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Hold the reforms -- Castro is inching back into the driver’s seat

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Times Staff Writer

Nine months after falling victim to an illness that many U.S. analysts assumed would prove fatal, Fidel Castro appears to have come back from death’s door to resume some leadership responsibilities and rein in Cuba’s would-be reformers.

He’s receiving visiting dignitaries, not just friends such as Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez but official delegations, including one last week led by a senior figure in the Chinese Communist Party, Wu Guanzheng.

Castro’s name is again attached to editorials for Cuba’s state-run media, ones in which the U.S. government is lambasted for freeing an accused terrorist and Brazil is criticized for using food crops for ethanol production when they could be feeding Latin America’s poor.

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And, to the alarm of veteran Cuba-watchers who sensed a new degree of openness to economic change during Castro’s absence, the apparently reinvigorated revolutionary is now believed to be blocking moves to let Cubans open small businesses.

U.S. analysts of Cuban developments acknowledge that they know little about Castro’s illness or the degree of his recuperation. His personal secretary said he was suffering from intestinal bleeding when he handed over power last summer to his brother Raul. U.S. intelligence sources have speculated that he has cancer.

But the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported the most detailed and plausible version of his prolonged medical attention, citing unidentified doctors familiar with Castro’s case. The newspaper said the Cuban president had undergone three surgeries to remove infected intestinal tissue and became gravely ill when the incisions failed to heal and the infection spread to his stomach.

Since July 31, when Raul Castro, the defense minister and first vice president, took over for his older brother, state-authorized media exposes on rampant corruption and the younger Castro’s public criticism of shortages in food, transportation and housing have hinted at internal review of Cuba’s political and economic system, said Phil Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute near Washington and a veteran analyst of Cuban affairs.

Raul, the pragmatist

Raul Castro has a reputation for pragmatism about private enterprise within the state-run economy, having inaugurated many of the island’s most successful hard currency-earning joint ventures in tourism in the early 1990s, when the country was reeling from the sudden cutoff of Soviet aid.

After Fidel Castro was too sick even to make an appearance at the September summit in Havana of the Non-Aligned Movement or at his delayed 80th birthday celebrations in December, the government said that a thorough review was underway to identify, and presumably correct, flaws in the communist ideology guiding the country.

“Now it looks like cold water’s getting poured over all that,” Peters said. “That, to me, is the clearest sign that Fidel Castro is getting better and getting closer to coming back to office.”

Castro remains staunchly critical of income disparities among Cubans, including the estimated $1 billion in annual remittances from relatives abroad that are believed to benefit as much as a third of the island’s population.

State salaries average about $15 a month for most workers, so the $100 a month that Cubans in the United States can legally send their relatives in Cuba has created a class divide between those who receive dollars and those who do not.

Also prospering out of proportion to those in state enterprises are the thousands of entrepreneurs who secured licenses during the early 1990s that allowed them to open private restaurants, pensions and consumer services that cater to the 2 million foreign visitors to Cuba each year.

Castro revoked many of those private-enterprise licenses three years ago and imposed withering taxes, just before he ordered the removal of the U.S. dollar from circulation in Cuba and replaced it with a new national currency called the convertible peso, which has no value outside Cuba.

Hopes of an expansion in self-employment were buoyed last fall when Raul Castro began speaking out in interviews and speeches against the government’s inability to properly provide for its 11.2 million citizens.

Those hopes were dashed, at least for the short term, this month when Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, architect of the early 1990s reforms, parroted Fidel Castro’s condemnation of “social distortions” in a speech to a Communist youth group. Cuban media also reported recently that the academic commission assigned to examine problems with state ownership wouldn’t deliver its verdict for three years.

Peters believes the debate opened late last year will continue “airing out all kinds of dirty laundry” and putting pressure on the leadership to make course corrections.

“Carlos Lage also said, ‘We, the Cuban government, no longer pay a just wage that allows people to cover their basic needs,’ ” Peters said. “You can only say that so many times before you have to come up with a solution to the problems.”

Damian J. Fernandez, head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, agrees that a Pandora’s box of ideological debate has been opened that will eventually lead to change.

“People are talking in Cuba. When the talk is going to materialize into action, I don’t know. But this moment of succession, the transfer of power, has broadened the parameters of what is discussable, what is permissible,” he said. “There are still parameters, but the borderlines are fuzzier.”

Cubans remain patient

Still, Castro’s return to the power structure would put a damper on the debate, he said.

“To have an open, full-fledged discussion on the future, Castro would have to be gone,” Fernandez said.

Other analysts say the seesawing on reform could threaten Cuba’s relative social peace. Although Cubans privately express a hunger for more opportunity to improve their living standards, they have remained patient throughout Castro’s rigid opposition to capitalist activity, including the types of business now allowed in allied Vietnam and China.

“He’s in the way,” Frank Mora, a professor of national security strategy at the National War College, said of Castro’s apparent return to the policymaking arena. “He’s prolonging a real transition. Whatever support Raul has been able to build can run out quickly if he’s not able to deliver the goods.”

However, he said, Cubans have shown little inclination to challenge their system in the way Eastern Europeans did two decades ago with pro-democracy marches and protests. There also is no discernible divide in the Cuban political or military elite, Mora said, that could be exploited by pro-democracy advocates, who are few and fearful since a major crackdown on dissent four years ago.

Although Cuba-watchers differ in their forecasts of whether Fidel Castro will resume full power, they agree he is making at least a partial leadership comeback. By Communist protocol, the head of the Cuban party should have received the Wu delegation -- a role Castro signed over to his brother nine months ago.

“At least the PR campaign is that he is trying to get back in the saddle,” Fernandez said. “Can he mount the horse as totally as in the past? I think that’s unlikely. But he can still have a lot of influence.”

What is the elder Castro’s motivation for reasserting control despite advancing age, persistent infirmities and his own stated need to groom a new generation of leaders?

“Once a micromanager, always a micromanager,” Fernandez said.

carol.williams@latimes.com


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