WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON'S bipartisan agreement on policy toward Nicaragua has heightened the importance of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Cuba, which begins Sunday. The Bush administration has made clear that Soviet behavior in and around Nicaragua is now a higher priority in overall United States-Soviet relations. US officials say they will be watching for signs that Mr. Gorbachev is using his leverage with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Nicaragua's closest ally, to get him to cooperate with regional peace moves.
Mr. Castro has already been under pressure from Latin leaders to support the peace process, diplomatic sources say. The Cuban President has reportedly agreed quietly not to impede the process. But whether Gorbachev wants to press Castro on this is questionable.
Gorbachev already faces a major challenge with Castro over the Cuban leader's rejection of any type of market-oriented economic reforms. Cuba's economic inefficiency frustrates the Soviets, whose aid to Cuba is calculated at between $5 billion and $8 billion a year. For their support, the Soviets have gotten a military and political toehold in the Western Hemisphere, as well as a base from which to gather intelligence.
So far, the Soviets have not cut the Cuban subsidy, but US analysts are wondering how long their patience will last.
``Gorbachev and his people feel Cuba could get by with less, but the dynamic of their relationship is unclear now,'' says a well-placed State Department official.
Gorbachev will be the first Soviet leader to visit the island since 1973. He takes with him a boost from last Sunday's parliamentary vote, the most democratic elections in the Soviet Union in 70 years. But Gorbachev's position with Castro is hampered by the fact that perestroika has, so far, failed to produce signs of an economic turnaround.
JIRI VALENTA, director of the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at the University of Miami, expects Gorbachev's three-day trip to be marked by public harmony, but by hard bargaining behind the scenes. Gorbachev's visit will also allow him to plead his case to the Cuban people.
``He can bring the gospel of perestroika to a place where it's forbidden,'' Professor Valenta said in a session with journalists, adding that he believes eventually Castro will have no choice but to introduce elements of perestroika.
Valenta sees another aim in Gorbachev's trip: to survey the political landscape and see who might eventually make a good successor to Castro.
Susan Kaufman Purcell, vice-president for Latin affairs at the Americas Society, contends that Gorbachev probably will not put too much pressure on Castro to cut back on his foreign adventures in Central America, because it has not cost him that much. She also does not expect an early cut in Soviet aid to Cuba. She offers two reasons: (1) The Soviets do not want to risk internal upheaval in Cuba, and (2) they are wary of just how the mercurial Castro might react. The Soviets will cut aid only as a last resort.
``The Soviet style has usually been to be very, very patient until Castro runs to the end of his rope, and then force some changes,'' Dr. Purcell says. ``And Castro is not at the end of his rope yet, because there's still another choice ... to try and get hard currency from the United States'' by warming up relations and getting the US to lift its trade embargo.
For more than a year, Cuba and the US have worked together successfully in areas of mutual concern, such as immigration. The Cubans also agreed to pull their troops out of Angola. But US officials are quick to stress there is no ``warming trend'' in US-Cuban relations, and they don't anticipate one soon.