There is a strong hunch in Washington that Cuban President Fidel Castro's current actions in the Carribbean are part of an effort to provoke a major confrontation with the United States.
Dr. Castro's apparent aim is the shoring up of home-front support at a time when his economy is sagging seriously and causing him a growing number of domestic problems.
To turn attention away from these domestic considerations to foreign issues, and to perhaps provoke the confrontation with the US, would be in keeping with Castro practice. He has tried this approach before.
But this time, after 21 years of revolution, more and more Cubans are aware that something is very much amiss in the island's economy and are asking why. Dr. Castro needs an outside issue to divert the domestic focus away from home-front dilemmas.
Cubanologists say there is simply no other explanation for the Castro decision to allow the mass exodus of thousands of Cubans to Florida, the beating of hundreds of Cubans outside the US "interest section" office in Havana, the sinking of a Bahamian patrol by Cuban MIGs, and the subsequent MIG buzzing of a US helicopter aiding in the search for four missing Bahamian crew members.
Radio Havana, for example, is now saying that the MIG attack on the Bahamian ship was the result of a ruse perpetrated by the US Central Intelligence Agency to get the Cubans to strafe the Bahamian patrol boat. "Otherwise, the incident would never have occurred," the radio said May 13.
Earlier, the Cubans had claimed the incident was the result of an observation error, that the Bahamian vessel was thought to be a pirate ship of undetermined registry. Then the Cubans apologized to the Bahamians and there were indications that Cuba would send reparations to the families of the four dead Bahamian sailors. Still later, the Cubans indicated they had attacked the ship because they thought it was a US craft. Finally came the Radio Havana broadcast with yet another explanation for the incident.
Whatever the explanation -- and the Bahamians are skeptical of the whole business and have told the Cubans just that -- the incident fits into the current coolness between Washington and Havana.
Dr. Castro, who spoke warmly of Jimmy Carter in 1977 and 1978, has been increasingly angry over Carter statements and actions that he feels have put even greater distance between the countries than existed when Mr. Carter came to the White House. He feels that Mr. Carter repeatedly rebuffed his overtures toward improving relations.
The Castro efforts were, in part, admittedly aimed at obtaining US economic help. Dr. Castro in 1977 and 1978 openly expressed the hope that his island would be able to establish trade ties with a variety of US firms that could help shore up the Cuban economy.
That, of course, has not come to pass. And Cubanologists in Washington and elsewhere say that the economic dilemma on the island and Dr. Castro's failure to bring about a Cuba-US rapprochement is behind the current series of events.
"It makes no difference if the attack on the Bahamian vessel was planned or not, and I suspect it was not," said one Cuba watcher. "However you explain the attack, it did take place and Fidel then decided to use it to further his own interests. Moreover, it dovetails nicely into his effort to draw attention away from domestic problems and onto international ones. He has a ready-made scapegoat in blasting the CIA, and he can be expected to use it to his advantage."