For more than a year now, Cuban President Fidel Castro has been signaling that he wants better relations with the United States -- that he would rather talk than fight. So far, he has not made much headway. The Reagan administration viscerally dislikes the Cuban leader and his communist country. It is suspicious of the Castro message. Reagan advisers feel the best way to deal with Cuba is to act tough and allow little contact.
But the veteran Cuban President is undeterred. Part of his pitch to the US is simply rhetorical, but it comes accompanied by hints that Cuba is willing now to do some things the US wants, such as reducing the level of Cuban military advisers in Nicaragua and perhaps pulling out the majority of Cuban troops in Angola. The US says there are 8,000 to 10,000 Cubans in Nicaragua, 2,500 of them being military personnel. Cuba admits to having 280 military personnel there. Western estimates put the number of Cuban troops in Angola at about 25,000.
The main reason Castro is making this overture to the United States is his island's worsening economic situation. The economy is dependent on the sugar market -- three-fourths of Cuba's export earnings are from sugar -- and for several years sugar prices have been plunging.
The other key element of Cuba's economy, Soviet aid, has been stretched to its limit. About half of the Soviet Union's foreign aid goes to Cuba, and Castro knows it is virtually impossible for the Soviets to increase that $12 million-to-$13-million-a-day aid level.
So Castro's only economic alternative is to look West, knowledgeable Cuban and Western analysts say. Ultimate goal: regular US-Cuban trade
Castro ultimately would like to reestablish regular direct trade with the US, which has been cut off by US presidential embargo since the Eisenhower years. Failing that, he would like to buy US grain, other foodstuffs, and medicines, which would be more cheaply shipped from the US than from Europe, the East bloc, and South America.
The Reagan administration seems dead set against helping the Cubans, however. And many observers say relations between the two countries are at their lowest ebb in years.
Alexander Haig set the tone for the Reagan administration when, as US secretary of state early in 1981, he said the most urgent US foreign policy objective was to stop the flow of arms to Salva-dorean guerrillas, to stop the ``well-financed, sophisticated effort to impose a communist regime in Central America.'' He said that meant going to ``the source of the problem -- and that is Cuba.''
Are such charges against Cuba justified?
The Cubans acknowledge that they have been involved in Central America for a long time -- with Salvadorean rebels since about 1959, and even earlier with Nicaragua's Sandinistas, according to Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Ricardo Alarc'on Quesada.
But Mr. Alarc'on firmly refutes US charges that Cuba is currently supplying arms to Salvador rebels. ``Our aid is limited now to political, moral, and diplomatic solidarity. We are not now furnishing materiel for development for their war,'' he says, pointing out that the US has not come up with any evidence of Cuban-supplied armaments. He skirts a direct answer to the question of whether it supplied arms earlier. Many analysts are convinced that Cuba once supplied arms, but that such shipments have diminished over the past three years. Cuban arms helped Sandinistas
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra stated several years ago that Cuban armaments played a significant role in the 1979 Sandinista overthrow of Somoza. And Castro is said to take credit for bringing together the three factions of Nicaraguan revolutionaries who, once united, were able to overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
Today, some US officials charge that Cuba more or less runs Nicaragua. Mr. Alarcon says, however, that the two countries simply have ``excellent relations,'' and that Cuba's role in the Sandinista revolution was in line with most of the rest of Latin American nations in supporting the Sandinistas against Somoza.
Cuba has hinted, however, that it might withdraw some military advisers from Nicaragua if the US strikes a more positive attitude toward the Castro government.
While in Managua for Ortega's inauguration as president earlier this month, Castro counseled the Sandinistas to do what they could to prevent their ties with the US from slipping further.
``He seems to be telling the Nicaraguans to do what he would like to do and so far hasn't been able to do,'' says a US spokesman in Washington.
In Grenada, Castro helped leftist Maurice Bishop establish ties with the Soviet Union and Libya, resulting in substantial Libyan aid in the early 1980s and a Soviet Embassy. US officials charged the 800 Cuban troops on Grenada were trying to build an airport, which would expedite sending arms and Cuban troops to Africa.
When US forces intervened in Grenada last year, after Mr. Bishop's overthrow, they charged there were also massive piles of armaments. There is little doubt that the US embarrassed Cuba in Grenada. After this point, Castro began to pull in his horns.
There is a lot of rhetoric in Havana these days the US might take some action against Cuba itself in the wake of the Grenada invasion. The Cuban government has begun large-scale evacuation and combat drills. In October it announced that bomb shelters and trenches were being built all across the island.
Deputy Foreign Minister Alarc'on told the Monitor: ``We have to take seriously the threatening statements that various North American officials have made, including President Reagan himself. And we cannot play around with the reality that a very powerful neighbor maintains a hostile attitude that does not exclude an armed attack against our country.''
He cites an increasing number of US intelligence flights over Cuba, US efforts to isolate Cuba economically, and stepped-up US naval maneuvers in and around Cuban waters. (The US maintains a naval base at Guantanamo.)
Since the time of John F. Kennedy, Washington has put three conditions on improvements in US-Cuba relations. They are: an end to Cuba's broad military ties with the Soviet Union, a removal of Cuban troops from Africa (Western sources estimate there are 9,000 to 11,000 Cuban troops in Marxist Ethiopia in addition to the 25,000 in Angola, and thousands more spread around perhaps half of Africa), and an end to the export of revolution in the Americas.
Cuba rejects the idea of conditions as a basis for talks, but it is hinting that it might withdraw some of its troops from Nicaragua and Angola. It has said that it would pull troops out of Angola as part of a United Nations-sponsored agreement to end the fighting there.
``There is little doubt that he wants a warming trend with Washington,'' says a US analyst in Washington. ``We hear it. But we have to see more than these signals before we do much.'' One US-Cuba deal: repatriation
Actually Washington has taken steps to deal with Cuba on a variety of relatively low-level issues in the past two years, the most recent being the agreement in mid-December for the repatriation of 2,764 Cuban prisoners and mental patients who entered the US during the Mariel boat lift in 1980. In return for taking back the so-called Mariel excludables, Cuba will be allowed to resume normal immigration practices with the US under procedures that will permit up to 23,000 Cubans to settle in the US annually.
While the White House tends to play down the significance of the agreement, which was largely worked out by Mr. Alarc'on and Michael G. Kozak, deputy legal adviser to the Department of State in a two-month series of meetings in New York, the Cubans are pleased with it.
The talk of a US invasion is probably designed to stir public support for the Castro government. Clearly Cuba's economic trouble is of greater concern.
In his speech marking the 26th anniversary of his coming to power, Dr. Castro Jan. 1 ordered new austerity measures that were designed to slow the nation's economic growth.
``It is a belt tightening of a belt that is already tight,'' comments a leading Cubanologist in the Department of State. ``It is aimed at saving precious foreign exchange and will slow, if not completely stall, recent success in improving living standards for the average Cuban.''
Cuba is also going to have to reschedule its $3.2 billion foreign debt with Western banks and international agencies. This would be the fourth time the island has had to reschedule the debt.
Cuban defense, the economy, and relations with the Soviet Union, the US and other countries of the Western Hemisphere are all to be discussed at the December 1985 congress of the Cuban Communist Party. Debate will likely be ``quite vigorous,'' says Jorge Dominguez, Harvard University's leading Cubanologist. But he and other experts say the focus will be on the economic situation.
``It will be a case of real soul searching,'' says Sergio Roca, an economist at New York's Adelphi University.
Already the debate is heating up -- and doing so in the open and in the press. Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party and Havana's leading newspaper, is full of stories of meetings taking place around the island in which workers, party officials, and others discuss whether their economic system might respond more adequately with a touch of free enterprise, and whether greater autonomy might be desireable.
``Too many decisions are made in Havana,'' complained one worker in a story from the central Cuban city of Santa Clara. ``How can Havana know what is right for us?''
Whether all this debate will lead to actual improvement in the economy is far from clear, but the fact that it is taking place leads many observers to think changes are coming to Cuba.
US Cubanologists say all this should be seen as a sign of how Cuba is going. But Harvard's Dr. Dominguez warns, ``It takes more than one side to make for a dialogue or an improvement in relations.'' Only low-level accords so far
So far, the Reagan administration is showing little interest in improving ties with Cuba other than through low-level accords like that around the Mariel prisoners. But Cuban officials in Havana, in the US at the United Nations or in Washington, and in other hemisphere capitals are asking in effect whether in his second term Ronald Reagan might want to move to tidy up relations with the island.
``After all, if Richard Nixon, could have his China, why cannot Ronald Reagan have his Cuba?'' asks a Cuban ambassador in a Latin American country.
Indeed, that seems to be the key hope in Havana that something more than the present confrontation between Havana and Washington is possible.
The US is particularly unhappy with the Soviet military presence in Cuba, just 90 miles from the US -- some 5,000 Russian soldiers and vast quantities of sophisticated military hardware, from advanced MIG jet-fighters to tanks and missiles, all of which are part of the arsenal of the Cuban armed forces, the most impressive army in all of Latin America.
In addition, Washington is concerned about the Soviet use of Cienfuegos on the south coast of Cuba as a base for the Soviet Atlantic submarine fleet and for other Soviet naval vessels. The base was in heavy use during the 1970s, but some intelligence estimates say it is less used by the Soviet Union today.
The Cubans say they are willing to negotiate on the issue. Alarc'on says, ``In other words, if the US ends its politics of hostility toward Cuba, . . . Cuba would be willing to negotiate with the United States any theme that would affect the bilateral relations betweem them.''
``The conclusion is obvious,'' he adds. ``Both regimes, both countries with different regimes, contrary even in their philosophies and concepts, must find the means of coexisting in a neighborhood that neither of the two can modify. Now this neighborhood presents realities of Cuban families that are divided. . . . It is in the interest of the Cubans that there be a normal situation. On the other hand, to have normal relations with a neighbor country must have consequences in commerce, in cultural exchanges, in sports exchanges, areas in which there are many points of mutual interest.'' GREAT DECISIONS 1. Revolutionary Cuba
Toward accommodation or conflict? 2. Soviet leadership in transition
What impact on superpower relations? 3. Iran-Iraq war
What role for the US in Persian Gulf? 4. Budget deficit, trade, and the dollar
The economics of foreign policy 5. The Philippines
What future for democracy? 6. Population growth
Critical North-South issue? 7. Future of the Atlantic alliance
Unity in diversity? 8. Intelligence operations
How undercover diplomacy works
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