IT must have been a bittersweet celebration of Fidel Castro's birthday in Cuba last week. On one hand, he has been in virtually unchallenged power for some 30 years. Though running a relatively small and inconsequential little country, his posturing, his promotion of Marxist revolution in the third world, and his constant confrontation with the United States have made him an international figure.
On the other hand, his country is in sad economic straits and he is pursuing a policy of even greater austerity, which has set him ideologically apart from some of his communist mentors. He has also been jolted by a couple of key defections to the US.
All this has made him uncharacteristically defensive. Last month, for instance, he passed up an opportunity he usually seizes to make points with visiting US correspondents. When he gave a speech commemorating the launching of the Cuban revolution, instead of meeting with the visiting journalists he segregated them and obliged them to watch the speech on television from a remote location.
Earlier this year, Cuban Air Force Gen. Rafael del Pino D'iaz escaped with his family in a small plane to Florida. Kept under cover, presumably by US intelligence officials, Gen. del Pino has nevertheless been interviewed extensively by Radio Mart'i, the Voice of America's subsidiary specializing in broadcasts to Cuba. His words have been reaching a substantial Cuban audience and provoked anger and response in public from Dr. Castro.
Now Radio Mart'i has interviewed a second defector, Florentino Azpillaga. Mr. Azpillaga apparently headed Cuban intelligence in Czechoslovakia in his capacity as an intelligence major in the Cuban Ministry of the Interior.
If what these officials are saying is true, their stories shed new light on what is happening inside Cuba. Mr. Azpillaga documents waste and corruption in the security agencies he knows well, but also charges high living by the Cuban party elite, in striking contrast to the austerity Castro is now urging for the ordinary people.
Azpillaga says Castro's main housing complex is lavish with luxuries and that a second house, planned as an underground command post in case of war, is actually used for underwater fishing. He says Castro's birthday is the time for substantial present-giving, and last year an agent involved in illicit business sent Castro a present of $4.2 million. Two agents deposited the money in a Swiss bank, from where it is used to finance liberation movements, bribery of leaders, and any personal whims of Castro.
The defector also tells of ``la dolce vita'' lived by the children of high Cuban officials - including Castro's - sent to Moscow for study. And there are intriguing bits of gossip, such as how the major was assigned to buy lentils - not available in Cuba - and ship them from Czechoslovakia for his minister's use.
Just how damaging these revelations will be remains to be seen. Some experts on Cuba think that a particularly difficult problem for Castro is that of AIDS. Apparently a substantial number of Cuba's soldiers assigned to Africa have returned home carrying the disease. But there has been little internal publicity about it in Cuba, or about measures to prevent it. It is common in Cuban villages, however, to use multipurpose syringes for a variety of medical injections. Thus, medical people say, many Cuban families may have unknowingly transmitted the disease to other family members from infected veterans of the African campaigns.
Says one Cuban expert: ``The officers and men who went to Angola and Ethiopia must be viewed as some of Castro's strongest supporters. Anger over their government's lack of warning could be a problem for the regime.''