Fidel Castro of Cuba and Muammar Qaddafi have two things in common. They both run countries which in terms of population and resources are of minor importance. But they have succeeded in exasperating the leaders of far bigger and more important countries. They have played noisy roles and cut dashing and daring figures on the world stage. Seldom have so many headlines been made by men with so little real power behind them.
Shrewdness and outrageousness have been combined by both men. Neither is a fool. Both have done a lot for their peoples.
It is popular in the United States to assume that Fidel Castro has wrecked the economy of Cuba. But the fact is that he has extracted from the Soviet Union an annual subsidy worth about $3 billion, which is a great deal more than the US would be giving Cuba if he had not broken from the US and sought the support of the Soviet Union.
Also, it is more money than probably he could get from the US were he to change sides.
He more or less ruined the old middle class in Cuba and the economy which supported that middle class. But he has brought elementary education and a higher standard of living to the mass of the peasantry.
Surprising as it may sound in the US, the chances are that in a free and open election in Cuba, Fidel Castro would win by a substantial majority. There may be plenty of disgruntled Cubans and some resentment over economic failures, but it is doubtful that the majority would prefer to go back to the pre-Castro era.
Libya has less than half the population of Cuba in an area twice the size of Texas. Cuba has 10 million people. Libya has 3,125,000. Libya is mostly sand. In the pre-Qaddafi days Libyans mostly lived in the desert under canvas or in mud huts along the coast. Qaddafi has turned a bonanza in oil into modern housing for the majority of the people, plus cars for a lot of them. He has not built palaces for himself. He still lives in the equivalent of army barracks. He is not personally corrupt or greedy.
If a free and open election were conceivable in Libya, which it is not, the chances are that a majority of Libyans would vote to keep Qaddafi in office, in spite of the number of them who have been killed in his border wars which so far have been unsuccessful.
Both men have played bold roles on the world stage.
Fidel Castro has Cuban soldiers stationed right now in places most Cubans certainly had never heard of before. There are 18,000 Cubans in Angola, 750 in the Congo, 13,000 in Ethiopia, 750 in Mozambique, and 800 in South Yemen. There are also 2,000 in Nicaragua and 300 in Grenada.
Colonel Qaddafi has been less successful in training an effective armed force. He has bought large quantities of Soviet weapons but not yet been able to use them for more than nuisance value and the conquest of northern Chad. We may learn in another week or so whether the performance of his army has improved since the last time he went into Chad, and had to come out after taking a beating.
But his diplomacy has ranged just as far afield. He has played a role in the Philippines. He has supplied arms to the Muslims of the 13 southern provinces of the Philippines. He negotiated with Imelda Marcos, wife of the Philippine President, over the possible independence of those Muslim provinces. Mrs. Marcos flew from Manila to North Africa just to talk to him.
He has obviously enjoyed making things difficult wherever possible for Ronald Reagan. He has backed all the radical movements in Central America. He put up money for that extra long airstrip on Grenada, which has greatly distressed Mr. Reagan. He has sent money and perhaps weapons to Nicaragua and the rebels in El Salvador.
That was in part just a projection of his feud with Israel. Israel has backed the right-wing regimes and movements in Central America.
Did he actually send a ''hit squad'' to the US in late 1981 to assassinate Mr. Reagan? The White House took the report seriously enough to make the report public and go on special alert around the White House.
Washington retaliated by boycotting his oil, which did him no harm as the West Europeans were happy to take all they could get.
Neither Castro nor Qaddafi has remade, or will remake, the world. But they have certainly put their countries on the map and earned for themselves a niche in the history books.