WASHINGTON — Washington. THE DEATH of Communism is less an event than a process -- a process now painfully under way in Cuba. The Marxist regime is still in power, but the world revolution from which it drew energy and sustenance has died.
Fidel Castro is girding his countrymen's loins for the ''special period'' of hardship when the revolution will be tested as never before. The economic crisis of which Mr. Castro warned last January is nearly upon them. The Socialist trading system of barter and subsidies has collapsed with the transformation of Eastern Europe. Eastern European countries are now reorienting their trade to the West -- and to hard currency.
The Soviet Union has neither the resources nor the inclination to continue a system under which it provided oil, food, machinery and consumer goods in exchange for Cuba's sugar, nickel, fruit and political and military support for world revolution. The Soviet Union, too, is interested in dealing in convertible currency. So, early in 1990 the Soviet government gave Mr. Castro notice that from January 1991, Soviet trade with Cuba would be at world prices in convertible currency.
At the end of August, announcing that: ''We must be ready to face even more difficult circumstances,'' the Havana government proclaimed that Cuba had entered the ''special JTC period'' of siege. The government extended rationing from the basics to almost everything, overhauled the system of distribution and exhorted the people to redouble ''creativity'' and ''vigilance.'' It canceled some commercial flights due to fuel shortages and dramatically slashed the consumption of fuel and electricity.
Recrimination against the Soviet Union became more frequent. The all-purpose explanation for Cuba's economic difficulties became: ''As is known, the U.S.S.R. is having difficulties supplying us with various basic goods we traditionally have received from that brother country.''
Cuban officials said that, because the Soviets were unable to deliver 2 million tons of oil and derivatives, the sugar-cane harvest suffered, and fuel deliveries to trucks were cut by 50 percent, with consequent effects on transportation. Consumption of electricity was sharply curtailed, affecting irrigation and agriculture. Refrigeration capacities were cut, affecting the preservation of already-short food supplies.
Work on an oil refinery at Cienfuegos and at the Che Guevara nickel plant -- both projects developed with Soviet aid -- was shut down. Each Cuban family was required to reduce its average monthly consumption of electric power by 10 percent. Any family failing to comply with these reductions would receive no electricity at all for at least 30 days.
Mr. Castro himself announced that 400,000 bulls were being domesticated to supplement the 200,000 bulls already available to replace tractors as they run out of gas in Cuban fields.
Mr. Castro has let his ''disappointment'' with the failure of Soviet ''fraternal'' deliveries be known. But Soviet economists do not agree that their government caused Cuba's problem.
''The Cuban economy's advancing disease has not been a secret from anyone for a long time now,'' commented Komsomolskaya Pravda recently. First, the article charged that the Cubans had exaggerated the Soviet shortfall. Instead of 2 million tons short in oil and derivative deliveries, it was 580,000 tons short. Moreover, in the first six months of 1990 the Soviet Union had actually delivered 100,000 tons more of oil and derivatives than in the first six months of the previous year, it said.
So what is happening? Soviet analysts speculate aloud. Either the Cuban government is stockpiling this year's deliveries in anticipation of harder times to come, or the Cuban government has sold Soviet oil to third parties to procure foreign exchange.
Both explanations are plausible. Mr. Castro is deeply concerned about the future. And he is selling what he can.
The Madrid daily El Pais described on October 17 the sale by the Cuban government of a large number of antiques, stamp and coin collections and paintings. The decision to auction paintings by the distinguished artist Joaquin Sorolla was regarded as especially significant. Sorolla's paintings are the property of Cuba's National Museum of Painting and are regarded as part of the ''national artistic heritage.'' But they have been auctioned to the highest bidder in Sotheby's and Christie's London galleries.
A manuscript of Federico Garcia Lorca -- a cherished possession of the National Library -- has also been sold recently. Spanish sources report on frequent trips of antique dealers from Barcelona and Madrid to Havana to procure thousands of pieces of antique furniture, carriages and so forth. Obviously, Fidel Castro is seeking to provide for a rainy day.
''Castro combines strategic and tactical abilities rarely surpassed among world leaders,'' Jorge Dominguez, a Harvard professor, wrote in his 1989 study of Cuba's foreign policy. Clearly, those tactics are better suited to foreign affairs than to the Cuban economy.