Cuba's often tenuous ties with many of its Latin American neighbors are suddenly unraveling -- and President Fidel Castro is finding himself increasingly isolated.
Cubanologists have suggested for months that Dr. Castro would face new foreign policy tests with Ronald Reagan in the White House.They expected that there might be an accompanying deterioration in Cuban links with other hemisphere nations.
But these Cuban specialists were not prepared for the swift rupture this week in Cuban-Colombian relations, coming so close on the heels of the very evident cooling in Ecuador's ties with the Caribbean island.
These developments have to be seen against the background of:
* US efforts to widely publicize Cuba's involvement in the El Salvador civil war.
* Latin America's longstanding wariness about Cuba and its intentions throughout the hemisphere.
The US disclosures of Cuba's role in shipping arms and ammunition to Salvadoran guerrillas has heightened that concern. While most Latin American governments are critical of Washington's decision to send advisers to El Salvador, they are nevertheless deeply worried about Cuba's intentions there and elsewhere in the hemisphere.
This was clear in Colombian President Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala's suggestion March 23 that Cuba is widening "the geographical orbit" of its "offensive" beyond Central America and the Caribbean by training guerrillas to be used against the Colombian government.
President Turbay Ayala's suspension of relations with Cuba came after Colombian soldiers discovered nearly 100 guerrillas, allegedly trained by Cuba, entering Colombia from Ecuador. Among them were two leaders of the M-19, Colombia's most active guerrilla group.
Colombian observers found it ironic that the guerrillas were using Ecuador to enter Colombia, for Ecuador is currently locked in a bitter diplomatic quarrel with Cuba.
That dispute erupted after Cuban troops Feb. 21 stormed Ecuador's embassy in Havana and arrested 29 Cubans who sought political asylum and safe conduct out of the country. Ecuador promptly recalled its ambassador in Havana and President Jaime Roldos Aguilera accused Cuba of "a serious breach of traditional diplomatic etiquette."
The Cuban government subsequently sent top diplomat Ricardo Alarcon Quesada to Quito, the Ecuadorean capital. But the Roldos government was unpersuaded by the Cuban entreaties and is currently considering a full break with Cuba.
As if all this were not enough, Cuba is faced with the serious deterioration in relations with its neighbor island of Jamaica.
Immediately upon taking office Nov. 1, Prime Minister Edward Seaga scaled down Jamaica's diplomatic ties with Havana and sent Cuban Ambassador Ulises Estrada packing. He was accused of interfering in Jamaican internal politics during the former government of Prime Minister Michael Manley, which maintained warm ties with Dr. Castro.
All this followed 1980 incidents involving the Venezuelan and Peruvian embassies in Havana, similar to the Ecuadorean Embassy incident, which resulted in a serious strain on relations between Cuba and those governments. Both Venezuela and Peru now have very limited diplomatic staffs in Havana.
Venezuelan President Luis Herrera Campins suggested at the time that Cuba could not expect good relations with its Latin American neighbors when "it embarks on hostile actions."
Colombian President Turbay Ayala took a similar tack this week in suspending ties with Cuba: "Colombia, which has relations with all socialist countries, is forced by reasons that have nothing to do with the Cuban government's ideology but by its hostile behavior to suspend from today its relations with the government of President Castro due to reasons chargeable only to that country."