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Secrets of Castro's Staying Power

Fidel Castro smokes a cigar during interviews with the press in Havana during a visit by U.S. Senator Charles McGovern, May 1975. Prensa Latina / Reuters

How Cuban Communism Survives

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall it became common in Washington and Miami to bet on the date that Fidel Castro would fall. Those bets were based on the premise that the Cuban regime could not survive without Soviet support. Gone was the Soviet economic subsidy worth no less than one-sixth of the island's total gross product; gone were the weapons transfers, free of charge. From 1989 to 1992 the Cuban economy contracted sharply, with imports shrinking from $8.1 billion to $2.2 billion. Yet the Cuban regime remains with Fidel Castro firmly at its helm. How has Cuban communism managed to survive?

Besides the fact that communism in Cuba was not guaranteed by Soviet tanks, Cuba is clearly different from the regimes of Eastern Europe. As early as the spring of 1990 the Cuban people understood that communism was reversible. Cubans had already witnessed its collapse elsewhere, and they were feeling the negative economic effects. A public opinion poll taken at that time showed that only one-fifth of respondents said that the food supply was good and only one-tenth could say the same of the quality of transportation. Such results make the poll credible, and therefore we ought also to believe that three-quarters of the respondents thought health services were good and that four-fifths believed the same about their schools. Cubans supported their regime because they made differentiated judgments about its performance. They understood its many failings but they could also identify its successes.

Equally important, Cubans felt free enough to tell a pollster their many criticisms of government policy. For many years the Cuban government has permitted, and even stimulated, forms of citizen complaint to expose corruption and mismanagement, allowing local governments to channel these grievances to the center. The pollsters tapped into this freedom to criticize specific, malperforming services. This modest but important political space has remained Havana's safety valve, and U.S. observers often err in their assessments of Cuba because they do not understand its full

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