MIKHAIL GORBACHEV's recent trip to Cuba created considerable confusion in Washington. Some said he was a puppeteer who tried to pull back on the strings of his puppet. Others argued that Mr. Gorbachev was the stern parent who went to lecture his errant child. The most extreme warned that we should not consider his mission a benign one. He is, they contend, no less than a wily general who conferred with his rapid-deployment-force commander about plots to cause the United States trouble. These explanations, however, missed the essence of the Soviet-Cuban relationship, which is much like Israel's relationship to the United States. Compare Israel with Cuba:
Threat perception: Both countries see fundamental threats hovering at their borders. Their neighbors have tried to isolate them, and several times have tried to overthrow their governments. Israel's nearby enemies still refuse to recognize Israel and maintain threatening postures. Cuba's principal worry, the US, also refuses to discuss normalization of relations and continues to impose a hostile trade embargo.
Military capability: Israel and Cuba have built the most sophisticated and successful military machines in their regions. In both cases, their defense depends on the continued support from a superpower, and each has linked its armed forces and intelligence closely to the US or Soviet Union.
Superpower relations: Israel is less than 1,000 miles from the USSR; Cuba is less than 100 from the US. Yet each is enmeshed with the superpower that's farthest from it. Israel's annual per capita aid from the US is about $750; Cuba's per capita aid from the USSR is about $500. Israel's economy is tied to the West. Cuba is a member of the communist trading bloc, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), and 85 percent of its trade is with CMEA countries.
Identity: Each country views its destiny in almost messianic terms. Both have small populations - Israel with 4.2 million people, Cuba with 10.2 million - that have transformed their countries against great odds. Israelis believe they have a divine injunction to rebuild the country as a Jewish homeland, and they have made the desert blossom. Cubans believe they are the vanguard of the third world, and their achievements in health care, education, and urban development are respected among poor countries.
Relations with the third world: Israel and Cuba have provided considerable development aid to third-world countries. Both feature superb technical assistance. Each country has been involved militarily, as well, in ways that appear to serve its patron superpower. But Israel and Cuba have also angered and frustrated the US and USSR, respectively, because of independent policies toward key third-world nations.
Few would characterize the Israeli connection to the US as that of a US pawn. Similarly, there is little support for the proposition that the US should cut its ties to Israel because Israel often takes an independent path. The US-Israeli relationship is a complex one, and it goes well beyond any simple calculation of strategic gain in the Middle East.
The Soviet-Cuban relationship is parallel. It, too, turns only in part on Soviet strategic calculations about the Western Hemisphere. Thus when Gorbachev negotiates with Fidel Castro, there are no ultimatums.
High on their agenda this time was the third world, where Gorbachev wants to reduce Soviet commitments and Mr. Castro wants to maintain ``proletarian internationalism.'' Cuba's orientation leads to differences with the USSR over the kind of support to provide countries like Nicaragua.
Such a disagreement was evident over Angola last year. Unlike the USSR, Cuba did not want to negotiate a withdrawal until the security of the Angolan government could be enhanced.
Perestroika and glasnost, both of which have been rejected by Castro as inappropriate for Cuban circumstances, came up only obliquely during Gorbachev's visit. Gorbachev is more concerned that Cuba fulfill its CMEA production targets, not how the targets are met.
If we think of Cuba as the Israel of the Caribbean, our interpretation of this Gorbachev-Castro meeting will be more realistic. Our perceptions of Cuban behavior in general will be more sensible. We might be more able to see some Cuban actions as benign or even defensive, and not define each conflict as an East-West confrontation. From that might flow a policy toward our neighbors that would make the Caribbean basin less like the Middle East.