Cuba an Enduring Dictatorship 90 Miles From Florida : Unrivaled Style Is Key to Castro’s Power

Times Staff Writer

Cuban officials often respond to an interviewer’s questions with phrases that are lifted almost verbatim from the speeches of President Fidel Castro. In Cuba, after all, Castro’s words are public policy, and the prudent official makes them his own.

Some officials even imitate Castro’s distinctive style of speaking: the studied gesture, the dramatic pause, the changing mood--now strident, now musing, now playful or humorous.

But nobody can do it quite the way Castro does it. And nobody in Cuba comes close to matching or challenging the extraordinary leadership style that has helped keep Castro firmly in power for more than a quarter of a century.

When his rebel movement seized power in January, 1959, Castro was a brash young revolutionary with a brown, mountain-grown beard and no experience in government. Twenty-seven years later, the beard now more gray than brown, Castro holds dictatorial power in what is probably the most entrenched government in Latin America.


Castro has built his system on Marxist ideology, Leninist controls, Soviet backing and the compelling force of his own personality. To the chagrin of the Reagan Administration, Castro, who will be 59 in August, is the steadfast bearer of an enduring and defiant red flag in the Caribbean.

Despite the Administration’s concern about the pro-Cuban, pro-Soviet government of Nicaragua, the Cuban model has found little acceptance elsewhere in Latin America. Nevertheless, and partly because Cuba is only 90 miles from Florida, Castro’s pro-Soviet and anti-American policies have been a perennial source of irritation for seven U.S. presidents.

U.S. pressure on Cuba, including a trade embargo in force since 1960 and an American-sponsored invasion by exiles in 1961, has failed to threaten Castro. Some say U.S. hostility, in fact, has helped him rally his nation to his revolutionary cause.

Superpower protection by the Soviet Union is a strong deterrent to any decisive U.S. action against Cuba. But, for Cuba, the price of Moscow’s aid and protection is a large measure of Soviet control.


Lamenting this, Castro is said to have confessed to former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez: “Carlos Andres, I am not an instrument of Moscow, I am a victim.”

Publicly, however, Castro has nothing but praise for solidarity with the Soviet Union. In a speech last February to the Third Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, Castro called the Soviet Communist Party “our closest friend and our best political ally.”

Duvalier Lacked Charisma

Coincidentally, while Castro was presiding over the party congress, the Duvalier dynasty was being toppled in neighboring Haiti. Haitian President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier had none of Castro’s charisma, no totalitarian system and no superpower ally to keep him in power.


When crowds of young Haitian protesters defied Duvalier’s long-feared Tontons Macoutes militiamen, the dictator lost his main mechanism for controlling the people. He fled the country, ending a tenacious, repressive regime that started in 1957 with his father, President-for-Life Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier.

Castro, by contrast, shows no sign of losing his grip on power. He has no debilitating ailment, and by most accounts, his popularity remains high.

“Don’t forget that Fidel rose to power in a popular, really popular revolution,” said Msgr. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, secretary to Cuba’s Catholic Conference of Bishops. “Fidel was really a popular leader, and the revolution was supported by the immense majority of Cubans.”

Erosion of Time


The years under communism have eroded some of the revolution’s popularity, Cespedes said. But he added that most Cubans, even many who are not convinced Marxist-Leninists, support Castro and some degree of socialism.

The support for Castro is “not so universal now but it is still very strong,” Cespedes said. “He has a charisma for communicating with the people that is undeniable.”

He added that if it were not for the threat to Castro posed by the United States and Cuban exiles, there would be no need for the powerful system of domestic controls in Cuba.

“No matter how popular a government is, it always needs control mechanisms when it has enemies,” he said.


If U.S. hostility toward Castro were to ease, he said, so would the repression and control.

Edward Gonzalez, a UCLA political scientist, has said that because of Castro, the Cuban system is not a by-the-book Leninist system. Castro, he said, is more than a pre-eminent party politician at the top of a totalitarian bureaucracy; he is a Latin American caudillo who attracts a following by the power of his personality.

‘Runs His Own Show’

“He has constructed a system that allows him to monopolize power and protects him,” Gonzalez said. “He is not constrained by a bureaucratic system, as many other ‘Communist’ leaders are. He continues to run his own show in a non-Leninist fashion.”


The Cuban Communist Party Congress in February was an occasion for the caudillo to lecture to his loyal followers. He criticized their shortcomings, praised their accomplishments and told them what to strive for in the coming years. His words were interrupted by loud applause and the familiar chant of adulation: “Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!”

The congress was also an occasion for sweeping changes in the party leadership, with a notable but unsurprising exception. Castro kept all of his titles: first secretary of the party and president of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers.

More than half of the party’s 225-member Central Committee was replaced. Half of the committee’s members are now no older than 45. The inclusion of more young people is seen both as a move to give upward mobility to a new generation of party cadres and as a test for new talent.

Jorge Gomez Barata, a high-ranking party analyst, said the new appointments are aimed at “keeping the organization agile” and do not necessarily mean that the departing officials did a bad job.


“Some have to leave so that others can come in,” Gomez said in an interview. “Otherwise, the party clogs up. It gets old and the way is closed for those who are coming up.”

He said there is no contradiction in the fact that the top leader, Castro, has remained at at the helm since the beginning.

“We have no better leader,” Gomez said. “When we have a better leader, we will change him.”

So far, the rigid Cuban power structure has seemed to be more attuned to producing followers than leaders. Castro has no rival for domination of the Communist Party, which has no rival for managing the nation of 10 million people.


Efficient Security Network

The monolithic party controls an efficient state security network, a huge military establishment and a vast network of “mass organizations” that permeate the society.

Mass organizations--including official trade unions, a giant women’s federation, student organizations, farmer groups and neighborhood committees--are the glue that binds the Cuban population into the system.

“It is impossible to conceive that the revolution could survive without those mass organizations,” Gomez said.


In his report to the party congress, Castro also underlined the importance of mass organizations. “Wherever the homeland calls, the mass organizations are not merely present, they are ever-present,” Castro said. “Nothing would be possible without them!”

Then he reeled off some numbers that show how the mass organizations are “ever-present”:

Eighty percent of Cuban women belong to the Federation of Cuban Women. Eighty-four percent of the population over age 14 belong to neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Ninety-nine percent of all workers belong to official unions, and 99% of all grade-school children belong to the Pioneers Organization.

In the school, the factory, the farm, the neighborhood, nearly all organizations are revolutionary organizations. The only exceptions are religious institutions, in which only a small fraction of the population participates.


One of the prime functions of the mass organizations is what the party calls “revolutionary vigilance.” The organizations guard against broadly and nebulously defined “anti-social behavior.”

“In Cuba, everyone is monitored . . . from the home to the grave,” a Catholic priest, Father Teodoro Becerril, said.

Outright coercion is seldom necessary to keep people in step, he said, adding, “When a person, his way of thinking, is brought into question, he begins to be afraid.”

Mass organizations serve many purposes besides vigilance. They mobilize their members for health campaigns, propaganda campaigns, cleanup campaigns, production campaigns. They conduct study groups to impart the party line and the Marxist ideology. They provide a channel of communication between the party leadership and the ordinary citizen. And they prevent the formation of non-Communist organizations.


“They fill up all the political space and have the power of the state to enforce their monopoly on organization,” said Jorge Dominguez, a Cuban-born professor of political science at Harvard University.

Much of the power of the mass organizations derives from their control over things that are important to most Cubans. To enter the university, a recommendation is needed from a high school student organization. To get a promotion on the job or permission to buy a refrigerator, a union recommendation is often essential.

“The mass organizations have to give their seal of approval,” Dominguez said in a telephone interview.

He said that thousands of the Cubans who fled their country in the 1980 Mariel exodus had belonged to mass organizations, not because they wanted to, but because life in Cuba is harder for non-members.


And for most Cubans, even Cubans who support the system, life is not easy.

Only about 15% of all Cubans are better off economically than they were before the revolution, according to Wayne S. Smith, a specialist on Latin America at Johns Hopkins University. Smith was formerly the chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana.

“More Cuban people had more clothing, food, consumer goods and entertainment available to them 30 years ago,” Smith said. “The standard of living has fallen.”

Nevertheless, he said, the revolution has met the people’s basic needs while creating a more egalitarian society, in which a laborer’s son can become a university graduate by going along with the system.


“There is enough there so that the majority is not disenchanted,” Smith said in a telephone interview from Washington.

To maintain the Cuban standard of living, the government relies heavily on aid from the Soviet Union. Soviet aid in the form of grants, loans and trade subsidies is estimated at $4 billion a year.

Without the Soviet Union’s backing, Cuba probably could not have withstood U.S. opposition over the years to a Communist government 90 miles from Florida.

Soviet aid also helps Cuba maintain its formidable military establishment. And the Cuban army, one of the best-equipped and most highly trained in Latin America, is a powerful deterrent to any armed insurgency.


The armed forces are supervised by Fidel Castro’s younger brother, Raul, who is the minister of defense, the No. 2 leader of the Communist Party and the heir apparent.

The army’s military capability on the home front is augmented by a Territorial Troop Militia. In the last five years, 1.5 million men and women have been organized and trained in militia units. Because of its size, the militia has come to serve many functions of a mass organization.

Party in ‘Vanguard’

The backbone of the mass organizations, the armed forces and all other sectors of the Cuban power structure consists of Communist Party members.


The party is not a mass organization, but a “vanguard organization,” with only about 500,000 members, or 5% of the population. It is tightly structured, and its members are carefully selected and thoroughly indoctrinated. They have a stake in the system; they are motivated by ideology, material advantage, status, power and privilege.

As Castro said in his report to the party congress, the party is the “educator, organizer and guide of the masses.”

It strictly controls all news outlets on the island, using them for its official propaganda. It orients the educational system, making the party line an important part of every child’s schooling. And it dominates most organized cultural and sports activities.

Anthony Maingot, a sociologist at Florida International University, said that U.S. pressure on Cuba does not threaten Communist domination. On the contrary, Maingot argued, the pressure allows Castro to maintain a “circle-the-wagons mentality” that unifies his country.


“It provides ample excuses for non-performance and for repression,” he said. “I think it has definitely helped him, and I’m not sure what it has achieved for the United States.”

Maingot and other analysts argue that if there is a potential threat to the Cuban power structure, it is in a generation of young people who have grown up in the revolution and believe in its stated values.

These analysts say that many young revolutionaries are likely to become disillusioned with the system’s failure to deliver more material wealth, with the restrictions on freedom and with a leadership elite that has become entrenched.

Castro has imposed stability. But that very stability may increase pressure on his government from young Cubans.


“There is nothing that drives young people crazy like stability,” Maingot said. “They want some movement.”

He did not suggest that Castro’s power is in jeopardy, but he said that youth pressure cannot be ignored in Cuba or any country where a government shows signs of stagnation.

The February changes in the personnel of the Central Committee may have been aimed in part at relieving that kind of pressure. The changes may also be aimed at grooming a new generation of Communists to fill a potentially dangerous power vacuum some distant day when Castro is gone.

Jorge Enrique Mendoza, editor of the Communist party newspaper Granma, predicted in an interview that the party will be well prepared to carry on without Fidel Castro.


“I don’t believe there will be a debacle when Fidel is not here,” Mendoza said. “Fidel has put his seal on the party, and the party will always have that seal.”