THE humiliation of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war has been one more bitter blow to Cuba's Fidel Castro, who gambled much on the Iraqi leader's ability to successfully confront the United States.
Saddam and Fidel have had a long relationship. When Saddam in earlier years elected surgery, it was to Cuba that he went for his operation.
More recently, Castro sent hundreds of Cuban medical teams to Iraq.
When the Gulf confrontation developed, Cuba waged a lonely campaign at the United Nations in support of Saddam.
But the special Cuban secret police unit that provides Castro with regular assessments of public opinion has apparently been giving him negative feedback on his support for Iraq.
Although Cubans are fearful of speaking out, they nevertheless are privately shaken by the failure of both weapons and tactics in Iraq's confrontation with the Americans. Twice recently, in two major speeches, Castro has recognized this mood of doubt, and even of uncertainty about Castro's own confrontational posture against the US.
Declining confidence in Castro's policies is symbolized by two significant defections in recent days. Romel Iglesias Gonzalez, who ran Cuba's most important radio network, has sought asylum in the US, claiming that there is widespread dissatisfaction with Castro. He thinks Castro cannot survive much longer than another year.
His flight closely followed the defection of Cuban air force major Orestes Lorenzo Perez, who landed his MIG-23 at a Florida air base.
What Castro seems to be undergoing is the erosion of the image he once managed to create as an international figure of consequence.
The debacle in Iraq, after he had backed Saddam, is one obvious setback.
But the events in Iraq also underlined the decline of the power of the Soviet Union, long Cuba's principal supporter.
Some Cubans say the Gulf war proved that the Soviet Union is now a second-class power, and Castro himself has railed against the development of a unipolar world - a world in which the US dominates.
Soviet willingness and ability to aid Cuba is declining. …