CUBA'S CREAKY MARKET OPENING

Fidel Castro's Cuba slowly is opening up, but not like a red rose blooming. Instead, picture a creaking door with rusty hinges, opening a cautious inch or two to let in Western tourists and investors.

Outsiders from Canada and Europe bring with them contagious Western ideas of political pluralism and free markets, which could undercut Mr. Castro's weakened regime. But he has little choice.With his Soviet subsidies gone, the hated United States trade embargo still in place and the jobless rate soaring, Mr. Castro was forced to loosen his grip on Cuba's economy. There's even a hint he will allow a second political party, although under such strict limits it could hardly challenge the Communist Party.

Do the changes in Cuba, however small, signal a shift toward a more democratic system? Or are they merely a clever way for Mr. Castro to consolidate his power and achieve what he really wants: more tourists to pump up Cuba's economy?

Eleven days in Cuba - in the two largest cities, Havana and Santiago de Cuba - left me with a double-edged impression: Support for the revolution, as it's still called after 36 years, remains surprisingly strong despite personal hardship for economically strapped Cubans.

But beneath the surface, dissidents seethe with anger and determination. The number of prisoners of conscience, or political prisoners, is estimated at

from 500 to 3,000.

There's no doubt Cuba remains a repressive state, where the political and economic freedoms of Western democracies mostly don't exist. But there's also no doubt that changes have occurred and will continue, largely in the economic sphere.

For example, some 170,000 Cubans have been licensed to be independent entrepreneurs; they survive by selling crafts, repairing bicycles or offering bottled water and soft drinks on the street. So far, they're not allowed legally to hire anyone, but many obviously violate this rule.

Farmers' markets are springing up, where Cuba's campesinos are allowed to sell a small part of their farm crops. Although these lively markets may be partly a sham, with much of the produce arriving there through the government, it's a start.

Growing numbers of Cubans find work in the expanding tourist industry, where Canadian and European investors are opening new hotels on Cuba's attractive beaches. Cubans are paid in pesos of little worth, but many receive tips in dollars.

In July the government supposedly will put into effect more economic reforms, including allowing small private businesses run and staffed by

families. Another change would permit foreign companies to control 100 percent of, say, a new hotel. So far, foreign investors have been limited to a minority share in joint ventures.

Close observers of Castro's erratic pace of change aren't convinced these reforms actually will occur next month. They've been promised before, only to be delayed.

Another fascinating change in Cuba is the emergence of religious charities, research centers and ethnic groups that theoretically are independent of the government.

After listening to leaders of a dozen such groups in Cuba, I detected little independence in most of them. Many seem to be government puppets, set up to simulate private groups so that "similar" organizations in the West will funnel humanitarian aid through them. A few of Cuba's voluntary groups, however, seem closer to true independence, especially Caritas, a Catholic charity that distributes medicines.

A critical question is related to all the changes in Cuba. Are they reversible? That is, could Mr. Castro instantly snuff out all progressive change? A Miami scholar, Jaime Suchlicki of the Research Institute for Cuba, thinks most economic openings could be reversed quickly. The changes aren't ideologically motivated, he said, but rather are ad hoc decisions by Mr. Castro "to try to muddle through and survive."

Maybe Mr. Suchlicki is right, for now. Before too long, though, I'm convinced a point of no return will be reached. If Mr. Castro lets a dozen more flowers bloom in his garden of thorny red roses, it could be too late. The momentum for change would be out of his control, unless he risks a military crackdown on Cubans with the resulting negative impact on tourism. Who wants to loll around on the beaches of a country torn by civil strife?

The economic health of Cuba depends more on expanding tourism than on the United States lifting its trade embargo, but that issue still is overwhelmingly important in Miami and Washington. It's an appropriate time for the Clinton administration to respond to recent steps by Mr. Castro.

The recent release of six political prisoners and the arrest by Cuba of U.S. fugitive Robert Vesco, and the willingness to turn him over to U.S. authorities, constitute small but real steps. If allowing a second political party turns out to be real, and if two or three more steps to open the economy are taken, Mr. Clinton should consider relaxing the annoying travel restrictions for Americans wishing to visit Cuba.

If Cuba proceeds with more positive changes, American businesses should be allowed to invest there. The more exposure to Western democracies in Cuba, the more likely the country's future will be open instead of repressively closed.

It's long past time for Washington to try another policy toward Cuba, one with a chance to succeed. Let the Cubans be exposed to the U.S. way of life, not to copy it but to be influenced by it. Then perhaps they'll fashion their own system, more to Washington's liking than all these years of dictatorship.

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