Monday, May 01, 2006

Aging Castro Cracks Down

Cuban Leader Attempts To Root Out `Imperialist' Influence To Preserve Political System And His Legacy

May 1, 2006

By CAROL J. WILLIAMS, Los Angeles Times

MIAMI -- As Cuban leader Fidel Castro wages war against private enterprise, petty theft and a shackled opposition, analysts say the aging militant is striving to recover the egalitarian aims of his revolution and protect his legacy of having rescued Cuba from capitalism.

But the crackdowns also have exposed a deepening rift between a shrinking group of Communist true-believers and a society that has largely defected from his movement's core ideals of solidarity and self-sacrifice.

In an ideological end game pitting the nearly 80-year-old leader against what analysts believe is a large and growing segment of his own people, Castro's drive to root out "imperialist" influence are provoking comparison with Mao Tse-tung's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which ravaged China and set back hopes of reform for years.

While Castro has held his island in a vice grip since his guerrilla band seized power on New Year's Day 1959, his campaigns have lately taken on an urgency. In the past year, amid indications of the bearded icon's flagging health, the regime has:

Declared war on the "new rich," arresting those who use their cars or bicycles as taxis, seizing privately raised produce on sale at farmers' markets and rescinding self-employment licenses that had allowed Cubans since 1994 to run restaurants and guest houses in their homes.

Increased the number of "acts of repudiation" by Communist Party militants, who track down and heckle dissidents and their families.

Increased efforts to dismantle outlawed satellite dishes and confiscated televisions and subscription decoder cards brought in by relatives visiting from abroad.

Drafted students and aging Communist Party loyalists to stand guard at gas stations and factories to deter theft by state employees, a problem even the party newspaper Granma concedes has reached pandemic proportions.

Ordered Cubans to refrain from contact with foreign tourists unless "absolutely necessary" for their jobs, claiming a need to protect citizens from ideological contamination.

The crackdowns intensify what human rights groups have condemned as "a wave of repression" against political challenge that was unleashed three years ago when 75 dissidents and journalists were rounded up, accused of treason and sentenced to an average of 20 years in prison.

Cuba scholars say the harsh measures reflect Castro's efforts to preserve his nation's political system and his legacy.

Most Cubans' commitment to sharing and solidarity "went out the window in the 1990s," said Phillip Peters, Cuba analyst for the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington, Va., recalling the Cuban leadership's replacement of moral incentives with material rewards to boost production in the lean years after the Soviet aid cutoff.

"I think it was always clear that during some of the market-oriented changes made in the '90s that Castro was holding his nose. One reason was because those changes produced inequalities in the society," Peters said.

The Communist newspaper Granma has been exposing case after case of "unscrupulous elements" engaging in black market commerce. The paper disclosed in March that theft of medications and health care equipment, from factories as well as hospitals and clinics, has become so chronic that some patients can't get vital treatment.

The volumes of food disappearing from state warehouses also suggest thievery from top to bottom. As in former communist states in Eastern Europe, there is little sense of wrongdoing among Cubans who take home part of what they produce to sell and stretch puny salaries that average less than $15 a month.

"The bulk of economic crimes that exist in Cuba are small-scale - people who don't have hard-currency income who steal a chicken from the restaurant where they work or sell a little gasoline on the side from their company's pump so they can put meat on the table that weekend," said Peters.

A high-profile campaign against corruption has been underway for at least three years, but Castro disclosed the severity of the problem when he warned last November that the very fate of the revolution was at risk amid such moral failures.

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, likens Castro's end-of-life actions to the brutalities of the Cultural Revolution. Like Mao's Red Guards, Castro deploys special enforcement squads to seize property, break up demonstrations and hound those who challenge the one-party order.

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