Plotting a Course toward Post-Fidel Cuba

Article excerpt

Obviously, Fidel Castro's days are numbered. But the number is a matter of speculation. Fidel watchers last week noted that his beard is thinner, and there is a touch of gauntness in his face - he has lost weight. But there was no hint of stoop or frailty as he stood, fidgeting a bit and clenching his jaw, listening to Pope John Paul II's counterrevolutionary remarks.

The time of Mr. Castro's departure remains unknowable, but the process of change begins to have intimations of transition. The national economy has sunk to the point where recovery is unlikely, despite Castro's Houdini-like talent for escaping from seemingly impossible traps. For instance, the largest industry on the island is sugar. This year's cane harvest, now in progress, is expected to be smaller than last year's, which was well below the average of the 1980s. There is a shortage of fertilizer. More important, the fields are in bad shape. In the 1960s, Castro had the bright idea of mechanizing production through a generous Soviet aid program, but the heavy cutters and tractors progressively compacted the soil - a disaster that will take years to correct.

Overall, the Russian technology that replaced the American-built infrastructure of prerevolutionary times is falling apart. It can't be fixed and must completely give way to Western equipment. This would be a gigantic undertaking even for a thriving economy. Central planning, mismanagement, and corruption are Cuba's albatross. Castro has been throwing revolutionary ballast overboard: He avidly seeks foreign investment in joint ventures, mainly in tourism but even in the sacrosanct sugar industry, whose antique mills were expropriated from American owners and are therefore not attractive to foreigners. US dollars are the currency of value in Cuba today, dividing the population into those who can get some to purchase inadequate rations and those who live on, or over, the edge of malnutrition. So much for revolutionary equality. For many, only native ingenuity stands between them and starvation. The greed of international bankers has come to Castro's aid. When Soviet aid ended in 1986, he simply stopped servicing about $6.5 billion in foreign loans. After a period of strictest austerity, he began once more to borrow more than $6 billion from foreign banks willing to overlook 1986. They lent at interest rates up to 20 percent, with government guarantees of repayment by a stable regime. This is not productive investment. In 1996, half of Cuba's imports were bought on credit, and interest payments ate up $320 million. Despite the economic embargo, major help has come from the United States. An estimated $800 million in currency and gifts is sent each year, more than the income from sugar and tourism combined. …