Cuban President Fidel Castro, speaking Nov. 17 at the University of Havana, asked, “Do you believe that this revolutionary socialist process can fall apart, or not?” His answer: “This revolution can destroy itself. … We can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault.”

At issue is a plague of “vices, theft, [and] re-routing” at the hands of “social parasites … and the new rich,” he said. Cuba has lost $1.5 billion, “part of it stolen; part wasted; and the rest thrown away.” During the years of acute economic hardship known as the special period, he said, “we saw the growth of much inequality and certain people were able to accumulate a lot of money.”

For two years, Cuba’s leaders have been pursuing a campaign against corruption within government bureaucracies and the Communist Party. Measures promoting economic centralization and control of hard currency have been central to the project.

Under the aegis of “Operation July 26,” the government is responding to serious losses in its fuel distribution program that emerged first in Pinar del Rio province and later throughout the country. Half of the proceeds from sales of gasoline and diesel fuel were found to have ended up in private hands. Additional supplies of oil arriving from Venezuela contributed to bringing the problem into the open.

The government has assigned 28,000 social work students to pump fuel, monitor refinery operations and check on gasoline truck deliveries. Thousands of fuel industry employees have been fired for illicit activity. Many government ministries, the locus of much abuse, now face restrictions on fuel use for their own vehicles. As a result of these measures, revenues are up by the equivalent of $100,000 per day.

The origins of the social workers are worth noting. They have all completed a yearlong course with pay at one of four schools established in 2001 to prepare them for assisting people in their own communities and studying at the university level. The students were recruited by the Union of Young Communists from the ranks of young people at risk for educational failure and joblessness. Many of their families are undereducated. Many are Afro-Cuban. To enlist these students against the newly rich is to demarcate the struggle along class lines.

The campaign has moved into other areas. In September, the military took over Havana port operations, in part to stop thievery by port workers and truckers. Pharmaceutical factory employees, accused of stealing medicines for private sales, have been dismissed. Authorities are monitoring family operated restaurants, pharmacies and farmers’ markets to cut down on hard currency losses. They are curtailing the sale of houses obtained free from the state. Reports are current that the convertible peso, typically used by tourists, will soon be reduced in value relative to the regular peso.

Castro has chided the Cuban people for failing to monitor their own individual energy use and berated the newly rich for squandering fuel and electricity. And he called upon Cubans and people everywhere to adjust consumption to the prospect of global oil scarcity: “In 30 or more years … oil will run out, just as many of the world’s minerals,” he said.

The country’s improving economy has created conditions favorable to the anti-corruption campaign. Anicia Garcia, an economist at the University of Havana, told the Los Angeles Times, “We are taking advantage of the better situation to deal with the social problems that appeared during the crisis that came with the end of the Soviet Union.” She cited the increased availability of consumer goods and a variety of food products, and pointed out that state salaries and pensions have increased by more than 20 percent this year.

In 2005 Cuba experienced a positive balance of trade for the first time since 1989, and its economy expanded 11.8 percent, a figure arrived at by attaching monetary value to social services.

Some predict that the anti-corruption campaign will be a watershed in the history of the Cuban Revolution. According to Castro, “We speak of a revolution that can discuss all this and can grab the bull by the horns. … Let there be no [fall of] the USSR here, no socialist camps dissolved [and] broken up, [and] no empire here to set up secret prisons for torture.”

Nevertheless, the stakes are high: “Either we defeat all these deviations and make our revolution strong, or we die,” Castro said.