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Scholars See Castro Push to Preserve His Legacy

Times Staff Writer

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 capitalism.

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:

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* 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.

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* 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 in prison.

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.

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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 administration.

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“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 there.”

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 -- they’re dying.”

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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.

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“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,” Peters said.

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.

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“Fidel frankly dislikes capitalism. He has this very romantic notion that money corrupts, that money is bad,” Fernandez said. “He genuinely believes that.”

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.”

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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 revolutionary embers.

“The genie is already outside the bottle,” McCarry said.

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