Gorbachev in Cuba: Bearing Fewer Gifts?

SOVIET leader Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Cuba is expected to be a series of fraternal hugs, handshakes, and warm toasts between close allies. Diplomats and observers here don't expect Cuban leader Fidel Castro to receive any public rebuke for his vociferous rejection of Gorbachev-style economic and political reforms. But Cuban officials are reportedly worried that, away from the prying eyes of journalists and diplomats, Mr. Gorbachev, who will stay through Wednesday, will bear bad economic news.

``The Soviets really don't care how Castro goes about running Cuba,'' says a senior Western diplomat of the likely Soviet response to Mr. Castro's steadfast refusal to follow the trend of Soviet-style reform. ``But they will likely let him know that perestroika [restructuring] means the emphasis is now on plowing funds into domestic development at home . . . and that means a greater efficiency in Cuba's use of Soviet aid.

``The message is going to be that the Soviet aid pie is fixed and will not grow,'' the diplomat says.

The Soviets and other East-bloc nations have long complained about the poor quality of goods and Cuban inefficiency in meeting trade commitments. A demand for improved standards is thought likely to be the subject of private talks. And with changes in Soviet management style, one Cuban concern is that Gorbachev will announce that trade agreements will be carried out between enterprises, not at the governmental level.

There are also subtle signs that Cuba may get less aid from Moscow, say Western diplomats.

The Soviets provide about $3 billion in aid annually, though it is not paid in dollars. Much of that aid is in the form of buying Cuban goods like sugar and nickel at above market prices. The Soviets also provide soft loans, and grants.

But 1990 is just around the corner and Cuban officials are worried about the long-term Soviet commitment.

``The Cubans know the Soviets will be making a re-assessment of [Cuba's] strategic value, especially over the long-term,'' says the senior non-American diplomat. ``Cuba's position was safe for as long as Soviet foreign policy was ossified,'' he says. ``But with Gorbachev, the Cubans are likely thinking more these days about how in diplomacy - and especially [in] superpower diplomacy - there are no friends, just interests.''

There is a consensus among diplomats and observers that Gorbachev will ask Castro to be much more discreet in his public pronouncements on reform.

On the foreign-policy front, the two leaders are expected to discuss issues of concern to Latin America, such as foreign debt and conflict in Central America.

Though no major initiatives are expected from the summit, observers expect a joint statement supporting the various peace plans in Central America.

``Gorbachev is a man who likes delivering the goods, and Central America is one place where he could deliver a cheapie to [US President] Bush,'' says the senior non-American diplomat.

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