Ronald Reagan has has some very contentious things to say about Cuban President Fidel Castro, which the Cuban leader has returned in kind. It is the sort of verbal acrimony that has characterized US-Cuban relations since the two nations broke relations 20 years ago on Jan. 3, 1961. Although there were moment during those years when Washington and Havana sought at least a degree of rapprochement and actually reached accord on minor issues, the general tone of Cuba-US contact has been largely negative.
Relations today remain minimal. EAch country maintains an "interest section" in the other's capital but these are small 20-member diplomatic missions. During the Carter years, despite little support from the United States, Dr. Castro has sought intermittenly to create a warmer climate with Washington.
Now, however, such efforts are clearly on hold. A return to the conflict of the past is likely.
Dr. Castro, whose 22 years in power make him one of the most durable leaders anywhere, is warming President-elect Reagan that any attempt by the new administration in Washington to intervene, much less invade the island, would result in a major clash. This is not merely rhetoric. From all accounts, the Cuban leader has decided that efforts at rapprochement with the US are useless while Mr. Reagan is president. He even talks of a return to the Cuba-US cold war of the 1960s.
That cold war between the two countries, which are separated only by 90 miles of the Straits of Florida, has been a key factor in US foreign policy throughout the past 20 years. From the time that President Eisenhower announced the break in relations in 1961 and the earlier embargo on trade with the island, confrontations between Washington and Havana have been numerous, with the two countries perilously close to war on several occasions:
* In April 1961, the US government supported, equipped, and encouraged 5,000 Cuban exiles to launch their ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of the island. It was President Kennedy's first foreign policy test, and controversy still swirls around his role in the incident.
* In July of the same year, the first of some 50 skyjackings to Cuba occurred when an EAstern Airlines flight was diverted to Havana at gunpoint. Eventually, after a number of potentially dangerous incidents, the United States began massive security checks at US airports to prevent skyjackings.
* In 1962, the Organization of American States (OAS), acting in part on US pressure, excluded Cuba from OAS deliberations, the first of a series of hemisphere-sponsored efforts to isolate the Castro government. A year later, the OAS looked into charges that Cuba was shipping arms to Venezuelan guerillas.
* In October of that year, President Kennedy disclosed that Soviet missiles had been placed in Cuba and a two-week crisis over the issue ensued with war clouds threatening not only the Americas, but also the Soviet Union and the US.* Eventually, the missiles were "dismantled" and returned to the Soviet Union, ending the crisis, but the legacy of that confrontation made even limited rapprochement between Havana and Washington virtually an impossibility.
On and on it went through the 1960s. Both Cuba and the US took sharp issue with each other. Contact was severely limited. But one of the few diplomatic efforts led to the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners in return for US medicines land otehr nonstrategic goods. Thousands of Cubans sought refuge in the US.
Meanwhile, Cuba's dependence on Soviet economic, social, and military aid increased, widening the gulf between Washington and Havana. Cuba's effort to spread its revolution throughout the Americas was also a major point of contention.
With the 1970s, however, the number of contacts between the two countries began to grow. Dr. Castro led the way by frequently holding out the olive branch. Suspicious US officials saw the Castro move as part of a broad effort to resume trade with the US and thus ease the continuing economic plight of the island. But Cuba eased travel restrictions, allowed Cuban exiles to return for visits and to bring US consumer goods with them, and permitted US prisoners and families of US citizens to leave. Cuba and the US approved an anti-skyjacking accord, providing for the return to the US of skyjackers. A major fishing agreement between the two nations was inked.
But these recent efforts at rapprochement have failed to bring relations between the US and Cuba anywhere near what they were in pre-Castro times. Now with Ronald Reagan about to enter the White House, a return to the US-Cuban cold war is possible.