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Exporting Revolution, 1976-89

In foreign affairs, the Cuban Revolution achieved significant successes. In the late 1970s, Fidel Castro emerged as the leader of the Nonaligned Movement. There he espoused four important themes for the future that became the cornerstone of Cuba's policy toward the developing world: support for violent revolutions; anticolonialism; an end to white supremacy in Africa; and reduction of dependency on Western economies. These policies coincided with Soviet objectives and produced a convergence of Soviet and Cuban actions in the developing world. Castro's willingness to commit his Soviet-equipped, well trained armed forces on the African continent gained for Cuba much respect and admiration, but also created some fear among African leaders.

During those years, Cuba's stand in the international arena was strengthened. Diplomatic relationships were reestablished with Latin American countries like Peru, Jamaica, Panama, Chile and others, which broke the siege imposed by the US in the previous decade. After signing several commercial agreements with the Soviet Union -- with very favorable trade conditions far from the unequal practices of the international market -- Cuba became a member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. In 1976, Cuban troops were sent to Africa at the request of the government of Angola to help in the liberation of that country from South African intervention. Shortly after, another Cuban contingent participated in the defense of Ethiopia from Somalia aggression. The celebration in 1979 in Havana of the sixth Summit Conference of the Non Aligned Countries was another proof of the international prestige obtained by the Revolution.

The Cuban leadership saw its support for revolution as an integral and critical part of Cuba's foreign policy. Helping leftist insurgents throughout the world was a revolutionary commitment, ensuring that these allies would come to Cuba's aid in times of need. But more important, worldwide revolution directed against the United States, the principal enemy of the Cuban Revolution, was used to divert United States attention and resources, and perhaps to restrain its policies and actions against the island. The ultimate goal was to ensure the survival of the Cuban Revolution and its leadership, the most important objective of Cuba's foreign policy.

Armed struggle was fundamental to Fidel Castro's mystique as well as to the image that he projected onto the larger world stage, where he was determined to playa prominent role. Other revolutionary leaders might shed, in time, doctrinaire excesses in favor of the pragmatic pursuit of comfortable rule. Yet there is truly nothing in Castro's personal makeup to suggest that he would forsake the global floodlights and renounce his "internationalist" commitments.

After a short period of détente during the first years of the Carter Administration, Cuban-US relations deteriorated with the increased assertiveness of US policy at the end of that Administration. With Reagan's ascension into power, actions against Cuba increased with the creation of Radio and TV Martí. Military maneuvers, rehearsals of air raids and attempts to get sanctions against Cuba in the UN Human Rights Commission were some of the activities carried put by the US.

Cuba's response was the upgrading and perfecting of the overall defense system of the country and the preparation for all events under the concept of "the War of All the People." Essentially, it consists in that each Cuban should have a position and a means in the struggle against a possible imperialist aggression. For this, the people are organized into Territorial Militia Troops, Brigades in charge of Production and Defense and Defense Zones. Cuba's quick organization and readiness to respond to direct aggression stopped imperialist intentions and plans.

Perhaps the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua and the establishment, albeit temporarily, of a Marxist regime in Grenada were Cuba's most important revolutionary achievements in the Western hemisphere. Although the overthrow of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua was as much the result of internal opposition as of external aid, Cuba claimed a joint effort with Venezuela and Panama in bringing down the Somoza dynasty. For Cuba, Nicaragua exemplified the vindication of the Cuban line, which had been emphasizing for years the need for violence and particularly guerrilla warfare to attain power in Latin America.

The Sandinista victory gave new life to revolutionary violence in Central America, much of it supported by Cuba. Yet Cuba's support for insurgent groups in the area, particularly in El Salvador and Guatemala, was channeled increasingly through Nicaragua. Using Nicaragua or other third countries facilitated the flow of weapons, propaganda, and aid, while making the task of detection and resistance that much harder. Cuba also denied supporting revolutionary groups, thus weakening United States credibility and influence, while at the same time facilitating relations with more conservative governments in Latin America. Castro's willingness to come to the aid of the Argentine military regime during the Falklands War (1982) was a further indication of Cuba's pragmatic and opportunistic foreign policy. Throughout these maneuvers in Cuba's foreign policy, Castro remained closely tied to the Soviet Union. Although there were frictions between Castro and the Kremlin, the latter's influence and presence in Cuba were far more extensive than ever before. At the same time, solidarity with the Soviet Union remained a vital element of Cuba's foreign policy. Cuba's policies and actions in the international arena operated in the larger framework of Soviet objectives. Castro continued to pursue his own policies only as long as they did not clash with those of the Soviets.

Uncomfortable as he felt in the embrace of the Russian bear, Castro's options were limited. Although relations with China improved from their nadir in 1967, the Chinese seemed unable or unwilling to take Cuba on as an expensive client. Beijing decried Castro's support of Moscow's policies as "revisionist," and the Chinese still remembered his denunciations of Mao in the late 1960s with bitterness and anger.

Increased commercial ties with Canada, Western Europe, and Japan beckoned as a healthy development from Cuba's standpoint. Yet the ability of these countries to absorb the island's sugar exports was limited, and Havana had scant cash reserves with which to purchase European and Japanese goods. Cuba's heavy economic commitment to the Soviet Union and the East European countries was an additional deterrent to a broadening of its trading partners, and United States pressures on Western allies tended to limit their willingness to trade with Cuba.

To be sure, all of this could have enhanced the desire of the Castro regime to reduce its reliance on the Soviet Union and to reach some accommodation with the United States. Rapprochement with the United States could have led to a loosening of the embargo and even access to an important neighboring market, if the United States were willing to buy Cuban sugar. It could have bolstered Cuba's immediate security position and provided Castro with leverage in his dealings with the Soviet Union. United States recognition would have meant an important psychological victory for Castro. In Latin America, it would have been interpreted as a defeat for "Yankee imperialism" and as an acceptance of the Castro regime as a permanent, albeit irritating, phenomenon in the Caribbean.

Cuban moves toward accommodation with the United States would have posed some major problems for the Kremlin. The Soviets were not averse to some amelioration in Cuban-United States tensions, especially if the result was to reduce Cuba's heavy demands for Soviet aid. The Kremlin was fearful, however, that ties with the West could foster a desire for increasing independence by other Soviet bloc members and lead to progressive internal liberalization, as the results of the West German efforts to establish diplomatic and trade relations with Eastern Europe showed. Although Cuba was not as critical to the Soviet Union as was Eastern Europe, a resumption of Cuba's relations with the United States and a significant weakening in Soviet-Cuban ties would have been seen as leading to the eventual subverting of the Revolution and the renunciation of membership in the "socialist camp." Moscow viewed Cuba's possible defection as a blow to its prestige and as damaging to the Soviet power posture vis-a.-vis the United States.

Rapprochement with the United States would also have been fraught with danger and uncertainties for the Cuban leadership. It would have required a loosening of Cuba's military ties with the Soviet Union, the abandonment of visible support for violent revolutions in Latin America, and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Africa and other parts of the world. These were conditions that Castro was not willing to accept. He perceived them as an attempt by the United States to isolate Cuba and strengthen anti-Castro forces within Cuba, thus posing a threat to the stability of his regime. Castro, therefore, was not able or willing to offer meaningful concessions that would be indispensable for United States-Cuban rapprochement. Negotiations proceeded, however, and ad hoc agreements were struck on some issues such as skyjacking and the Mariel Boatlift, which brought 125,000 Cuban refugees to the United States in 1980.

Cuban-Soviet relations, for their part, also were beset with serious irritants. Moscow's claim to leadership of the "socialist bloc" and its interference in Cuba's internal affairs have clashed with the forces of Cuban nationalism. Given Castro's personality and past policies, his suspicion, if not dislike, of the Soviets, and his desire to playa leading role in world affairs, he remained an unstable and unpredictable Soviet ally. Yet in the 1980s, Castro had no choice but to follow the Soviet lead, while attempting to emerge from his isolation in Latin America and improve Cuba's faltering economy.

By the 1990s, Cuba's international relations revolved around seven main goals: the survival of the Castro Revolution; the internationalization of Castro's personal prestige and charisma, with a resulting increase in power and influence; the maintenance, until the collapse of communism, of a close alliance with the Soviet Union and its interests throughout the world; the preservation of an anti-United States posture in an attempt to weaken United States power and influence worldwide; the acquisition of influence and supportive allies among developing world states; the development of a "new international economic order"; and the continuous support of "movements of national liberation" in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. The image of a nonaligned Cuba was repeatedly tarnished, however, by Castro's close partnership with the Soviets. His stature suffered as a result of his failure to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and to rally Latin American leaders to repudiate their foreign debt.

The Cuban government has helped a broad range of "progressive forces," terrorist groups, and religious fanatics opposing the United States. Since the 1970s, however, the regime has been increasingly willing, despite its Marxist rhetoric, to establish ties with conservative Latin American states. Clearly, ideology is not the sole factor shaping Cuba's external behavior. Cuban interest in developing such relations has been motivated by a desire to foster Cuban and, in the past, Soviet objectives, and to undermine United States interests in the area.

Despite perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (political opening) in the Soviet Union and differences with Mikhail Gorbachev, Castro remained a close Soviet ally until the end of communism in 1991. Since the late 1960s, the relations between Havana and Moscow had taken the form of a progressively closer alliance. The incorporation of Cuba into the Soviet camp was evident not only in economic terms (Cuba was a member socioeconomic and was heavily dependent on Soviet economic and military aid and trade) but also was clearly manifested in its model of government and its international behavior. Undoubtedly, Cuba was subservient in most cases to Soviet interests, but Havana had considerable leverage with Moscow, as well as some freedom to act and react in external affairs (especially in the Caribbean and Latin America in general).

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Page last modified: 02-04-2013 16:20:55 ZULU