The Cuban government is determined, on both political and ideological grounds, to avoid direct military involvement in Ethiopia's war against Eritrean secessionists, authoritative sources here have indicated.
In a series of conversations, apparently seeking to convey in private what they have not said publicly, the high-level sources said that Cuba would resist Ethiopian pressure to commit its troops to Ethiopia's 17-year-old civil war, and would continue to push for a political solution to the conflict.
According to U.S. estimates, more than 15,000 Cuban soldiers remain stationed in Ethiopia after helping to win a border war against Somalia earlier this year.
Despite repeated objections from the United States and other Western nations to the continued Cuban presence, and strong expressions of concern that the troops would be deployed on Ethiopia's other, internal front, Cuba has refused to commit itself publicly either to withdrawal or to noninvolvement in Eritrea.
The possibility of Cuban troop deployment in Eritrea has also angered many of Cuba's Friends in the Third World, particularly militant Arab nations that support the Eritrean movement.
Just yesterday Iraq, the Soviet Union's closest ally in the Middle East, raised the stakes for Soviet-Cuban involvement in Eritrea. Iraqi Information Minister Saad Qasim Hammudi said in an interview that Baghdad, because of its support for the Eritrean cause, would not allow supply planes bound for Ethiopia to use Iraqi air space.
Although not mentioned by name, the Soviet Union was the obvious target, since it has poured about $1 billion worth of armaments into Ethiopia in the last year, and much of this support has involved flights over Iraq.
On a number of occasions President Fidel Castro has said publicly that Cuba favors a "just potitical solution" to the Eritrean problem based on "Leninist principles" of respect for minorities within a "multinational" Ethiopian state. This presumably refers to a federation of diverse national groups similar to that described in the Soviet constitution.
In an interview with American journalists here las week, Castro emphasized that the long-standing Eritrean problem is Ethiopia's "and not ours."
But when asked how Cuba, which repeatedly maintained that its troops were participating in the Somali war at Ethiopian request and Ethiopian orders, would respond to an Ethiopian request for troop support in Eritrea, Castro left the door open. Cuba, he said, does "not want to enter into public commitments about our future position."
Sources here have stressed privately that the most important part of that two-part position - in favor of a political solution, but opposed to making a commitment - is the first.
They said that respect for the sensibilities of his Ethiopian allies, along with refusal to appear to bend to U.S. pressure anywhere in Africa, will not permit Castro to go further in public. Nevertheless, they cited a number of reasons why Cuba is determined to avoid fighting in Eritrea.
One of them is that Cuba supported the Eritrean cause-secession from Ethiopia and formation of a separate state - in the not-too-distant past.
Before the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, when the Eritrean enemy was the U.S. supported government of Emperor Haile Selassie, Cuba brought a number of Eritrean soldiers here for training and spoke for the secessionists in international forums.
Among the several Eritrean [WORD ILLEGIBLE]are a number of fledgling Marxists interested in promoting their own Cuban-style revolution.
But when a group of self-proclaimed Marxist officers within the Ethiopian army overthrew the empire, and the United States withdrew its support for the main Ethiopian government, Cuba took sides against the Eritreans and for the socialist revolution most likely to succeed.
While U.S. officials have attributed the switching of sides to Cuban subjugation to Soviet strategic designs - through the new Ethiopian government - on the Horn of Africa, Cuban sources last week gave another version.
"Reactionary Arabs," specifically Saudi Arabia, they said, were intent on crushing the blossoming socialist state in the old empire, and began funneling support to the beleaguered Eritreans.
A renewed onslaught from the fortified Eritreans to the north, combined with last year's Somali invasion in the east and south, made them feel obligated to answer Ethiopia's call for assistance, the Cubans said.
But that assistance, they mantained, was never intended to be used in Eritrea.
Since the Somalis were driven back over the border earlier this year, Cuba has found it hard to explain to friends and enemies alike why it's troops have stayed on. But despite an obviously strong Ethiopian desire for Cuban help in Eritrea, and occasional Eritrean claims that the Cubans are already fighting in Eritrean territory, there is little concrete evidence that the Cuban troops have moved north.
Several months ago, high-level U.S. officials angrily alleged, and Ethiopian implied, that Cuban troops had been deployed in Eritrea. In recent weeks however, both have been largely [WORD ILLEGIBLE]on the issue.
Last month Ethiopia launched, a new offensive in Eritrea with great fanfare, with Ethiopian leader Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam saying he had Soviet and Cuban support. Since then, however, Mengistuhas backed away from any specific claim of Cuban or Soviet troop involvement and there are indications that the Ethiopians have made little progress against the Eritrean forces which control more than 90 percent of the secessionist province.