Gorbachev Calls on Castro While Focusing Another Eye on the U.S.

<i> Tad Szulc, the author of "Fidel" (Morrow), a biography of Fidel Castro, writes on foreign-policy issues</i>

Mikhail S. Gorbachev is in Havana today on a visit rich with irony and memory.

The irony is electoral; only a week before, Gorbachev presided over the freest Soviet elections in 71 years, part of his ever-quickening domestic reform. Now he calls on Fidel Castro, whose revolution fed on the idea that Cubans neither needed nor wanted traditional elections. And Castro unabashedly maintains this view, impervious to the changing winds in the world of communism.

Immediately after his triumph in 1959, Castro launched huge mass rallies across the island under the slogan, “Elections? For What?” Adoring crowds repeated the words after him, and Castro, the “maximum leader,” responded by proclaiming his victory as the purest form of democracy, purer than old-fashioned elections. “You’ve just elected the Revolution!” he shouted to more wild applause.

The impact of Soviet elections only happens to coincide with Gorbachev’s trip but it illuminates the fundamental split between two men over the nature and future of communism.

From the outset, Castro clearly had no use for perestroika and glasnost , emphasizing in speeches that Cuba’s revolution would not imitate others and would remain faithful to “true Marxism-Leninism.” He reminds Cubans that the Soviet Union is 5,000 miles away while the United States only 90 miles from their shores. To him, the United States is still the great enemy, and--he hopes--the Soviets are still his great protector.

This is where memory shadows Gorbachev’s presence in Havana--with multiple implications for Cuba, the Soviet Union and the United States. Nearly 30 years ago, in the second year of the Cuban revolution, the late Anastas I. Mikoyan, then deputy prime minister, went to see Castro and signed the first of many agreements that would bind the two countries almost inextricably at a cost well over $100 billion.

The Kremlin gained a crucial military, intelligence and political base plus Cuban cooperation with Soviet undertakings in the Third World. The Cubans obtained, in exchange, first-rate armed forces plus massive aid that kept their economy afloat. More, Soviet aid supported industrialization. If this aid were suddenly halted, the Cuban economy would probably collapse overnight.

Yet the relationship has never been a really happy one. Moscow always treated Castro like a junior partner, public protestations of socialist friendship notwithstanding. And Castro has chafed; he still has not forgiven Moscow for withdrawing Soviet nuclear weapons from the island in October, 1962--without consulting Havana. Conversely, Gorbachev, like his predecessors, is furious about Castro’s enormous waste of Soviet aid.

Gorbachev’s three-day visit impels new understandings in this marriage of convenience--bilaterally and in terms of Cuba’s role in the new Soviet-American climate. Gorbachev has one eye on Washington even as he confers with Castro.

Castro cannot live without Soviet aid and Gorbachev has to preserve an image of solidarity with the Third World. When senior Soviet diplomats talk privately about their Cuban problem, they also say that the Kremlin no longer imposes its brand of Marxism-Leninism on other communist states.

What Gorbachev must measure is the cost of aid to Cuba when the Soviets face their own profound economic difficulties and maintain commitments to Eastern Europe and Vietnam. The estimated annual $5 billion that Cuba receives is an enormous subsidy; not surprisingly, the pragmatic Gorbachev wants a decent return on this investment. Privately, he must try to convince Castro to be a more efficient manager.

The new Soviet-American relationship includes a major effort to defuse regional conflict everywhere. Soviet pressure played a crucial role in the settlement of the Angola War, with Cuban agreement to withdraw 50,000 troops--starting this weekend--from that African country while South Africa granted independence to adjoining Namibia. The deal was brokered by the United States and both superpowers have expressed an urgency about solving regional conflicts, including the battles in Central America.

Gorbachev is only the second Soviet leader to go to Havana in nearly three decades (Leonid I. Brezhnev visited in 1974); his original date was for December, after the U.S. summit, but the Armenian earthquake forced a postponement.

President George Bush’s interest in the visit is intensified by new U.S. policy toward Nicaragua. The statement issued jointly by the President and congressional leaders on March 24--a program to encourage Nicaragua democracy and, in effect, pacify the Contras, directly addressed this trip:

“The United States believes that President Gorbachev’s impending visit to Cuba represents an important opportunity for both the Soviet Union and Cuba to end all aid that supports subversion and destabilization in Central America.” Bush also said that while in other regional conflicts the Soviet Union had adopted “a welcome new approach,” in Central America “what we’ve seen today is only old thinking.”

In a message to Gorbachev sent only a few days before the Cuba visit, Bush challenged and invited a new Soviet influence in Cuba and Central America; the United States wants Cuba to stop supporting El Salvador guerrillas and wants Nicaragua to do the same while implementing democracy at home. There are indications that the Soviet president would indeed like to play Central American peacemaker, but without imperiling relations with Havana and Managua.

Castro may now also want to deal for peace. He has been courting Latin American democratic governments, seeking private investors for his hotel industry and even offering to rejoin, if invited, the Organization of American States--Cuba was expelled in 1962. And he would welcome a detente with Washington.

The Soviets make no secret about being delighted if a rapport--and economic ties--develops between the United States and Cuba; that would remove some of their aid burden. But the United States is not buying now: At the same time the Nicaragua policy was announced, Secretary of State James A. Baker III circulated a confidential policy paper within government, emphasizing that Washington has no intention of seeking improved relations with Cuba “because Cuban behavior has not changed sufficiently to warrant a change in U.S. attitude.”

While this memorandum has not been made public, it leaked just days before Gorbachev’s arrival. The best diplomatic guess is that Baker’s words were another message to Gorbachev. If the Soviet leader can produce a joint statement with Castro to allay American concerns, the Bush Administration would reassess the Cuban problem. Thus far this Administration has displayed remarkable flexibility in foreign policy, a fact Gorbachev knew full well as he flew to the Caribbean.