The Hidden Fear in Castro’s Heart

<i> Tad Szulc is the author of "Fidel: A Critical Portrait" and "John Paul II: The Biography."</i>

According to an old adage, revolutions devour their children as they consolidate, sacrificing some of their original heroes. In Cuba, however, President Fidel Castro, who has conducted some purges during his 40-year dictatorship, appears to fear the opposite, that his beloved revolution may be devoured by its own children.

Indeed, this fear, which Vladimir I. Lenin, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and even Deng Xiaoping sought to exorcise in their time, is strong enough to have compelled Castro to expose Cuba to international opprobrium by harshly cracking down on political dissent. He acted through the promulgation of discordantly oppressive laws and, especially, the March 1 trial, held behind closed doors, of four dissidents who are children of his 1959 revolution. Judging from first reactions, the crackdown may have been a major, panic-induced miscalculation. It’s the price Castro is willing to pay to silence dissent.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Castro’s behavior echoes that of China’s leaders, whom the Cuban dictator professes to admire and strives to imitate. Beijing also chose to endure scalding foreign criticism when it imprisoned its dissidents, despite Western admonitions to respect human rights. China, moreover, has jeopardized its relations with the United States by allegedly spying at a U.S. nuclear-weapons center. In both instances, the two dictatorships apparently concluded that their immediate self-interest came first, even at the cost of paralyzing foreign investments that they direly need.

Although the Cuban dissidents were sentenced to relatively short prison terms for “inciting sedition,” the prosecution of the three men and a woman is the most important human-rights case in Cuba in at least 10 years. In July 1989, Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, a hugely popular military chief, and three others were executed following their conviction by a Havana military tribunal for “treason.”


The principal defendant at the one-day trial earlier this month was 56-year-old Vladimiro Roca, a former pilot in the Cuban Air Force with a degree in international affairs. He received a five-year prison sentence; two others got four-year sentences; the last was given three and a half years.

Roca is best known among Cubans as the son of the late Blas Roca, secretary-general of the old-line Cuban Communist Party, whom Castro co-opted for his new Communist Party and elevated to the Politburo. The traditional Communist Party did not support Castro during his guerrilla war against the dictatorship of Gen. Fulgencio Batista until victory was achieved.

Blas Roca was the chief communist negotiator in forming the alliance with Castro. A true Marxist-Leninist believer but a man of political moderation, he was immensely proud of his son, Vladimiro (named after Lenin), a defender of the revolution in the cockpit of a MIG fighter. It is obviously embarrassing to Castro to see Blas Roca’s heroic son as a leading dissenter at this stage of history. The other defendants--an economist, a lawyer and an engineer--are similarly children of the revolution. They were young and enthusiastic when the revolution triumphed, and they served it loyally for decades.

There is another side to the trial. Roca and Felix Bonne, the engineer, are both black, the only known black dissidents in Cuba, where the nonwhite population stands at 60%. Given Castro’s claim that the revolution has ended racial discrimination, he can ill afford to let well-educated blacks challenge him, even as gently as the four defendants had done.


It is unknown what precisely turned the four into dissidents in a country where political dissent hardly exists. But in July 1997, they published abroad and in the few Cuban underground broadsheets a document titled “The Fatherland Belongs to All.” It urged some form of democracy for the island. They were immediately arrested and charged with calling on Cubans not to vote in rubber-stamp local elections and to abstain from participating in Communist Party organizations, appealing to foreign businessmen not to invest in Cuba, granting interviews to foreign newsmen and speaking by telephone on Radio Marti, the U.S. government’s anti-Castro broadcasting operation. For reasons Havana never explained, the four were kept in high-security prison for 19 months until their trial was announced late last month.

The announcement came on the heels of the National Assembly’s approval of the Law for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy. The law dictates prison sentences up to 20 years for Cubans “conspiring” with the United States or with individual Americans against Cuba’s national interest, however defined. Foreign journalists were warned that they, too, could be imprisoned if their dispatches are judged to be helpful to Washington.

Why Castro has resumed repression on such a scale is, naturally, the most intriguing aspect of the situation. The answer is far from clear, particularly when his actions have antagonized supporters who have pushed for Cuba’s full membership in the international community and the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions against it. Thus, within hours of the verdict, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien expressed his “disappointment” and indicated that he would review Canada’s active and rather cordial bilateral relations with Cuba. The European Union warned Castro that failure to release the dissidents might jeopardize Havana’s right to attend the EU’s talks with developing countries. Even before the verdict was known, Brazil’s Workers’ Party, the socialist opposition party, demanded that the foreign ministry formally protest the trial. Meanwhile, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega said the new antidissent laws were a matter of “concern,” presumably reflecting the view of Pope John Paul II, who visited Cuba to help create a more peaceful political climate.

There is even more at stake in gaining still greater respectability: a crucial visit by the king and queen of Spain is planned for late spring, but the trial may force Madrid to rethink it; the annual Iberian summit is to be held in Havana for the first time next November; and the Baltimore Orioles baseball team is to play in baseball-crazy Havana on March 28. So why is Castro risking so much with the trial and his repressive legislation?


Roca and his companions are no threat, and the Concilio Cubano dissident group to which they belonged is barely alive. They never advocated violence nor commanded an armed movement. But this is where the fear element enters the Castro equation--and probably distorts it.

As a dissident in the struggle against Batista, Castro remembers how dangerous is the propagation of ideas in a dictatorial society and how his movement was dangerously underestimated by the general. Consequently, Castro may be convinced that dissent, no matter how marginal, must be stamped out lest it grow, especially in the midst of a permanent economic catastrophe.

Like China, Castro presumably assumes that Roca and company will soon be forgotten--the Chinese have counted on this belief in dealing with their dissidents--and he will be back before too long in international good graces. In fact, he has promised the defendants freedom if they leave Cuba, which they have refused to do.

But it is quite possible that Castro, a man of astonishing personal courage, has discovered fear in his heart. It would be an amazing denouement of his four-decade rule.