Can soap opera save socialism in Cuba?

By Elizabeth Pisani

International Herald Tribune

Thursday, September 26, 1991


Cuba, swallowing its Communist pride in the search for new friends, has laid on an effusive welcome for the right-wing Spanish politician Manuel Fraga.

Mr. Fraga, once a cabinet minister under Franco, comes in the guise of president of the provincial assembly of Galicia, the northwestern province which led Spanish emigration to Cuba. Diplomats say the veteran politician received in the small hours of Tuesday by Fidel Castro is being accorded honors normally reserved for a head of state.

During his seven-day visit he is to meet several of Cuba’s top Communist Party officials and visit Galician immigrant communities and the central Cuban town of Manatí, where he lived as a child.

"It’s a soap opera," a local analyst said. "Communist maverick in search of friends meets fascist fossil in search of roots, and they live happily ever after – that sort of thing. Fraga has no power; it’s all symbolism. But to choose someone so far from the socialist fold is pretty strange symbolism."

Banners in Havana saying "Welcome President Fraga" seem to be a public relations exercise aimed at a domestic audience beginning to feel that its nation is friendless. But there is also a business angle. Mr. Fraga has brought more than 30 businessmen.

Havana is still reeling from the collapse in Moscow. Earlier this month, Mikhail Gorbachev announced that he intended to pull remaining troops out of Cuba, which has lived in the Soviet economic and military shadow for most of Mr. Castro’s 32 years of rule. He insists that he will keep Cuba Communist at all costs. But what if the cheap oil and other goods from the Soviet Union evaporate?

The troop withdrawal was clearly intended to score points with Washington, said a Communist Party intellectual speaking privately. Washington maintains an economic embargo, and disgruntled European diplomats say the United States tries to use its economic clout to stop other countries from doing business with Cuba. "Of course it’s possible, even likely, that the Yankees will pressurize even the Soviet Union into joining" the economic blockade," the Communist intellectual said.

Anti-American rhetoric reflects the deep unease of senior party leaders. The United States "thinks Cuba has been abandoned and is on the verge of being sacrificed; [Washington] is rubbing its hands in anticipation of the feast following the collapse of the revolution," said the official daily Granma in an editorial last week. "Cuba will never allow itself to be handed over or sold to the United States, and to avoid a return to slavery we are prepared to fight to the death." The editorial carried the first official comment on the Soviet troop withdrawal, portraying it as a betrayal.

Ordinary Cubans, already living with their backs to the wall, are full of black humor about the "socialism or death" speeches. Long lines form in every city in the country on rumors that a shop will soon be getting milk, bread or cigarettes – which, along with clothes, gas and almost everything else, are rationed. Public transport outside the capital is more or less nonexistent for lack of fuel. Newspapers, when available, exhort farmers to use animals and human muscle in harvesting to save petrol.

"Things are frankly pretty damned bad and they are going to get a lot worse," said an electrical engineer working as a bus mechanic. Asked what he thought should be done, he shrugged. "What can we do? Someone will have to help us."

The Soviet Union has long used subsidized trade to channel up to $5 billion a year in aid to the island. But after this year, it appears, Havana will have to play the same hard-currency game as the rest of the world.

Hence the search for new friends and particularly for new investment. "They need help and dollars badly and they’ll go to almost any lengths to get them," a senior Western diplomat says. Cuba’s laws say foreigners can own up to 49 percent of a joint venture, but diplomats say the cash-hungry government has shown that it is prepared to deal on much more favorable terms. "Some businessmen feel this is a good time to get in and wring out a really good deal. They believe no government lasts forever and any subsequent regime here will be more free-enterprise orientated and likely to honor old agreements," the diplomat said.

Spain, former colonial master of Cuba, already leads the field in foreign investment, mostly in tourism. And the government has been actively wooing Japanese firms with debt-for-equity deals that would wipe out some of the $1.7 billion that Cuba owes to Japanese banks and companies. "A party official said recently he would deal with the devil to keep the socialist economy going," joked an ex-student sent home, like thousands of young Cubans, because the government cannot afford to feed students in hostels. "He may well have to."

The writer, a free-lance journalist, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.