It has been said that totalitarianism is dead when a shopkeeper hangs and ant-government sign in his storefront window without fear of repercussion. Although Cub has not yet reached that stage, it is rapidly approaching it. Indeed, open criticism of Fidel Castro has now spread beyond the radio stations and restaurants of Miami to the crowded streets of Havana.
The unprecedented riots along the Malecon this August (according to The New Republic, over 500 remain in jail on charges of "rebellion") and the mass exodus that followed it are incredible signs that Castro's power is threatened for the first time in 35 years.
In fact, many of the societal changes forged by the Revolution have already been abandoned in an effort to survive without Soviet assistance. The Cuban tourism industry, for instance, one of the few bright spots in the island's economic fiasco, is closed off to Cuban citizens. Cubans cannot visit the Tropicana, eat at a restaurant, or go to the nicest strips of Varadero beach, which today is used instead by Spanish, Canadian and German tourists.
The prostitution industry is thriving despite the denial of its existence by the Castro regime, something that is particularly ironic in light of the fact that one of Castro's complaints in 1959 was the "selling" of Cuban women to foreigners. The legalizing for the dollar has created a two-tiered society of those with exiled relatives and those without.
In today's Cuba, more than just the economy is dead. So is the Revolution. Many analysts say that this year is particularly critical. If the situation does not improve in the coming months, Cubans will undoubtedly begin to realize their own strength (the lesson first taught them by Fidel himself) and act on it.
They already are in one respect. Although unable to express their displeasure at the ballot box, nearly 50,000 Cubans have voted by risking death on rickety rafts.
And Fidel Castro can to little about it without employing coercive methods; he would be hard pressed today to organize the same type of "voluntary" mass demonstrations against of Cuban drafters that he did during the Mariel boatlift. In 1980, thousands turned out for fear of losing their jobs or being labeled counterrevolutionaries. Today, selling trinkets to tourists pays in dollars and state jobs pay in pesos; getting fired has become an asset, and some estimates put worker absenteeism as high as 50%.
Those who came out in 1980 out of true fervor, however many they may have been, would in 1994 have enough trouble finding public transportation to get to a rally; gas is difficult to come by now that the Soviets are no longer around to provide an oil subsidy. In 1980, Cubans tossed rotting fruit and eggs at the gusanos (worms) who swarmed the Peruvian embassy in their efforts to leave the country.
In the Cuba of 1994, that food is nearly impossible to obtain. Cuba's fortunes, along with those of the man who has come to represent it, have sunk.
And yet, along with getting an escape valve for 50,000 dissatisfied citizens, Fidel is closer than he has ever been to seeing at least a partial end to the U.S. embargo and a formal recognition of what has been the most brutal dictatorship in the history of a country remarkable for its brutal and corrupt dictators. The New York Times has recently reported that a "blueprint" for talks between Cuba and the U.S. are imminent.
Former president Carter, fresh off a dubious victory in Haiti that will apparently allow Raoul Cedras to remain in the country if not in power, announced that he had had a "very pleasant" conversation with Fidel Castro and hoped to pressure the Administration into making concessions. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, has Guantanamo Naval Base filled to capacity with tens of thousands of dissatisfied Cubans, a concentration camp that will cost millions in its first months alone.
So even though Cuba finds itself at a critical point in its Revolution, some things have not changed: Fidel Castro is still in control and it is still Fidel, despite appearances to the contrary, who cleverly manipulates U.S. reaction to his regime. Although many editorial pages around the nation are hailing the President for his cool-headed and quick end to the rafters' crisis, those same newspapers are urging him to make overtures to the Cuban regime, which, after all, was nice enough to cooperate.
Meanwhile, the Cuban rightwing of Miami, individuals who have lost their homes, their Homeland and, in many cases, their families, is accused of hijacking U.S. foreign policy. Their extremism is justified; few people even realize the stunt that Fidel has pulled off.
The future of a democratic Cuba depends on the United States maintaining a position of strength and resisting the temptation to weaken the embargo without similarly drastic concessions, including U.N. monitored elections, from the Castro regime.
Instead of bringing democracy through free trade and bettering the life of the average Cuban, diluting the embargo's terms without receiving anything in return will only strengthen the position of Fidel.
The embargo is a valuable tool which should be continued, along with the new punitive measures that have been adopted in the wake of the rafters, until Fidel Castro agrees to step down and hold fair elections monitored by the United Nations. The problem of Cuba is not now, and never has been, the American embargo. The problem of Cuba is Fidel Castro.
This is not to say that no dialogue should be conducted, only that it should be a cautious one, with the unwavering goal of Fidel Castro's ouster, and the removal of his criminal regime.
Cuba, a country which has rarely known a democracy and never experienced honest government, deserves no less.
The thousands of political prisoners rotting in Castro's jails, many beaten and tortured, deserve no less.
The people of Cuba, who fight every day simply to survive and find food not because of an American embargo but because of the selfish policies of a megalomaniac, deserve no less.