What the Cubans are doing in Nicaragua

The dapper young doctor rocked back and forth in his black and tan wicker chair. Sitting in the living room of a Nicaraguan government official, he discussed his profession as a counselor specializing in the emotional problems faced by young Nicaraguan couples. He looked and sounded the very model of the competent young Latin professional.

Unlike his counterparts in Miami or Mexico City, however, he works long hours for little more than food, lodging, and pocket money. He sees this as his duty as one of several thousand young Cubans sent to Nicaragua to spend at least a year helping the Sandinista revolution.

There are conflicting versions of how many Cubans are in Nicaragua. The United States government has estimated between 8,000 and 10,000. Diplomats here from other Western countries speak of 6,000 to 8,000.

The US contends that some 2,500 of these Cubans are military personnel of one sort or another. The government of Fidel Castro says that there are only 280.

According to most informed Western observers here, the bulk of the Cubans who are not military advisers are either teachers or doctors. A smaller group of Cuban technical advisers is assigned to various Nicaraguan government ministries , they say. According to one diplomat, virtually all the Cuban civilians are men under age 40 who have had military training.

The Reagan administration says that the Cuban advisers, military and political, more or less run Nicaragua. Most diplomats and other Western observers here, however, believe that the reality is much more complex.

''I do not support the thesis that there is a skeleton of Cuban and East bloc people running Nicaragua, making all the basic decisions in the ministries and most of the decisions having to do with national security,'' says one diplomat. Talking of the Cubans in the ministries and most of the Cuban military advisers, the diplomat adds, ''these people are substantially technicians; they do not, on the whole, have important decision-making roles.''

The diplomat says that most of the Cuban military personnel are here mainly as trainers. At the beginning of the Nicaraguan revolution, he says, the Cuban military advisers were important in setting up the military and security structure and getting government ministries into shape. But now, he says, their main task is to train Nicaraguan conscripts to fight the contras.

The Cubans' only active role in military action, this well-informed diplomat says, is confined to operating equipment with which Nicaraguans are not expert.

For example, he says, the Cubans fly some helicopters that the Sandinistas don't know how to operate yet. Hence, many Western analysts here assume such Cubans have been involved to some degree in the counterinsurgency effort. The diplomat states that the MI-24 helicopters, which the Sandinistas have just received from the Soviets, will probably have to be flown by Cuban pilots.

According to Western sources, the one exception to the Cubans' basically training role in the Nicaraguan Army is a Cuban general who spends most of his time in Nicaragua. The sources suspect that this general may have a large role in designing counterinsurgency efforts against the contra rebels. However, the sources doubt that he has an actual command and control role.

The well-informed diplomat says that the two areas where Cubans have a strong presence are the Nicaraguan state security apparatus and Telcor, the national telecommunications system. The East Germans also play an important role in these areas, he says.

The Cuban presence in the Nicaraguan Army could become more important, this diplomat says, if a significant political split opens up between hard-line and more moderate Sandinistas.

At present, the upper levels of the Nicaraguan officer corps is generally thought to be politically mixed - with the moderates perhaps predominating. Among the noncommissioned officers, such as sergeants, the hard-liners are thought have more influence.

According to several Western political observers here, it is not clear which side the Cubans would be on if the Sandinistas split. One Western diplomat, however, says that Fidel Castro has been siding with newly elected President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his defense minister brother, Humberto, both moderates.

In this view, Castro has been urging the Sandinistas to take a more moderate line vis-a-vis the opposition and the US. In addition, the military hardware provided by the East bloc countries is not seen here as enough to give them, or Cuba, basic decision-making power in Nicaragua.

However, the Cuban Ambassador is widely considered to be well respected by the Sandinista leaders and very influential with them. He was associated with them in Costa Rica when they were fighting the Somoza regime, and reportedly rode into Managua with their victorious forces on July 19, 1979. Today, the Cuban Embassy is larger than any Western Embassy in Managua, with more than 100 staffers. And the Cubans are have opened three new consulates around the country.

Another important element in the Cuban-Nicaraguan relationship, according to one Western diplomat, is the thousands of Nicaraguan youth who spend several months or years in Cuba. The diplomat estimates that there might be ''between 3, 000 to 5,000 Nicaraguan young people who go to Cuba each year.''

Nicaraguan popular reaction to the Cubans is mixed. On the one hand, many of the Cubans selected to come here are personable and unassuming. Many Nicaraguans are grateful for the medical and teaching assistance that they have received from Cuban professionals. Cubans were especially active in the successful literacy program launched by the Sandinistas immediately after the revolution.

However, some other Nicaraguans resent the Cubans as foreigners, seeing them as ''loud'' and ''pushy.'' In addition, the gossip mills here are often full of rumors about minor bureaucratic struggles in government offices between Nicaraguans and some of the Cuban advisers.

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