Scholars See Castro Push to Preserve His Legacy
Scholars See Castro Push to Preserve His Legacy
His recent crackdown on capitalism lays bare the growing disaffection
among Cubans with his social and economic policies, experts say.
By Carol J. Williams, Times Staff Writer
April 30, 2006
MIAMI — As Cuban leader Fidel Castro wages war against private
enterprise, petty theft and an already shackled opposition, veteran
analysts say the aging militant is striving to recover the egalitarian
aims of his revolution and protect a legacy of having rescued Cuba from
But the crackdowns also have exposed a deepening rift between a
shrinking coterie of communist true believers and a society that
analysts say has largely defected from his movement’s core ideals of
solidarity and self-sacrifice.
In an ideological endgame pitting the nearly 80-year-old leader against
what analysts believe is a large and growing segment of his own people,
Castro’s drive to root out “imperialist” influence is provoking
comparison with Mao Tse-tung’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which
ravaged China and set back the hopes of reform for years.
Although Castro has held his island in a vice grip since his guerrilla
band seized power on New Year’s Day 1959, his campaigns have lately
taken on an urgency. In the last year, amid indications of the bearded
icon’s flagging health, the regime has:
• Declared war on the “new rich,” arresting those who use their cars or
bicycles as taxis, seizing privately raised produce on sale at farmers
markets and rescinding self-employment licenses that had allowed Cubans
since 1994 to run restaurants and guesthouses in their homes.
• Increased the number of “acts of repudiation” by Communist Party
militants, who track down and heckle dissidents and their families.
• Ramped up efforts to dismantle outlawed satellite dishes, and
confiscated televisions and subscription decoder cards brought in by
relatives visiting from abroad.
• Drafted students and aging Communist Party loyalists to stand guard
at gas stations and factories to deter theft by a broad sector of state
employees, a problem even the party mouthpiece Granma acknowledges has
reached pandemic proportions.
• Ordered Cubans to refrain from contact with foreign tourists unless
“absolutely necessary” for their jobs, claiming a need to protect
citizens from ideological contamination.
The moves follow earlier rollbacks of the economic reforms implemented
in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow cut off
billions in aid to its communist ally. In November 2004, Castro formally
withdrew from circulation the U.S. dollar, the foundation of the reforms
for 10 years, replacing it with a new national peso. The same year, the
government increased restrictions on the Internet, denying all but a few
thousand government employees access.
The current crackdowns intensify what human rights groups have condemned
as “a wave of repression” against political challengers that was
unleashed three years ago when 75 dissidents and journalists were
rounded up, accused of treason and sentenced to an average of 20 years
The only woman among those “Black Spring” political prisoners,
60-year-old economist Marta Beatriz Roque, was released last year on
health grounds but has been hounded by Castro supporters since.
News reports said she was attacked and beaten by a pro-government crowd
as she left her Havana home on Tuesday.
“They shout insults and pound on my door at all hours,” Roque said in a
recent telephone interview from Havana. The harassment shows the
regime’s “debility,” she said, but it succeeds in intimidating Cubans
too fearful of the state to condemn it.
Cuba scholars say the harsh measures reflect Castro’s efforts to
preserve his nation’s political system and his legacy.
Castro probably sees that his successors might be inclined toward more
economic and political opening, said Wayne Smith, a retired diplomat who
headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Carter
“I don’t think it’s going to re-energize people and turn people back to
that form of socialism,” he said of Castro’s recent efforts. “That’s
been discredited elsewhere in the world, and it’s not working very well
Julia Sweig, Latin American studies director at the Council on Foreign
Relations and author of “Inside the Cuban Revolution,” traces Castro’s
intolerance of dissent to his conviction that the stability of the state
requires “unity at all costs.”
Cubans seldom share the zeal of the revolution’s founders because the
system provides residents with few of the opportunities that they are
smart enough to envision and able-bodied enough to pursue, she noted.
“Young people coming out of the great health and education systems don’t
see they really have a future,” she said. “And the older generations —
those who were part of the revolutionary ethos from the beginning —
Most Cubans’ commitment to sharing and solidarity “went out the window
in the ’90s,” said Philip Peters, Cuba analyst for the Lexington
Institute think tank in Arlington, Va., recalling the Cuban leadership’s
replacement of moral incentives with material rewards to boost
production in the lean years after Soviet aid stopped.
“I think it was always clear that during some of the market-oriented
changes made in the ’90s that Castro was holding his nose,” Peters said.
“One reason was because those changes produced inequalities in the society.”
Granma has been exposing case after case of “unscrupulous elements”
engaging in black-market commerce. The Communist Party newspaper
disclosed last month that theft of medications and healthcare equipment,
from factories as well as hospitals and clinics, had become so chronic
that some patients couldn’t get vital treatment.
The volumes of food disappearing from state warehouses also suggest
thievery from top to bottom. As in former communist states in Eastern
Europe, there is little sense of wrongdoing among Cubans who take home
part of what they produce to sell and stretch salaries that average less
than $15 a month.
“The bulk of economic crimes that exist in Cuba are small-scale — people
who don’t have hard-currency income who steal a chicken from the
restaurant where they work or sell a little gasoline on the side from
their company’s pump so they can put meat on the table that weekend,”
A high-profile campaign against corruption has been underway for at
least three years, but Castro disclosed the severity of the problem when
he warned in November that the very fate of the revolution was at risk
amid such moral failures.
“He’s trying to relight the fire. But no one goes to the fire,” said
Damian Fernandez, head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida
International University. Castro can still turn out half a million
people for big anti-American protests, he said, “but they’re bused there
and they go because it’s a big fiesta or
their jobs depend on it.”
The revolutionary fervor has irrevocably faded, he said, because “the
regime that produced equity in the 1960s now produces inequity,” with
high-ranking Communist Party members benefiting from development of
tourist resorts that ordinary Cubans aren’t even allowed to enter.
“Fidel frankly dislikes capitalism. He has this very romantic notion
that money corrupts, that money is bad,” Fernandez said. “He genuinely
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for
Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, likens Castro’s actions to the
brutalities of the Cultural Revolution. Just as Mao relied on the Red
Guards, Castro deploys special enforcement squads from the Interior
Ministry and the neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the
Revolution to seize property, break up demonstrations and hound those
who challenge the one-party order.
Although China’s burgeoning middle class and growing prosperity today
are due to the reforms embraced after Mao’s death, Castro rejects the
Chinese model, Suchlicki said.
“He went to China and came back and said they’re making great advances
but this is not for Cuba,” Suchlicki said. “He’s afraid of it, just like
he was afraid of perestroika and glasnost.”
Despite their severity, Castro’s moves have failed to stamp out dissent.
In an attempt to draw international attention to restrictions on use of
the Internet, psychologist and Angola war veteran Guillermo Farinas has
been waging a hunger strike since late January. The Ladies in White,
relatives of political prisoners, still march after church on Sundays,
demanding the men’s release.
Caleb McCarry, the U.S. State Department’s Cuba transition coordinator,
sees the latest crackdowns as “a sign of weakness and fear on the part
of the regime.” He predicts the efforts will fail to fan the
“The genie is already outside the bottle,” McCarry said.