Cuba faces old threats in a new world order


By Greg Adamson

The Bush administration was more than displeased with the Cuban government's stand on the Gulf crisis, but its hostility to Cuba doesn't stem from that stand.

As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Cuba was heavily involved in efforts to try to remove Iraq from Kuwait by negotiation. Washington couldn't have been happy when Cuba's delegate, Ricardo Alarcón, described the war this way: "No action or decision adopted or to be adopted by this [UN Security] Council can give it the political, legal, or moral authority to undertake any kind of action of an inherently inhuman character".

But a year ago, well before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Cuba faced three combined US military exercises near its shores. These simulated an air strike in the case of global nuclear war, in addition to air and naval troop landings and the evacuation of civilian personnel from Guantánamo, the US base on Cuban soil. At the same time TV Marti, an anti-Cuban television station, was launched by the US government.

These actions took place in the aftermath of the overthrow of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. Within the United States there was an eager expectation, a "home by Christmas" mood, among a section of the Cuban emigre population dreaming of returning as rulers to a capitalist Cuba.

While world attention focussed on the Middle East, the Bush administration tightened its economic blockade against Cuba. In a recent change, any ship found in a US port which has engaged in trade between Cuba and a third country in the previous 180 days will be seized.

In addition, Cuba faces the international economic downturn and the consequences of changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Last year trade between Cuba and the Soviet Union increased 8.7%. Soviet Vice President Leonid Abalkin told parliament: "We have to bear in mind who gave us a helping hand after the Armenian earthquake and who has taken in our children affected by the Chernobyl tragedy. These are incomparable gestures."

In late December, Cuba signed five trade and cooperation agreements with the Soviet Union for 1991. Cuba places primary importance on fuel, food, raw materials, equipment and spare parts. Its main exports are sugar, nickel, citrus fruit, tobacco and, most recently, pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical products.

Import of consumer durables such as television sets and refrigerators has been reduced to spare parts to keep current items working.

The Soviet Union has undertaken to continue its support for existing projects, while starting no new ones. Given the ongoing withdrawal of the majority of Soviet technical specialists, however, it is unclear how this will happen.

Work on the most important project, the Juragua nuclear power plant, appears to have been marking time for the last two years. This plant was intended to tie into the Soviet nuclear fuel cycle, with the USSR providing fuel rods and removing the waste. The Chernobyl accident raised concern in Cuba about the safety of the Soviet design and in the Soviet Union about the future of the nuclear industry altogether. While the Cuban government is desperately hoping to have the plant solve its impending power shortage, its future is uncertain.

At the same time, Cuba has undertaken conservation and environmental measures to put the rest of the world to shame. A long-time user of solar power, the country is currently involved in a massive reafforestation program, a major container recycling effort, the generalised introduction of bicycles as a major means of transport, the use of natural fertilisers, the promotion of ants and other insects for pest control and an active investigation and use of alternative medicines.

Cuba has prepared an emergency program in case Soviet oil deliveries are reduced from the present 12 million tonnes to 8 million or below. These measures, such as reverting to manual harvesting of sugar cane and the closing of much of the country's industry, would be a severe setback.

Trade problems and the US embargo are increasing domestic problems. In a country whose health and education standards are among the best in the world, these include: overcrowded housing; poor delivery of water, electricity, fresh food and many goods and services; public disinterest in a boring printed media despite several campaigns to improve it; continuing bureaucratism five years after the launch of a campaign of "rectification" to end it; the exclusion of religious believers from the country's single legal political party; and a sense of little control even over those problems for which there is a possibility of solution.

To place this in perspective, the sort of problems faced by neighbouring countries are poverty, illiteracy, homelessness, landlessness, drug trading and addiction, widespread prostitution, virulent racism and institutionalised sexism, along with governmental policies of war or genocide.

A worrying depoliticisation was reflected in the first local discussions organised in preparation for the fourth congress of the Cuban Communist Party, to be held this year. Meetings April proved unable to generate serious discussion on the problems at hand. In response, the debates were reinitiated at the regional and national levels, and the lively criticism and attacks on bureaucratism were televised to prove the seriousness of the discussion.

Of particular interest has been the revitalisation of the Communist Party's youth group, the UJC. A wide-reaching discussion is also taking place in the Cuban Federation of Women. Possible outcomes of the congress include an invitation to religious believers to join the party, proposals for the revamping of Cuba's People's Power electoral system and a reassertion of the power of the grassroots level of that system.