IN the past 15 years, half a million Cuban troops have fought in Angola. Some 100,000 Cuban troops have fought in Ethiopia. The last Cuban troops left Ethiopia last year, after efforts to install Marxism-Leninism by Mengistu Haile Mariam left that country in a state of blight and despair. Mengistu himself fled Ethiopia last week. This past weekend the last Cuban troops departed Angola, leaving the Marxist government to make peace with the anti-communist guerrillas it could not vanquish in one of Africa's longest civil wars.
So ends a chapter of Cuban intervention in Africa designed to extend communism's hand and heighten Cuba's international prestige. Instead, communism in both countries is in retreat, and Cuba's major expedition into Africa is ending in embarrassment and failure.
Cuba is considered so internationally inconsequential that it is not even present at the Angola peace talks.
The less-than-triumphant end to the Cuban presence in Africa is a humiliation that will complicate Cuban leader Fidel Castro's burgeoning problems at home. Says one Washington expert on Cuba: "With that many Cuban troops involved in Africa, not a single Cuban family has remained untouched by Fidel's African adventure. Everybody has some family member or friend who has served there. Now they'll be asking: 'What did we get from it? What was the point of it all?' "
Aside from questioning the merits of this foreign venture, the troops from Angola are returning to a homeland that is beset by shortages and decay. In Havana, families are given quotas for electricity consumption. Recent refugees from Cuba say families that exceed the quota have their power cut off for a few days. A second offense means permanent disconnection.
Mr. Castro has long been proclaiming a "special situation in peacetime," which essentially means rekindling a kind of revolutionary, guerrilla fervor even though Cuba is not at war.
Two weeks ago he demanded in a speech that Cubans prepare for the "zero option." This means that Cubans must prepare for a zero commitment from the Soviet Union, which has long been Cuba's patron. With changes in Eastern Europe, Cuba has lost much of the support it once received from Eastern Europe's erstwhile communist governments. But now Castro is warning that support from Moscow may vanish too; that Cubans must prepare to do without oil and machinery and other essentials from the Soviet Union.
Castro has his eye on the Soviet Union's own internal economic problems, and on the breakaway trend in a number of Soviet republics. If Boris Yeltsin is reelected president of Russia next month, that will be bad news for Castro. Mr. Yeltsin told former President Richard Nixon recently that if reelected, he will cease Russian support for Cuba.
Even without the Yeltsin factor, Soviet aid to Cuba is becoming leaner. Instead of the usual five-year trade agreement, the Soviets this year signed only a one-year pact with Cuba. At the end of this year, favored Soviet treatment is expected to end, and Cuba will have to sell its exports at competitive market prices and will have to pay in dollars for what it imports. Hence Castro's urgings that Cubans prepare for the "zero option."
With eroding Soviet support, what Castro needs to repair his economy is recognition by the United States and renewed trade ties. President Bush has said that this could come about if Castro held free elections and discontinued abuse of human rights in Cuba. But there is no hint of such reform. Indeed, a new report on religious rights by the Puebla Institute in Washington says the status of human rights in Cuba is "abysmal." Both Roman Catholics and non-Catholics continue to be imprisoned for holding pub l
ic religious services and publishing religious literature. The institute is a lay Catholic human rights group defending religious freedom around the world.
It is into this atmosphere of repression and hardship that Cuba's veterans of the Africa campaign are returning.