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Castro Embattled : Reform: Change is overdue.

We live in a new world. The Cold War is over. Communism has collapsed in Eastern Europe and is fading in the Soviet Union.

In Latin America as well, one era is ending, another beginning. The Contra war has ended in Nicaragua. As the result of a negotiating process carried forward by the Central Americans themselves, elections were held and the Sandinistas voted out of office.

Now, even Fidel Castro’s 31-year rule in Cuba is at a crossroads. Profound change will come in Cuba. That is inevitable--whatever Castro’s preferences. Cuba cannot survive without adjusting to the collapse of the communist world of which it was part. The only question is whether change comes about peacefully, or through violence? Ultimately, of course, the question of whether to bend with change or resist it is one only Castro can decide.

But U.S. policy will be a factor in the decision--as it historically has been in most Cuban calculations--and at the moment it is not a helpful one. The Bush Administration has closed the door to any thaw in relations with Cuba. The Cubans, in turn, always react to a closed door with defiance and a demand for internal orthodoxy. Neither the Cuban nor the U.S. responses are consistent with the new post-Cold War period.

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The central factor that has rendered change inexorable in Cuba is that it can no longer count on its economic ties to the Soviet Union. Not that there is any deliberate political decision on Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s part to abandon Cuba. On the contrary, at a recent seminar in Washington, Ambassador Valery D. Nikolayenko, the director of Latin American affairs in the Soviet Foreign Ministry, reiterated his country’s determination to assist Cuba “to the extent that it can do so.”

But that won’t be much. If the Kremlin cannot even get bread to Muscovites, how can it assure deliveries of petroleum and other commodities to Cuba--even on a hard-currency basis?

No longer able to rely on its Soviet connection, Cuba’s only viable option is to become a fully competing member of the world trading community. But to do that, it will need a mixed economy--for most world trade is enterprise-to-enterprise, on the basis of profitability. The old state-to-state agreements between centralized economies won’t work any more.

Nor will it be able to compete without a more open political system. The people must have a voice in society, the workers a sense of participation and the managerial force an ability to think and make decisions for themselves.

Most in the Cuban leadership, including Castro, understand the need for reforms. As one key official acknowledged recently: “We must adjust to the changing world around us. It will not adjust to us.” Accordingly, the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party has issued a call for a broad national debate on the kinds of reforms to be adopted at next year’s Fourth Party Congress.

But how much change will Castro accept? It is not his vow “socialism or death” that gives pause. That is rhetoric one would expect. As another Cuban official said last September, “Beneath the roof formed by the word ‘socialism,’ there is room even for the creation of a mixed economy and more open elections.”

What does raise doubts is that Castro’s own programs seem to lead away from a centralized economy at the same time that his recent crackdown on human-rights activists in Cuba is contradictory to any political loosening-up. The much-vaunted reduction of the Central Committee staff is only tinkering. So far, then, Castro’s changes either go in the wrong direction or are marginal in nature--and here marginal changes will not be enough.

Essentially, the equation comes down to: Either Castro makes the sweeping reforms needed, or they will be made in spite of him. If he can bring himself to accept a mixed economy and a more open society, he might preside over a transitional period for years to come.

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But if he tries to hold to a statist economy and a closed political system, then economic and social conditions in Cuba--already bad--can only worsen. Popular disgruntlement will grow and in time explode into food riots and demonstrations for reforms. Yet even at that point, many would have a vested interest in the regime and would remain loyal to Castro.

The armed forces would also certainly be divided. When called on to suppress the demonstrations, some might fire on the crowd, but others would join it.

A divided society and Castro determined to fight provide the ingredients for a bloody civil war. At the end, a new leadership from within Cuba would strive to bring about the kind of changes needed--but by then at an appalling cost in human suffering.

Such an upheaval would not be in the interest of the United States. Rather, Washington should want a peaceful transitional process in Cuba. However, the Bush Administration’s current policy encourages the former, not the latter. Castro had indicated his interest in reaching some accommodation with the United States--and thus had negotiated seriously in southern Africa, released most political prisoners and even briefly allowed Cuban human-rights activists some room to operate in.

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Unfortunately, the then-new Bush Administration, thinking it had him on the ropes, decided to rule out any improvement in relations. That hasn’t been helpful. Historically, Castro reacts to U.S. pressure by cracking down internally. So he has again. Closing the door has discouraged liberalization.

No one understands that better than the human-rights activists inside Cuba, who have suffered the most from the resulting crackdown. Virtually all call for an easing of tensions and a dialogue between Washington and Havana as prerequisite to any liberalization process in Cuba.

Such a dialogue, in any event, could advance important U.S. objectives, such as the withdrawal of Soviet military forces. As Nikolayenko made clear at the seminar, there is no reason the United States, the Soviet Union and Cuba could not discuss such a phased withdrawal--were there normal U.S.-Cuban relations. But the latter, he added, was a sine qua non.

Cuba might also be engaged in a constructive way in the El Salvadoran peace process. It could be persuaded to curtail any continuing materiel support and to use its remaining influence with the left-wing guerrillas to further a negotiated solution.

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While internal reform cannot reasonably be demanded as a precondition for opening talks, the United States could, nonetheless, get the message across that a more normal relationship would become possible if Cuba begins--in its own interest--to implement such reforms.

Even in U.S.-Cuban relations, diplomacy should be given a chance. If Administration officials can drink champagne toasts with Chinese leaders after Tian An Men Square and talk to the Vietnamese, why can they not try to deal with Castro--especially if doing so might prevent a blood bath? We would lose nothing by trying. Our steps toward normalization would depend upon his. Should he reject our goodwill and balk at internal reforms, the onus for what ensues would then be entirely on him. That alone makes it worth doing.


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