Douglas Thmopson - Author and International Journalist


Has Castro Lit His Last Cigar
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Has Castro Lit His Last Cigar

Daily Express 6th October 1991

Fidel fights for survival in fantasy land as Communist dream goes up in smoke

FIDEL CASTRO will try to talk himself and his country into a future this week at the Communist Party Congress in Cuba.

Anti-Castro enthusiasts and exiles pray that "the Comandante", who turned 65 last month, will be ousted on Thursday.

It is unlikely. Defiant Fidel will try to finesse himself and his nation out of an economic mess.

After decades of aid, Moscow is playing wallflower. But last week as the Soviets began preparing to pull their troops out, Chinese "diplomats" were in Havana for talks.

Washington wants to keep up the economic pressure and force the man who has outlasted the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe out of power. The revolution, like its leader, is showing signs of age but Castro is an ace political poker player. And a survivor — so far.

Cuba was once the pawn in the power game which took the world to the brink of nuclear war. Now it seems the Caribbean incongruity could once again become a firework in global affairs.

But a Sunday Express investigation reveals it will be internal turmoil with discontent and food shortages turning into riots, rather than George Bush, that will finally end Castro's Last Stand.

COLUMBUS   got here   first   and thought  he  had discovered Japan. Nearly five centuries   later   Castro   floated ashore and made a bigger mistake — he believed he had found Utopia. He did not  realise  it  was  just another fantasy island.

Since the fall of Fulgencio Batista on New Year's Day 1959, cigar-smoking Castro has waged a wily game with the world's superpowers to preserve his dream of a political paradise. He has tap-danced around seven American Presidents and waltzed with the KGB and other Moscow hardliners.

Being led by Moscow earned him more than 10 cents for his daily dance — several million dollars a day and an absurdly favourable trade agreement with the Kremlin.
But today his nation is bankrupt in every sense. The hot Caribbean sun shines on the polished chrome of Chevrolets and brightens the faded but still gloriously pastel-coloured homes in the crooked, cobbled streets and court-yards of Old Havana.
It also makes the early hours warm enough for women to carry their shawls over their arms as they join the 4 am bread queues.

For this is a land of heartache and headaches, with no free Press, no opposition parties and the end of that rive billion dollars a year handout from Moscow.
'It is a land of big brother bureaucracy too, with government ministries taking up 77 pages in the Havana telephone directory and 101,067 committees.

The Special Police is manned by 7.3 million of Cuba's 10 million people, with more and more signing up to watch over their neighbours.

The message is that if there was land, not water, between Cuba and the U.S. Castro's country would be empty.

There is something of a Costa del Clacton about the place. Tourists see the beach, the discos and the dancing girls rather than a country where scientists are trying to develop farm machinery which will operate on pig manure.

Petrol is so short that on the drive along a four-lane modern highway from Havana to Veradero there are only about half a dozen other vehicles on the road. There is no fuel to spare for days at the beach.

Most Cubans use Chinese bicycles which are assembled at five Havana factories. The machines, with the curious names Flying Pigeon, Follow Me and Phoenix, cost the equivalent of 120 dollars — half a worker's monthly salary. Buyers get a year to pay.
Havana sings, beats to the rumba and sells the macho Hemingway story and the glory of the Revolution.

But the famous Tropicana nightclub offers acts that would never make it in Las Vegas. The dancers are wobbly and second-rate, the ambience appalling.
All along the route to the Tropicana you see the food queues and youngsters sharing bicycles along the bumpy, hole-pitted streets.

The heat is torrid yet officially no Cuban can .have a fridge. MEATS are impossible to buy on the open     market. Vegetable oil and green vegetables are prize items. Eggs and bread are rationed — as are cigarettes and Castro's beloved cigars. The teenage girls cannot afford to buy dresses. They will invite tourists to take them into clubs or discos.
"We're being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. How long will it be like this? The people are never told," sighs accountant Merida Tolera. Army conscript Ernesto Vasquez says: "Anyone who says we are starving is lying but if there is one thing we need it is free expression."

The dream of free travel remains. "One day tomorrow I will be able to visit your country," says a porter in the hotel.
But will manana ever come?

TOURIST dollars will buy   you   a   clean room, a lobster dinner, a bottle of wine, a night on the town, an official driver, unofficial girls. You   can   also   buy Havana cigars, white rum, dark  rum, toys, jackets, blouses, dresses, shirts and radios.

But Cubans are banned from having dollars. All they get is the party line, and the lines and lines of people queuing up for life's necessities.

Only the Fidel factor -the people's indoctrinated admiration of their leader and the fear of policing and purges — has kept Cuba free from riots and insurgence this far.

Castro's government is desperate for hard currency, and Spain, Italy and Germany are being avidly courted to invest in hotel development, especially in Veradero.

So you have the incredible dichotomy. To survive Castro requires dollar investment. He finds himself walking that thin line between Communism and capitalism.

On Thursday he will be trying to encourage investment but the investors are eager only because they believe that Castro will go and a resulting boom in investment and tourism will follow.

The Government has already made sweeping policy changes which now allow foreign ownership of new buildings.

In fact, if President Bush wants Castro out it would seem from the mood here ol.ixed trade " restrictions the man he calls' "the one down there" would be swept away by the sea of dollars gushing in.

One of those affected by the economic squeeze is Santiago Diaz, a sugar refinery chemist. There is no way he can repair his home, which has been condemned as unsafe.
DIAZ  gets   out  his ration   book   and points   out   items which  the  government says are guaranteed — like one bar of bath soap a month.

But   in  June,   July  and August there was no soap. Rations of  black beans were cut in half during the same months and there had been no butter at all this year. Three toilet rolls were supplied in January but, said Diaz, none since.

Merida Tolera, mother of a six-year-old boy, told how bus service cuts have forced her to get up at 4.30 am to travel to her work at the Che Guevera transport depot.
Lunch breaks have gone by the board. "We are being pushed and squeezed," she says. "How long can we go on like this?" This is the land where "green" has nothing to do with environmental concerns: it concerns the recycling of dental fillings. Or "revived" meat from abattoirs.

Foreign diplomats are careful not to predict Castro's immediate fall but in private it is clear they believe it inevitable.

Castro pushes pedal-power as one more example of his resolve to charge on" regardless. "The revolution is like, a .bicycle. It -has brakes but no reverse."
But the sighs of protest in Havana today may soon build up into a roar.

The match that lights his cigar may spark a new revolution that could mean a changed lifestyle for his downtrodden people.

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