Saddam and Fidel

THE humiliation of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war has been one more bitter blow to Cuba's Fidel Castro, who gambled much on the Iraqi leader's ability to successfully confront the United States. Saddam and Fidel have had a long relationship. When Saddam in earlier years elected surgery, it was to Cuba that he went for his operation.

More recently, Castro sent hundreds of Cuban medical teams to Iraq.

When the Gulf confrontation developed, Cuba waged a lonely campaign at the United Nations in support of Saddam.

But the special Cuban secret police unit that provides Castro with regular assessments of public opinion has apparently been giving him negative feedback on his support for Iraq.

Although Cubans are fearful of speaking out, they nevertheless are privately shaken by the failure of both weapons and tactics in Iraq's confrontation with the Americans. Twice recently, in two major speeches, Castro has recognized this mood of doubt, and even of uncertainty about Castro's own confrontational posture against the US.

Declining confidence in Castro's policies is symbolized by two significant defections in recent days. Romel Iglesias Gonzalez, who ran Cuba's most important radio network, has sought asylum in the US, claiming that there is widespread dissatisfaction with Castro. He thinks Castro cannot survive much longer than another year.

His flight closely followed the defection of Cuban air force major Orestes Lorenzo Perez, who landed his MIG-23 at a Florida air base.

What Castro seems to be undergoing is the erosion of the image he once managed to create as an international figure of consequence.

The debacle in Iraq, after he had backed Saddam, is one obvious setback.

But the events in Iraq also underlined the decline of the power of the Soviet Union, long Cuba's principal supporter.

Some Cubans say the Gulf war proved that the Soviet Union is now a second-class power, and Castro himself has railed against the development of a unipolar world - a world in which the US dominates.

Soviet willingness and ability to aid Cuba is declining. The Soviets signed a one-year, interim economic agreement with Cuba this year, but at its expiry Cuba can look to no more special privileges or subsidies from the Soviets.

"How," says one American expert on Cuba, "can the Soviets keep pumping aid into Cuba when they can't even meet the needs of their own people?"

As if all this were not enough, Cuba is facing an embarrassing exclusion from the current round of talks on Angola, going on in Portugal between the US, the Soviet Union, the Luanda government and the opposition UNITA forces.

Over the past 15 years, Cuba sent half a million soldiers to fight in Angola. Now only a few thousand remain and they will be gone by the middle of the year.

After such a major involvement, to have no role or influence in the final outcome is a galling loss of face for Castro.

While Castro is in eclipse and increasingly irrelevant internationally, his little country is being forced to retreat economically into the 19th century.

Cuba's water supply is undependable and penalties are imposed upon householders and businessmen who do not reduce their electricity consumption.

With eroding Soviet subsidies the Cuban sugar crop is harder to sell, and thus needed imports are harder to come by.

Newsprint is in such short supply that many newspapers have been closed and even the official newspaper "Granma" is reduced to six-page issues, published only five days a week.

The transportation system is crumbling. Bicycles are replacing cars. Oxen are replacing tractors. And more and more goods are being carried in horse-drawn wagons rather than trucks.

Over the years Castro has been able to distract attention from his domestic problems by meddling and posturing on the world scene.

Now two things are happening: His international role has waned, and his problems at home are coming more sharply into focus.

The moment of truth may fast be approaching for this lonely and diehard adherent to a communist ideology the rest of the world has turned its back upon.

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