A generation after coming to power and setting his nation on a socialist course, Fidel Castro has yet to solve the perennial economic dilemmas of his Caribbean island.
Dr. Castro's year-end decision to reshuffle his Cabinet, personally assuming a number of key positions, is only one of many indications that Cuba's economic sluggishness worries him more than he lets on.
Cuba's economy is still as dependent as ever on sugar -- and on the vicissitudes of weather and the capriciousness of the world sugar market -- despite large-scale efforts over the years to diversity agriculture and develop industry. were it not for mighty and continuing Soviet aid to the tune of $2.8 million daily, Dr. Castro's regime would be hard put to make ends meet.
The charismatic Cuban remains a durable and, for the most part, popular leader. His social programs draw strong support. But his economic failures underline the importance of his government's military underpinnings. For it is Latin America's best Army -- some elements of which have been heavily engaged in African conflicts during the past decade -- that keeps Cuba and Cubans in line. And there are signs of incipient unrest on the island.
Anti-Castro graffiti have been observed by foreign visitors. And reports of terrorist incidents against the Castro government are increasing, although they remain unconfirmed.
Some observers suggest that the return of Cuban exiles to the island for officially sanctioned visits during the past several years has spawned a wave of economic dissatisfaction among islanders and a hankering for the sort of consumer goods that the exiles enjoy in the United States and elsewhere.
Yet there can be no mistaking the Cuban leader's continuing popularity at home. This is due, perhaps, to a number of mainly social advances during the 21 years of Castro rule: broad schooling opportunities for almost all Cuban children; an islandwide program of health services; and improved, if somewhat unimaginative, housing.
Dr. Castro himself is aware that these improvements are not enough. His frustrated efforts to improve relations with the US since President Carter came to the White House were aimed in part at attracting US businesses to Cuba to satisfy the growing homefront yearning.
Relations with the US have clearly soured from the time three years ago when Dr. Castro spoke of President Carter in glowing terms and said that in Jimmy Carter he found someone with whom he could deal.
But deal with Mr. Carter he has not. Despite the establishment of limited diplomatic representation in each other's capitals, along with exchanges of a few prisoners, the promise of improving US-Cuba relations, so talked about three years ago, has not materialized.
Cuba's 20-year isolation in the Western Hemisphere, however, is fading -- and the island nation is finding it easier to deal with most of the countries of Latin America at the very moment the promise of good ties with the US has eroded.
Cuba's connections with other Caribbean islands are growing. Cuban doctors and teachers are on Grenada, and they could soon be on Dominica. This parallels the presence of Cubans in Nicaragua at the very time the US is wavering on help to all these nations and has yet to develop a coherent policy for the Caribbean Basin.