THE NATIONAL economy is in ruins. There are riots against a Communist regime devoid of moral authority, a democratic mandate and popular support. A Government-controlled press blames all on subversive imperialism without and its lackeys within. In an attempt to buy time and rid themselves of their most pernicious domestic critics, the authorities relax hitherto draconian emigration curbs. This is Fidel Castro's Cuba in the late summer of 1994. But the pattern is uncannily familiar.
Such was Soviet Eastern Europe five years ago, on the eve of its collapse. In that fantastic 1989, only in Poland was the ancien regime voted away through the ballot box. Everywhere else a single event - a change in travel regulations here, a belated acknowledgement of historical fact there, or an individual act of repression - was the detonator of revolution.
In Hungary, a senior Communist official admitted that the anti-Soviet 'counter-revolution' of 1956 had, in fact, been a popular uprising, thereby tearing away the last theoretical underpinning of the party's claim to power. Thus emboldened, the Hungarians permitted thousands of East Germans who had sought sanctuary at the West German Embassy in Budapest to cross into Austria, igniting a chain reaction which led to the opening of the Berlin Wall and the end of East Germany.
A couple of months later, police violently dispersed a demonstration in Prague, only prompting the still larger demonstrations that toppled the Czechoslovak regime.
Finally, the Romanian security police evicted a Hungarian priest from the provincial city of Timisoara. That was in mid-
December. On Christmas Day Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed.
Five years later, the Clinton Administration, the entire Cuban-American community here, and an unknown, but sizeable, percentage of Cubans in Cuba would like nothing better than to add the riots at Havana harbour on August 5 to that list, as the moment that sealed Fidel Castro's fate. And a chain reaction has already started.
Accusing the yanquis of deliberately encouraging the exodus, Castro let the 'boat people' leave. After thousands had washed up in Florida, the US responded by ending the special treatment enjoyed for almost 30 years by Cuban refugees. Now - to appease the powerful Cuban-American lobby - Washington is tightening the economic noose around the island. The calculation? That removal of the safety valve of flight and automatic asylum in the US, and yet harsher living conditions at home would produce a popular uprising to force Castro from power. The logic looks impeccable. But it could yet prove wrong.
The parallels with Eastern Europe are obvious. Indeed, with the exception of Romania then, Cuba's economic plight today is almost certainly worse. Especially dependent on Soviet subsidies, it has found the loss of those subsidies even more painful. The sugar harvest will be down this year from 7 million tonnes to a catastrophic 4 million. The advances in education and health care, once the indisputable achievements of Cuban socialism, have, to put it mildly, been compromised.
Pseudo-reformist half-measures by the regime have only added to the economy's problems - shades of the Soviet Union under perestroika. Cuba languishes in limbo, abandoned by its old protector Moscow yet barred from the international order. The refugees who have taken to rafts and rowing boats have been voting with their oars.
But their numbers are small: despite the surge in the past fortnight, fewer than 9,000 this year, a fraction of the 125,000 Mariel exodus in five months of 1980, or the estimated 40,000 East Germans who poured into Hungary five years ago, not to mention the 200,000 Hungarians who fled the Soviet tanks in 1956. And there is another, more important, difference. Those Hungarians and East Germans were fleeing regimes imposed from the outside. The revolution Castro is now defending may have failed miserably. But at least it was a home-grown, nationalist revolution.
Indeed, the US has been to Cuba what the Soviet Union once was to Eastern Europe. Moscow used the 'Brezhnev doctrine' to invade Czechoslovakia in 1968. But until 1934 the US enjoyed a similar right to intervene in Cuba's affairs as it pleased, enshrined in an amendment to the first constitution of an independent Cuba in 1901. Hence the love- hate relationship Cubans have with El Norte and the frequent messianic strand to their nationalism.
Having destroyed the economy and long outworn any 'democratic' welcome, Castro's only claim to legitimacy is his nationalism. He may once more be able to turn Washington's new sanctions to his own advantage, presenting the country once more as victim of American bullying.
August 5's place in Cuba's history is still to be decided. Perhaps it will be the detonator of Castro's downfall. But the next links in the chain reaction are unpredictable. The harbour rioting, shown on Cuban TV, may have alarmed more people than it encouraged. Alternative dissident leaders are hardly visible. But then again, what if at the next disturbance the security forces open fire? What would the military do? Would they conclude that real reform is the only solution, that Castro must go? Quite simply, no one knows.
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