Soviet leaders are scheming to cut the apron strings that have tied Fidel Castro to them for three decades.

The Soviets want to dump Cuba as quickly as possible, but they are worried about how that will look and what their chronic welfare case, Castro, will do. Soviet aid to Cuba has already been reduced. But an abrupt exit from Cuba for economic reasons could make the Soviets look weak.Castro has been the ungrateful child of the Soviets during glasnost. He has denounced the Soviet attempts at reform and refuses to abandon Marxism. Yet he continues to soak up the resources of the Soviet Union while making it clear that he disapproves of the hand that feeds him.

The Soviets are facing the fact that all the money they have poured into Cuba has not bought them any influence with their client state. Cuba broke with the Soviets over the Persian Gulf Crisis and has refused to denounce Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. That is just the most recent sign that Castro is out of Soviet control.

Politics aside, the Soviets simply can't afford Castro any more. Cuba receives $5.1 billion a year in Soviet aid - $1.1 billion of that being military aid. Soviet leaders are disgruntled that Castro is not only ungrateful to the point of hostility, but also has squandered the money. The bread lines in the Soviet Union are becoming a more pressing problem than the whining from Cuba's dictator.

The Soviet press is becoming more bold about criticizing living conditions and economic policies in Cuba. Pravda published a letter to the editor from a Ukranian official. He claimed that Cuba invited a group of sick Soviet children - victims of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1986 - to come to Cuba for medical treatment and recuperation in a seaside climate. When the children arrived, their Ukranian escorts complained about the poor Cuban health facilities and the questionable care.

Another report accused the Castro regime of exaggerating the cutbacks in Soviet oil shipments. Yet another talked about the declining demand in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for Cuban exports.

"Cuba depends on us to an immeasurably greater extent that we depend on it, and this dependence is growing," the press commentary said. Even under the looser climate of glasnost, such commentary on formerly taboo subjects is still a sign that the opinion is sanctioned by the Kremlin.

The Cubans are already feeling the impact of a withdrawal of Soviet affections. Castro is rationing food, fuel and household goods because of the slowdown in Soviet imports.

Sources told our associate Scott Sleek that the Soviets want to make their withdrawal from Cuba as painless as possible, and that may be one reason the Kremlin has asked the United States to soften its trade embargo with Cuba. If the Cubans can buy American, they may not complain too loudly about the lack of Soviet goods.

But U.S. officials aren't cooperating. The Bush administration knows Castro is weak and would rather tighten the screws to finish him off. When push comes to shove, the Soviets will continue to cut their aid to Cuba anyway. They need the cash at home more than they need to throw it away.