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Moscow Plays Its Cuba Card : Gorbachev’s action removes major impediment to more U.S. economic aid

Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, deciding that Cuba is a political and economic burden his faltering country can no longer afford to carry, says he will begin imminently to drastically downgrade Moscow’s special ties with Havana, a relationship that spans almost the whole of Fidel Castro’s 32 years of rule.

Just what Gorbachev intends isn’t entirely clear. He has talked about withdrawing 11,000 Soviet personnel now on the island, a figure that would seem to include not only a 2,800-man combat brigade and 1,200 or so military advisers but thousands of civilian technicians and electronic intelligence specialists. Military-related forces will almost certainly go, and probably--because Gorbachev says he now wants his economic relations with Cuba based on “mutually beneficial commercial exchanges"--many of the technicians. But Soviet intelligence agencies can be expected to argue hard to hold on to the electronic operations that provide a conduit into many U.S. communications.

Two imperatives motivate Gorbachev’s action. One is the urgent need to economize by ending the subsidies, concessionary loans and other aid that have brought Cuba tens of billions of dollars in benefits. The other great need is to remove a major impediment to more U.S. help for the Soviet economy. Washington’s message has been clear: Moscow can’t realistically expect significant American aid so long as Soviet largess and military support continue going to one of this country’s most implacable ideological foes.

Cuba, of course, is furious at Gorbachev’s move, but it can hardly be surprised. Castro, presiding unapologetically over one of the world’s more rigid totalitarian regimes, has bad-mouthed Gorbachev’s liberalization policies from the beginning, accurately seeing in them threats to his own political future. For now, Castro can be expected to try to tough it out, again invoking revolutionary zeal to brace Cubans for the even harsher times that lie ahead. But slogans and appeals to nationalism won’t put food on Cuban tables. Cuba is losing its patron of three decades. There is no replacement in sight. Soon there will be no alternative but to make way for progressive change.

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