Sexto Batista Santana to head the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in February 1990. Another general, Juan Escalona, was named president of the National Assembly of People's Power, the branch of the Cuban government composed of locally elected (although officially suggested or approved) representatives of the Cuban people.

The increased influence of the military reflects the regime's concern that the still-controllable internal opposition might grow. At least 15 dissident groups exist in Cuba today. They advance a wide variety of agendas, from support for glasnost and perestroika to freedom of religion and human rights. Dissident activity, however, is clandestine and underground, making it difficult to speculate about its strength or future. Castro referred to dissidents in a speech in January 1990, immediately before announcing the appointments of the two generals. He called them "cockroaches who try to create fifth columns at the service of imperialism" and promised that the Cuban people would "crush" them.

Castro had already begun to crack down on human rights groups that he had tolerated briefly during the 1988 visit of a delegation of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Following its departure, Cuban human rights leaders were harassed and imprisoned. The March 1990 vote of the U.N. commission, which went against Cuba, was also followed by the arrest of nine members of the Pro-Human Rights Party, who were charged with belonging to a "counterrevolutionary organization."

Individual dissent against the regime and its policies has increased. In a December 1989 speech, the video of which was shown only to communist party militants, Castro spoke of problems in the history, philosophy and arts and literature departments of the National University and acknowledged difficulties with Cuban scholarship students who return to Cuba after studying in the Soviet Union. A journalist was expelled from the newspaper Juventud Rebelde, the official organ of the young communist movement, for declaring on a Havana radio program that "Juventud Rebelde was not representing the views of Cuban youths." A small riot also broke out in a movie theater when a group of Cubans started singing a popular song, "The man is crazy," when Castro appeared on the screen. And in February 1990, during boxing's World Cup in Havana, an individual who shouted, "Down with Castro! Down with the dictatorship of Fidel Castro!" was dragged away by the authorities.

Anticipating that developments in the Soviet Union would encourage opposition to his rule in Cuba, Castro had tried to keep the news of Soviet reforms from the Cuban people, going so far as to ban the distribution in 1988 of the Spanish-language versions of Moscow News and Sputnik. But the information about the Soviet Union and, subsequently, about Eastern Europe reached Cuba nevertheless, communicated by foreign diplomats in Havana, members of the Cuban-American community in Miami and especially by Radio Martí. As a result, Castro decided to emphasize the sui generis nature of Cuban socialism, which supposedly will allow it to survive in a world that has repudiated other forms of socialism.

Castro also is trying to fan the flames of Cuban nationalism in order to divert attention from Cuba's growing crisis. This explains why the United States is once again the target of greater anger, and why Castro has begun to speak as if a U.S. invasion of Cuba were imminent. "Destiny assigns the role of one day being among the last defenders of socialism," he said in a December 1989 speech. "In a world in which the Yankee empire was able to make a reality of Hitler's dreams of dominating the world," he continued, "we would know how to defend this bastion until the last days of blood. . . . Socialism or death! Fatherland or death! We will win!"


Despite Fidel Castro's defiant rhetoric, his options for surmounting the growing crisis continue to narrow. Ad hoc adjustments to a deteriorating economic situation, combined with the selective use of repression, are little more than stopgap measures. As the crisis deepens, Castro will eventually be faced with a choice between using Cuba's already weakened institutions to mobilize and control an increasingly desperate population or loosening political and economic controls in order to raise productivity. Both alternatives pose fundamental challenges to Castro's continued rule.

Under the first option, Castro would insist that Cubans ride out the shortages of energy, food and spare parts by working harder. Since 1986, however, the rectification campaign has tried and failed to increase worker productivity through the use of moral incentives. In the absence of material incentives, the only other way to raise worker productivity would be through increasing reliance on some form of "voluntary" labor. Yet the degree of repression that would have to be applied to achieve higher production levels would ultimately provoke either a military coup or a popular revolt.

A coup would be likely for a number of reasons. The execution of General Ochoa left many members of the military distrustful and resentful of Castro, particularly those who served with Ochoa in Angola and who now face an uncertain future in Cuba. Castro's use of the revolutionary armed forces to quell rising popular discontent or force Cubans to work harder would destroy the traditionally good image and reputation of the army at home and abroad. For many military men, particularly those who received training in the Soviet Union and who support Gorbachev's reforms, the sacrifice would seem pointless, since it would not help solve Cuba's increasingly desperate situation. The conclusion that they could improve Cuba's future as well as their own by removing Castro from power would become inescapable.

Seen in this context, therefore, Castro's selection of military men to head key civilian institutions constitutes a calculated risk born of limited options. By militarizing political institutions now, he may be able to avoid calling on the military later to engage in the kind of repression that would trigger a coup.

Cuba, however, could also go the way of Romania. Some unpredictable spark could set off a rebellion against Castro, whose behavior in the face of the growing crisis would appear increasingly irrational, arbitrary and intolerable. In such a situation, the military would probably find it more expedient to join the rebels than to remain loyal to Castro, for the reasons just cited.

There is even the possibility that the Cuban leader might be assassinated. Despite Castro's supposed popularity and charisma he has always been surrounded by bodyguards, and his travels within Cuba are unpublicized and unpredictable. The fact that he tried to fly ten tons of arms and ammunition into Brazil for his personal security during a visit in February is further evidence that he views his life to be in danger. Although his precautions might seem to rule out an assassination, the arrest of Abrantes and other confidants during the summer of 1989 has left him with relatively few people he can trust.

Cuba could, of course, avoid these drastic outcomes were Castro to respond to changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by moving toward a market economy and reestablishing economic relations with the United States. Castro's earlier experiment with limited market mechanisms in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, was short-lived, in part because it showed that the capitalist attitudes he despises were still alive and well in Cuba, despite his belief that he had succeeded in creating a new socialist man. The experiment also had begun to create alternative sources of wealth, a development with political implications that were potentially threatening to Castro's continued control.

Given the relatively greater deterioration of the Cuban economy today, much more extensive economic liberalization would now be required to solve Cuba's economic problems than before. Furthermore, in the period that has elapsed since the earlier experiment with market mechanisms, communism has been delegitimized, and democracy and free markets have triumphed as ideas. Finally, the number of living Cubans who participated directly in the 1959 revolution has declined, while Cuban youth, which now accounts for 50 percent of the population, has become more alienated from a revolution they did not make and more attracted to consumer-based economies. As a result, the implementation of the kinds of market mechanisms now necessary to save Cuban socialism would destroy it.

Conceivably Castro could experiment with limited political liberalization in order to induce the United States to lift its economic embargo and reestablish relations with Cuba. This is the only option that poses no risk for Castro, since it would allow him to normalize relations with the United States on his own terms. A resumption of bilateral trade would give Castro hard currency to shore up Cuba's disintegrating economy and allow him to avoid introducing market mechanisms in order to survive the collapse of communism elsewhere.

Castro tried political liberalization in the late 1980s, when he released a number of long-held political prisoners, tolerated the formation of two small human rights groups and improved relations with the Catholic Church. Simultaneously Castro and other high-ranking officials dropped their hostile rhetoric toward the United States, stated their desire to improve relations with Washington, reinstated an immigration agreement with the United States and participated in U.S.-mediated negotiations that led to a withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.9

The experiment with limited political pluralism ended when its risks began to outweigh its anticipated benefits. Cuba's small human rights movement had begun to gain momentum at home and increasing attention and support abroad, particularly in the aftermath of the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. At the same time, it had become clear that Washington was in no hurry to alter its Cuba policy radically in response to very limited political changes that could be easily reversed (which, in fact, they were). A number of human rights activists were harassed and subsequently arrested and convicted of the "crime" of congratulating the U.N. Commission on Human Rights for voting against Cuba. Several were also accused of giving "false" information about Cuba to foreign journalists.

In the current international atmosphere, where foreigners no longer give Castro the benefit of doubt and consider him the last Stalinist dictator, a new political opening in Cuba would be even more threatening to Castro's control. Domestic opponents of the regime would immediately press for free and internationally monitored elections, spurred on by the recent defeats of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

There are those who say that Castro would have nothing to fear from such elections, that within Cuba he remains a popular and charismatic leader who still is able to draw huge and enthusiastic crowds. They also argue that Cuban nationalism and Castro's historical role as a revolutionary hero would offset any popular discontent produced by years of economic hardship and the prospect of an even more precarious economic future.

In the absence of free and fair elections, it is impossible to confirm or refute this reasoning. But the erroneous press reports prior to the Nicaraguan election regarding the Sandinistas' popularity and the wildly inaccurate polls that predicted a Sandinista landslide argue for extreme caution in drawing conclusions about a leader's popularity based on the public behavior of an unfree people.10 In the case of Cuba, it seems reasonable to assume that, as in Nicaragua, a free and internationally monitored election would set in motion forces that would lead to a vote for Castro's removal.


The sense that Fidel Castro's days may be numbered has once again focused attention on U.S. policy toward Cuba. International developments, however, have profoundly transformed the nature of the debate. They have weakened the argument for normalization of relations, and the issue now is whether to maintain the current policy or toughen it.

The argument for a more forthcoming U.S. policy toward Cuba had been based on an essentially benign vision of Castro, his extraordinary charisma and the broad support he enjoyed among the Cuban people. Castro's communism and alliance with the Soviet Union were interpreted as reactions to a relentlessly hostile U.S. policy. The dictatorial aspects of Cuban communism were often downplayed, while advances in education and health as well as revolutionary Cuba's more egalitarian social structure were emphasized.

From this it followed that the U.S. could solve its "Cuba problem" by lifting its economic embargo and taking steps to normalize relations. Those who favored this policy intensified the pressure on Washington during periods when Castro would signal a willingness to discuss the issue with the U.S. government. Some argued that there should be no preconditions for normalizing relations. Others accepted the need for quid pro quos from Cuba.

Developments in Eastern Europe and Nicaragua have challenged these assumptions about Cuba. The revelations about the nature of Eastern Europe's communist governments have destroyed any illusions about popular support for these regimes and have increased skepticism about those that remain. The subsequent electoral defeat of the Sandinistas undermined the argument that revolutionary communist regimes in the Third World, unlike those of Eastern Europe, enjoyed the widespread support and gratitude of their populations, irrespective of the success or failure of their policies.

By confounding these assumptions about Cuba, the events in Eastern Europe and Nicaragua also undermined confidence in the policy recommendations that flowed from them. As a result, those who advocated a softening of U.S. policy toward Cuba have been put on the defensive.

Supporters of the current policy, and those who want to toughen it, are united in their vision of the Cuban regime and feel vindicated by international developments. They never accepted the notion that Castro's communism was a reaction to Washington's hostility. Instead they argued that the Cuban leader chose to ally himself with the Soviet Union and never had any real intention of making a democratic revolution or maintaining friendly relations with the United States.

From this they concluded that it made no sense to lift the U.S. embargo as long as Cuba remained a communist dictatorship ruled by a rabidly anti-American leader. Its removal would only strengthen Castro by allowing him to maintain his strategic alliance with Moscow while providing him with additional resources with which to buy support at home and pursue his revolutionary policies abroad.

The embargo's original purpose was to bring about the collapse of the Cuban economy and with it the removal from power of Fidel Castro. That goal remained elusive as long as Castro could count on the Soviets for trade and aid. A succession of U.S. presidents redefined the embargo's purpose as the isolation of Cuba. They vowed to keep the embargo in place until Castro stopped aiding guerrillas in the Third World, withdrew Cuban troops from Africa and allowed free elections and respected human rights at home.

In addition to the embargo, current U.S. policy is to mobilize international support for continued monitoring of the human rights situation on the island. Within Cuba, the U.S. has successfully challenged Castro's control over information, first by establishing Radio Martí in 1985 and, more recently, by approving the creation of TV Martí, subject to a successful three-month test of its feasibility, which began in late March. Washington has also stepped up calls for elections in Cuba, promising to restore relations with a duly elected democratic government.

Those who favor maintaining the current policy argue that disruptions in Soviet-Cuban trade flows, the anticipated reduction in Soviet aid and the move toward free market economies in Eastern Europe will finally enable the U.S. economic embargo to bring about substantial changes in Cuba. They believe that efforts to toughen the embargo would make it difficult for the United States to achieve international cooperation in its efforts to pressure Castro. Finally they argue that a tougher U.S. policy could also undermine the current bipartisan consensus in Congress and refocus attention to the fight within the U.S. government over its Cuba policy.

Advocates of a tougher U.S. policy toward Cuba want to restore the U.S. trade embargo to its status before 1975, when the Ford administration allowed foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to trade with Cuba. Proponents of a tighter embargo point out that other existing trade embargoes, such as those against North Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia, apply to foreign subsidiaries and that Cuba is the only communist country with a loophole for foreign subsidiaries. Since 1982 foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies have engaged in trade with Cuba valued at approximately $1.5 billion.

On April 5, Senator Connie Mack (R-Fla.) joined with Senators Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to introduce a bill closing the loophole in the embargo. Under the proposed legislation, the president would have authority to withhold federal assistance from any country that buys sugar from Cuba. There is a good possibility that Congress will move to tighten the embargo, though with uncertain effect in actual practice.

Whether the United States hardens its current policy or reaffirms the status quo may be less important than its continued insistence on ending human rights abuses and holding free and fair elections before lifting the embargo. Such elections could take the form of a plebiscite, as a number of prominent intellectuals throughout the world have suggested, or a contest for the presidency. The main alternative to be avoided is a premature reconciliation that snatches defeat from the jaws of victory by allowing Castro to substitute U.S. trade for declining Soviet aid and thereby prolong his undemocratic personalistic rule.

1 The New York Times, Dec. 11, 1989.

2 Financial Times, Nov. 10, 1989, p. 7.

3 Izvestiya, March 2, 1990, p. 3.

4 Carmelo Mesa-Lago, "Countdown in Cuba?" Hemisfile, March 1990, p. 6.

5 Izvestiya, March 2, 1990, p. 3.

6 Latin American Weekly Report, Feb. 15, 1990, p. 9.

7 "Castro's Coming Crisis," Confidential Foreign Report, The Economist Newspaper Limited, Dec. 21, 1989, p. 1.

10 For a persuasive description of the gap between public and private attitudes and behavior in Cuba, see José Luis Llovio Menéndez, Insider: My Life as a Revolutionary in Cuba, New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now