Peter Katel in Cuba – “Havana traffic consists largely of bicycles”

One Man Is an Island -The Holdouts -Newsweek – September 9, 1991. page 39
September 9, 1991 | Newsweek | Peter Katel | Page 39

One of the most popular planks in Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s campaign platform this year was his promise to end aid to Cuba. After he was elected in June, the Cuban government swallowed hard and declared him a “friend of the Cuban leadership.” But when Yeltsin’s hard-line Communist foes tried to stage their putsch two week, ago, Fidel Castro’s government didn’t exactly rush to his defense. Officially neutral in the coup, Cuban officialdom was privately horrified by its failure. “They were speechless with shock,” says an executive who visits Havana frequently. Castro’s 32-year-old regime soon recovered its defiant voice. “We will not move away from the path we have chosen,” the Cuban party said last week. “We will continue with our independent, Cuban, socialist line.”

That line is fraying. Well before the coup, a reduction in Soviet subsidies from an estimated $4.1 billion in 1989 to $3.5 billion last year, and a drop believed of equal magnitude this year had left Cuba an economic orphan mired in a virtual pre-industrial state. Soviet oil deliveries, which account for almost all of the island’s fuel supply, were slashed by 23 percent last year. As a result, Havana traffic consists largely of bicycles; in August, Cuba inaugurated carrier-pigeon mail service to replace postal trucks. Most citizens line up each day to receive a single loaf of bread made from Soviet-supplied grain. Yet the Cuban government vows it is ready to live through a “zero option” – no oil at all.

Even Castro’s harshest enemies are not sure it will come to that. As Cuban officials point out, the Moscow-Havana connection is something of a two-way street. Russians still need the 4 million tons of sugar that Cuba sends annually to put in their tea. According to Jorge Dominguez, a Cuba expert at Harvard University, Havana could continue limping along even if Moscow cut the price it pays for Cuban sugar by 25 percent. Such a move would reduce the price from the current 24 cents per pound to the 18 cents the U.S. government guarantees its producers.

Castro’s secret yearning for a hard-line Communist comeback in Moscow has long been rumored in Havana and in Miami’s Cuban exile community. Earlier this year hard-liners in the Kremlin prevailed on Gorbachev to resist a demand by President Bush that the Soviet Union cut off aid to Cuba altogether. The coup’s top military man, Gen. Dmitry Yazov, then the defense minister, was in Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis and remained a longtime advocate of keeping Cuba a militarily defensible post. Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB chief who joined the putsch, spent a week in Havana three months ago. “At the upper level of the [Soviet] military, you hear, ‘We must not abandon our allies, our friends’,” Yelena Goroveya of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations told NEWSWEEK shortly before the coup. Now, says Gillian Gunn of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Cubans “couldn’t in their wildest dreams hope to convince Yeltsin that they hoped the coup would fail.”

Don’t count Castro out yet. By outlasting the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe by two years, Fidel has roved he is a master at turning adversity to his advantage. And decades of political policing, party and Army purges, and the safety valve of immigration to the United States have eliminated potential sources of opposition from within Cuba itself. But Castro has never faced such a difficult combination of economic and political forces as he does now. The angry mood on Cuban food lines could easily explode into riots. Would Castro’s soldiers use force to subdue such crowds? Over the summer, midlevel Army and security officers assured a Cuban-American visitor that troops would not open fire on citizens. Perhaps they would follow the example of the Soviet military men who trained and equipped them: they refused to follow orders rather than spill the blood of civilians.

Three of Asia’s last communist states are reeling from the Soviet collapse. Afghanistan Soviet troops withdrew two years ago, but the KGB and military hard-liners had kept a puppet regime afloat with warplanes, rockets, fuel and food. Last year the KGB scuttle a U.S.-Soviet deal to cut off arms to both the government and the rebel mujahedin. Yeltsin has openly invited rebel leaders to Moscow. President Najibullah, a longtime KGB protege, is said to be nervous about the coup’s aftermath. He may be washed up.

Long the beneficiaries of Soviet largesse, Vietnam’s aging leaders have kept silent on the coup attempt and its aftermath. T o do otherwise would risk either alienating Western supporters of their economic liberalization programs or provoking a popular ground swell against the Communist regime. Last week the foreign minister was said to be preparing to go to Beijing to pave the way for the first meeting between Communist Party chiefs–long traditional foes–since 1977.

Pyongyang didn’t comment officially on the coup, but after it collapsed the government of Kim Il Sung admonished its people to protect socialism from “plots of all enemies at home and abroad.” The economy is shrinking, and the hardline regime is vulnerable to a Soviet cutoff: it depends on Moscow for half its trade and virtually all its arms. But North Korea is not about to give up on the project Western experts believe is one of Kim’s top priorities: a nuclear bomb.

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