Falklands crisis: Cuba replaces US as Argentina's best friend

Cuba once again is fishing in troubled waters -- this time in the South Atlantic as the Argentine-British conflict over the Falkland Islands escalates.

Analysts here suggest Cuba could net some promising results from the conflict. It is actively courting Argentina -- and may be using the conflict to help repair damaged relations with the rest of the hemisphere.

Argentine-Cuban relations had soured a bit when Ronald Reagan was elected US President.

But now the situation seems to be reversing. In fact, the Cubans appear to be replacing North Americans as the good guys in Argentine eyes.

Argentine support for United States policy on Central America also has lessened in the wake of Falklands crisis -- and the US, appearing to side now with Britain in the dispute, is seen as a ''traitor.''

How far this change goes, and how strongly Argentine-Cuba ties firm up, remains to be seen. But the shift was apparent this weekend as Argentine officially thanked Cuba and other Latin American countries for support in the Falklands crisis.

Cuban Ambassador Emilio Aragones Navarro is just about the most frequent visitor to the ornate late 19th-century Palacio de San Martin, the Argentine Foreign Ministry. He and his staff are seen going in and out of the palace daily , seldom missing an opportunity to declare solidarity with Argentina.

''We all ought to be fighting and I, personally, would like to be in the Malvinas (the Argentine name for the islands),'' Ambassador Aragones told newsmen as he left the palace one day last week.

''The cause of the Malvinas,'' he went on, ''is the cause of Cuba, of Latin America, and of the third world.'' These words were echoed by Cuban Vice-President Carlos Rafael Rodriguez. Speaking in Paris, he added that Cuba is ready to help Argentina with whatever it needs -- including military equipment.

Buenos Aires newspapers prominently displayed the Rodriguez comment. It was not seen here, however, as heralding the immediate arrival of Cuban arms to Argentina.

Words, so far, have been Cuba's most evident support. The Cubans appear to be playing a propaganda game. And Buenos Aires newspapers play up Cuba's comments, eager for any signs of solidarity with Argentina.

Ambassador Aragones was not here when the Falklands crisis erupted April 2. In fact, he had not been here for a year. But he rushed back as a first show of Cuban solidarity, soon after the crisis erupted.

So hasty was his return, however, that the Cuban aircraft bringing him here from Havana failed to file a flight plan for crossing Brazil -- and Brazilian jet fighters forced it down. Ambassador Aragones, hoping to arrive before Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. on his first US mediation effort, actually got to Buenos Aires hours after Haig.

But that did not deter Mr. Aragones. He immediately went on the diplomatic offensive. And he has been there ever since.

Just what will result from this diplomatic bustle is unclear. Observers suggest Cuba could become the conduit for Soviet military assistance, if Argentina goes that route in replenishing its arsenal. Using Cuba as the halfway house for arms might prove more effective to Argentina's Latin American neighbors than receiving Soviet arms directly.

Argentina so far has not sought Soviet weaponry.

Brig. Gen. Basilio Lami Dozo, Air Force member of the junta, however, said recently if all other avenues were closed, Argentina ''would consider'' buying Soviet arms.

Soviet support, like that of Cuba, has been largely rhetorical since the Falklands crisis began.

But the Soviets already buy more Argentine grain than any other nation -- and Argentina is running a $2 billion yearly trade surplus with the Soviets. Some of those funds presumably could be used for military hardware purchases.

Cuba stands to benefit more in terms of association with other Latin American countries in solidarity with Argentina than in terms of material benefit.

At any rate, Argentine-Cuba relations generally have been improving over the 10 years. Relations were reestablished in 1973 when Argentina broke its decade-long participation in sanctions against Cuba, which the Organization of American States called for in 1964. In breaking sanctions, Argentina provided Cuba with $2 billion in export credits.

About a fourth of that credit has been expended, mostly for the sale to Cuba of Argentine automobiles and trucks. Last week the local Ford subsidiary announced shipment of some 50 trucks to Cuba.

The two nations often have voted together on issues in international forums and in third-world talks.

Cuba criticized Chile for human-rights violations, but it did not loudly criticize Argentina's rights record at a time Buenos Aires was coming under fire from many other quarter of the globe.

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