Fidel's Cuba in trouble, despite record Soviet aid

This has been a particularly difficult year for Fidel Castro -- and as he sits down with his top economic and political advisers this week, the prospects for 1981 appear no better.

On the economic front, sugar, coffee, and tobacco production are off significantly. This is probably due more to poor weather and blight problems than to any human factor -- although Dr. Castro admitted several times during the year that "inefficiency" is a serious economic problem for his "Caribbean island. Rationing remains as much a part of Cuban life as ever.

On the political front, the Cuban leader finds the outlook just as bad. The likelihood of a more contentious United States approach toward Cuba as Ronald Reagan moves into the White House is clearly understood in Havana. Moreover, a series of Caribbean island elections in the past six months -- most importantly, in Jamaica -- has brought to power governments far less sympathetic to Cuba.

At the same time, Dr. Castro is still trying to live down the negative propaganda effects of the flight to the US of 127,000 Cubans from the island between April and August. Although some of the departures were societal misfits in Cuba, and thus Dr. Castro in effect put the monkey on the back of the US for their care, the overwhelming majority of these refugees were humble folk simply fed up with the Castro regime.

In many ways, their departure -- and the desire of perhaps as many as a million more to leave -- is a serious indictment of the Cuban government. No amount of window dressing in the form of labeling those who left "malcontents" and "antisocial people" can mask the embarrassment to Dr. Castro posed by their departure.

Finally, Cuba's adventures overseas, particularly in Africa, appear to have lost a good deal of their original impetus. The Cuban troops in Angola, Ethiopia, and elsewhere on the African continent have got bogged down in the local disputes -- with little glory for Cuba and some discomfiture to their families back at home.

Nonetheless, it remains a not always recognized fact that Dr. Castro continues to enjoy more personal popularity among his fellow countrymen than many other world leaders. And this is the counterweight to the otherwise negative developments facing the Cuban leader as he opened a Cuban Communist Party congress in Havana Dec. 17.

As the congress got under way, it was clear that Dr. Castro was up against one of the most serious dilemmas of his 22 years in power. Whether he can come up with any solutions to brighten the adverse economic forecast for 1981 remains to be seen.

The most hopeful economic news is the recent signing of a $35 billion, five-year Soviet-Cuban economic deal. The deal means a continuation of the Soviet bailout of the Cuban economy to the tune of about $7 million a day, the largest aid package anywhere in the world. The new aid agreement represents a 50 percent increase over the aid level of 1976 to 1980.

Moreover, although Cuban officials have been rather tight-lipped about efforts to end the sugar rot and tobacco rust problems, which sharply cut production expectations in 1980, the blights could lessen in 1981, according to foreign agricultural observers.

That would be particularly helpful in sugar, the economy's mainstay and chief export. The 1981 "zafra" (sugar harvest) has just begun and preliminary reports say the yields are good.

But even a good sugar harvest will not get Cuba off its heavy dependence upon Soviet assistance to keep the island's economy afloat. That aid will have to continue for the forseeable future.

Even if the sugar harvest proves one of the best in years, it will not change Cuba's debt to the Soviet Union. That debt is whopping -- not only in money terms, but also in the client status imposed on Cuba as a result of all the Sovied aid. It must be galling for Dr. Castro, eager for independence from foreign domination, to accept all that goes with Soviet aid, including ardent support for Soviet adventurism in places like afghanistan.

Yet a good sugar crop in 1981 would give a tremendous boost ot Cuba. Last year, at a parway, Dr. Castro gave a very bleak picture of economic conditions on the island.

This year, perhaps because of improving sugar prospects. Dr. Castro was more upbeat. He said Dec. 17 that despite the economy's relative por performance recently, he was more or less satisfied in view of the worldwide inflation and recession.

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