Twenty years to the day after the unsuccessful US-backed attempt to topple Cuban leader Fidel Castro through the Bay of Pigs operation in April 1961, four Soviet warships are in the Caribbean for their first port call to Cuba since 1978.
Whether the timing of this Soviet naval visit is deliberate or not, the US -- on this anniversary -- can do little more than reflect on the remarkable fact that 20 years on from 1961, Fidel Castro has survived. His nuisance value persists. And his regime is still very much in control of Cuba.
The Castro record has had its ups and downs since it came to power in January 1959. At the moment it is perhaps in a trough rather than on a peak. For Castro himself, present doubts or anxieties must be compounded by signs that the new Reagan administration in Washington intends developing a tougher policy toward him.
Yet as Prof. Jorge Dominguez of Harvard has written, "Few would have imagined [20 years ago] that a regime of this type -- a Marxist-Leninist government tightly allied with the Soviet Union -- could have lasted off the continental shores of the US.
"Not only has the revolutionary government survived, however, but it also has brought about a major restructuring of Cuban internal life and has projected political and military power throughout the so-called third world."
To what does Fidel Castro owe his survival and his unusual ability in making his island republic, with a population of only 10 million, a force felt in corners of the world so far away from the Americans?
The answer to this question has many parts. They include:
* The patronage and qualified protection of the Soviet Union, often equivocal or short of full commitment, yet useful as a counterpoise to the geographical proximity and superpower strength of the US.
* The uniqueness of the Cuban character, the island's crossroads location at a point where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean midway between North and South America, and the fascination to many in the third world of the bearded Fidel Castro himself.
* The undoubted achievement of the Castro regime at home in improving education and public health for the mass of the Cuban people so long neglected by the right-wing dictatorships preceding him. And, more than that, his insistence (through the ubiquitous ration card) that hardships and shortages be fairly and equitably shared, even if his broad economic development programs have proven a flop. Cuba is in fact kept going only by a daily Soviet subsidy put at between $7 and $8 million a day.
* The "David and Goliath" image of Castro standing up to the US giant -- and getting away with it.
* The potentially revolutionary situation in much of the rest of Latin America -- even if, paradoxically, the record is one of Castro's failure fully to exploit it to his advantage.
During the 1960s, the first decade of Cuba under Castro, the Cuban leader made an all-out bid to foment revolution in Latin America, mainly through on-the-spot operations by the legendary Che Guevara. The effort backfired and Guevara was eventually killed in Bolivia.
(The 1960s, of course, also saw the Cuban missile crisis, 18 months after the Bay of Pigs. But this was much more a direct trial of strength between the US and the Soviet Union, incidentally played out in Cuba. Then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev lost, but Moscow learned the risk in prematurely overstretching Soviet strength before acquiring real global power status.)
Piquantly, with the 1980s, Castro has returned to Latin America --broker of revolution, albeit more cautiously.
This return to the Americas in the 1980s has come only after the excitement of the 1970s. That decade saw Cuba launch out far from the Western hemisphere into Africa and establish itself as a military force to be reckoned with in support of revolution in first Angola and then Ethiopia. Both operations were in tandem with the soviet Union, under an overall Soviet umbrella. They served Soviet purposes in strengthening the Soviet Challenge to the US as a rival global superpower.
Castro maneuvered this involvement with the Soviet Union without becoming a craven Soviet puppet. For one thing, he put Moscow in his debt. Yet for this close association with the Soviets, he has found he is having to pay a price -- not least in the nonaligned movement of which Cuba is currently chairman.
Castro has discovered, for example, that Soviet military operations in Afghanistan have had a net harmful effect on Cuba's standing in the third world. Cuba failed to win a seat on the UN Security Council late last year, despite an all-out effort in that direction during the annual fall session of the UN General Assembly.
Simultaneously, Castro has been dealt setbacks in the Caribbean and on the Latin American mainland -- partly because of the perception that he is too close to Moscow and partly because of his clumsy handling of the mass exodus of refugees from Cuba last spring and summer.
Only in Greneda does there remain a government ideologically in some sympathy with him.