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The Dark Horses of 1994: CUBA / Castro's failing magic

THE NEEDLE may have been stuck on Fidel Castro's revolution for 34 years but, for the first time since the Cuban leader marched into Havana in 1959, there are signs that 1994 may finally see the island moving on to a different track. 'Fidel va a soltar' (Fidel is going to pack it in) is a phrase being heard more and more, and openly, in the capital. And it is being said in all seriousness.

Whatever the 67-year-old leader's intentions, the island, an anachronism of despotic backwardness only 90 miles from the Land of the Free, appears locked on a course that will soon produce dramatic change, peaceful or otherwise.

Senior Spanish officials, who are acting as mediators between Mr Castro and his old enemy across the Windward Straits, have already convinced him to swallow much of his Marxist pride and dip his toes in the waters of capitalism.

During 1993, under the strong influence of the Spaniards - this time men in suits, but ironically descendants of those sent packing by earlier Cuban guerrillas in their independence struggle - Mr Castro took economic abertura (opening up) measures that would have been inconceivable a year earlier. For the first time, he allowed all Cubans to possess, save or spend US greenbacks, formerly a privilege restricted to state institutions and foreign visitors. He also allowed limited private business and self-employment, starting a rush in everything from private taxis to bicycle puncture repair shops.

Last week's session of the National Assembly, long a rubber-stamp body of Communist Party clones on the lines of the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union, was remarkably heated, with deputies arguing that reform measures did not go far enough. The downside of Mr Castro's conjuring act, in which he is fumbling to pull a capitalist rabbit out of his khaki cap without betraying the revolution, will hit home this year.

His 'economic stability' measures will mean mass lay-offs in state enterprises, the ending of subsidies which Cubans have taken for granted and that unfortunate drawback of capitalism - taxes. For Cubans used to living off the state while dreaming of Miami, income and property taxes may just turn out to be unacceptable.

That could mean greater popular discontent, even revolt, coupled with a backlash from Communists brainwashed by years of revolutionary idealism - not to mention discontent in the army.

Mr Castro has so far shown little sign of seeing the writing on the wall. Rather than risk overthrow, say Spanish diplomats who follow Cuba, he may be prepared to give way to a hand-picked successor. They note that the Cuban leader has a standing invitation from Manuel Fraga, the regional prime minister of Galicia in north-west Spain, to spend his twilight years in his father's homeland.

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