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Why Cuba can't break loose from Soviet aid, influence

Two decades after he edged Cuba into the Marxist orbit, Fidel Castro is still seeking the economic independence that inspired him to revolution in the first place.

One of the rallying cries of the bearded Cuban revolutionary was that a foreign country -- the United States -- controlled the destiny of Cuba and its people.

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Now, 23 years later, the Cuban economy is as reliant on the Soviet Union as it once was on the US.

Direct Soviet assistance to Cuba runs to $8 million daily, in addition to military aid. The Soviets purchase Cuban sugar at a higher than world market price and sell oil to the island at a price below that of OPEC.

In addition, Soviet technicians and economic planners are found at every level in the Cuban economy.

There is little new construction in Havana, where a fifth of Cuba's 10 million people live. But one outstanding new building is the massive block-square Soviet Embassy.

Most economic barometers suggest that there has been precious little improvement in the Cuban economy during Castro's 23-year rule. Some barometers go so far as to indicate the island is doing worse than before the Cuban revolution.

Dr. Castro himself has given the economy an ''F'' for its economic performance during most of those years.

But he makes much of two achievements -- a massive income redistribution and an end to the pre-Castro high rate of unemployment. These achievements took place very early in Castro's tenure.

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They were fundamental changes to convert from Cuba's corruption-ridden capitalist system to the Marxist economic model with its rigid central bureaucracy, lack of personal incentives, and far-reaching political controls.

In the early years, the sharp decline in unemployment was a plus. But Cuba's population has soared during the past four or five years; it is increasingly difficult for Cuba to find jobs for everyone.

Underlying all of Cuba's economic dilemmas is the fact that the economy is still tied to one crop -- sugar.

Owing to world market-price fluctuations, vagaries in the island's weather, endemic crop diseases, and sugar's fickle harvesting process, it is not a reliable crop upon which to base an economy.

Dr. Castro knows this.In good years, if the market price is up, Cuba can benefit from a bumper zafra, or harvest, of sugar cane. But during the past two decades, prices have fluctuated so wildly that there is little stability in the market. In some of Cuba's best crop years, the price has been low.

But Cuba has benefited over the years from the steady sale of sugar to the Soviet Union at a price giving the island a guaranteed annual sugar income. That , of course, is welcome in years when the international market price is down. In years when it soars, Cuba's income lags behind other sugar producers.

The Soviet price subsidy for sugar is only part of the $8 million daily Soviet bailout of the Cuban economy.

Cuba also receives industrial goods, vehicular transport, and services from the Soviet Union and East Europe at or below cost. It also gets a good deal of free technical assistance. Its military, probably the best in Latin America, is equipped almost entirely with Soviet weaponry -- supplied on long-term credits at very favorable rates. Cuba is building up its military this year as well.

Dr. Castro may bridle some at the loss of independence that this economic -- and political -- marriage has cost him. But it is necessary if he is to keep the Cuban economy afloat. He goes all out in speeches to laud ''the fraternal ties with the USSR.''

But the longer the relationship continues, the more inharmonious it seems to become. Rigid central bureaucracy and political controls inherent in the communist-style system have hamstrung decisionmaking.

Personal incentives, so useful to industry in the Western world, have until recently been lacking in the Cuban economic experience.

But they are now being applied on a limited basis. Incentives -- from refrigerators to television sets to automobiles -- are being awarded to workers who show high productivity.

There is some evidence that Cuban workers have improved their productivity, particularly in the industrial area. And it is clear that the Castro government's earlier reliance on moral incentives -- the desire of a Cuban to help his country -- simply did not spur production.

Another major shift this year is the door swung open to foreign investors. In February, Cuba authorized foreign businesses to join with its own state enterprises to build factories, rent property, and run businesses. It is ''one of the most significant economic policy moves since Cuba became a socialist state,'' according to one Cuban official.

Castro is also tinkering in other ways, too. Gradually he is decentralizing decisionmaking processes connected with industry and agriculture. He and his economic planners recognize the problems inherent in the heavy bureaucratic infrastructure set up through the years of Marxist economic planning.

Take agriculture, for example. During the two years of crop blight that hit the island in 1980 and 1981, there were countless stories of delays in getting pesticides to the affected sugar- and tobacco-growing areas. The delays were blamed on bureaucratic inefficiency. There was too much paperwork.

''I had to fill out forms to three ministries,'' complains one sugar-mill manager, commenting on the process required to obtain pesticides. The same could be said for fertilizer. Or for such basic items as hammers and wrenches. Or for such major things as transportation.

Transportation is a serious problem. Castro admits this.

Part of the problem, at least in the view of foreign observers, including some from the communist bloc, is Cuba's failure to adequately maintain vehicles.

That complaint, however, may not entirely go to the heart of the matter. The problem rests at least in part with the lack of material incentives.

Perhaps more fundamental is the island's shortage of consumer goods -- even of some basic staples. Cuba is one of the few countries in the world where a formal rationing system is in operation. It covers almost all goods, from food to clothing.

It is possible to purchase openly many rationed items outside the official supply system. A parallel, and legal, marketing system exists. But its prices are high and the quality of its goods is often poor.

After more than 20 years of ''continuing revolution,'' more and more Cubans grumble that the island is not much better off than when Dr. Castro and his revolutionaries took power. Shortages, rationing, and waiting in long lines for food make many Cubans bitter.

Many Cubans have accepted Dr. Castro's view that a US trade embargo is to blame for some of the island's difficulties.

But Cuba's heavy dependence on the Soviet Union for aid and economic planning is a heavy burden that saddles the Cuban economy.

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