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The Many Numbered Days of Fidel Castro

In some ways, the US is Cuba's biggest donor

THE turn of the year is a milestone for everyone and for none more than Fidel Castro Ruz, whose bearded guerrillas rode into Havana on Jan. 1, 1959. No other ruler in today's world has been in power so long.

Experts have been saying for years that his days are numbered, but Castro has managed to stay ahead of the curve - with, ironically, the mostly unwitting help of his arch-enemy, the United States.

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It is a remarkable story. Returning from exile to overthrow a corrupt, mafia-ridden regime, Castro skirmished in the Sierra Maestra, hundreds of miles away, while the young revolutionaries of Havana University invaded the presidential palace and fought it out with President Fulgencio Batista's gunmen in the capital's streets.

Batista fled on New Year's Eve, and Castro took over with little idea of how to govern. What he lacked was supplied by the Communist Party. It had followed his struggle suspiciously but, when he won, put its organization and propaganda skills at his disposal. Castro gladly availed himself of this political valet service. But his revolution was no more communist than it was democratic. It was the vehicle of a charismatic leader doing whatever was needed to keep himself in power, operating in the vacuum Batista had left, unburdened by ideology. The Fidel of the 1960s is still today's Fidel, facing a new challenge.

In December 1961, Castro surprised Cuba's Communists and the leaders of the Soviet Union by announcing that he had long been a Marxist-Leninist. No matter. The following year he purged the Communists but established a strategic relationship with the Kremlin that burst into the open in the Cuban missile crisis and had nothing to do with Marx.

Moscow made Castro and his ego a player on the world stage. Tens of thousands of Cuban troops went to Angola and Ethiopia; technicians and experts went to other African countries as the Soviets sought power centers on the continent. The Kremlin helped put Castro at the head of the so-called nonaligned movement of third-world states and subsidized his regime to the tune of billions of dollars a year. They both reveled in the annoyance caused the United States.

These were glory days for Fidel Castro. They ended abruptly in 1989 as the Soviet system moved toward collapse. The Cuban economy came completely unstuck, and Castro rushed to patch it. China became his paradigm: throwing "Marxist" shibboleths out the window and letting in free enterprise while maintaining iron political control. He invited foreign investors to put hundreds of millions of dollars into the once-disparaged tourist industry (neocolonial! humiliating!). Its annual income approaches $1 billion. Foreign businesses, including some of the biggest US corporations, have been flocking to see about getting in on the ground floor of investing. One of Cuba's best talking points is an industrious work force, the best educated in Latin America, with the unspoken guarantee of labor peace. The government hires the workers out to the foreign-owned enterprises and pays them in pesos, keeping for itself most of the hard currency. US dollars have, in effect, legally become the currency of choice; the government sells them to all comers at black market rates.

The regime reaches out to more than 1 million exiles, once reviled as gusanos (worms), holding conferences with them in Havana on "The Nation and the Emigration." Rather like Beijing and the overseas Chinese. But they and the businesspeople who may be salving their consciences with the thought that economic ties might help human rights are told flatly to disabuse themselves of such a "crass mistake."

The exiles, mostly in the US, are profoundly important. They send relatives in Cuba between $300 million and $400 million a year. Forty percent of families in Havana and 20 percent in the provinces are thought to get some of this help. In the past three years, American humanitarian groups have sent $100 million in aid. The US is, by far, Cuba's largest donor.

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Washington provides negative help. When, in 1960, Cuba confiscated all American holdings, President Dwight Eisenhower slapped an embargo on commerce with the island. Fidel at once capitalized on "the blockade," although Cuba has been free to deal with the rest of the world. For 35 years, the blockade has been the main excuse for anything that has gone wrong. The 104th Congress, now tightening the embargo, plays into Castro's hands. And it all meshes very well with anti-Yankee feelings, David-and-Goliath patriotism, and air-raid shelters dug into hillsides against American attack.

The large Cuban exile community in the US, despite remittances, is a convenient bogyman. Its conservative leadership is seen as wanting to pick up where Batista left off, throwing Cubans off former American property and eliminating what many, even in today's misery, patriotically see as the "benefits of the revolution."

Says Castro, a real revolution needs an enemy or it loses its spirit. But it also needs an economic base. The street riots and the rush of boat people last summer were a warning that food shortages and power blackouts could cause trouble. From all accounts, life is now materially better. But, at the present pace, it will be 2005 before Cuba regains the production of 1989. And Castro's agricultural policy has been a fiasco. To revive the decrepit, all-important sugar industry with new equipment, herbicides, and fertilizer, he has borrowed $200 million from foreign banks at credit card rates, adding to a large foreign debt.

Castro has managed skillfully, stirring enthusiasm and taking people's minds off the trouble he has caused. He has the comfort of a totally reliable Army, although that might not suffice if the balance were seriously upset. Entering his 38th year as president, commander in chief, etc., he continues to take his days one at a time - and they are probably larger in number than his critics would like.

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