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Cuba, the US, and the Central American Mess

A few months ago, one of us, Seweryn Bialer, explored with high Cuban officials the possibility of holding a meeting with Cuban and US experts on international relations to discuss questions of mutual interest. The initial plan was to meet in the United States. The Cubans agreed and presented a list of names for their proposed delegation, composed of top Party and government advisers; however, the US State Department refused to grant visas to the Cubans. Thereupon, the Cubans suggested that the meeting be held in Havana. In early April, we were both part of a delegation of ten American specialists on international relations who went for five days to Havana to take part in a conference that lasted for two days. We also held discussions both individually and as a group with Cuban senior foreign-policy officials, advisers to the Party, and government and academic experts. The conference and discussions centered on four broad topics:

1) an evaluation of the international situation, particularly the state of East-West relations;

2) Soviet-Cuban relations, with special emphasis on the African continent;

3) US-Cuban relations, with emphasis on Central America; and

4) the Caribbean Basin initiative of President Reagan.

During their stay in Cuba, the Americans met with a number of high government and Party officials, including Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, vice-president and deputy prime minister, and a member of the Politburo. The discussions were intensive, serious, and at times brutally frank. According to the Cubans, the last time they met with a similar delegation was in 1976 (and the US participants think that this was the first exchange ever held with US specialists on Soviet and communist affairs). What follows are our impressions of the exchange with the Cubans.


We went to Cuba at a time when the war of nerves between the US and Cuba was becoming dangerously acute. The members of our delegation, composed of specialists with widely differing political views, felt that the results of the exchange should be carefully studied in Washington. The initial reaction of the Reagan administration as far as we can judge has been uniformly negative. Instead of probing the seriousness of the Cuban overtures for improved relations that have been made both publicly and in our discussions, the administration chose in mid-April to introduce stringent new measures to tighten the embargo against Cuba, cutting off regular air flights from Miami and restricting visits from the US to the island, among other measures. Before further discussion is foreclosed we think it would be useful to analyze our exchanges with the Cubans to explore whether they point to new opportunities to avoid confrontation in Central America.

The mood we sensed among the Cuban foreign-policy experts and officials we met seemed to be based on contradictory feelings; and it is precisely the contradictions in Cuban attitudes that we found fascinating. Because their state of mind defies simplification, generalizations are difficult. On the one hand, we encountered a defiant mood of intense nationalistic pride, in which the Cubans insisted on their autonomy with regard to the Soviet Union. They wanted to make clear their devotion to Marxist-Leninist revolutionary principles, especially to “internationalism” and to “solidarity” with revolutions elsewhere; they believe that time works in Cuba’s favor, and they have a deep animosity toward the US. They were unanimous in insisting that pressures and threats would not intimidate the Cubans and that they are ready to resist resolutely both military and economic actions directed against the Cuban state.

On the other hand, we were made aware of their feelings of vulnerability and their strong fears that, in the short run, the tide is running against them; they expect that Cuba faces great dangers and hard tests during the next few years. They wanted us to come away convinced that they recognize that revolutionary principles have to be tempered because politics—even revolutionary politics—are the art of the possible. Their sense of being in imminent danger was underscored when we were told that Cuba since November has been in a state of full military mobilization for the first time since the missile crisis and the Dominican intervention nearly two decades ago.

In our judgment, there were three particular sources of anxiety among the Cubans we met. First, the Cubans felt—as did members of the delegation—that we might possibly be at one of the major turning points in international politics and in East-West relations in particular. The collapse of détente, and a renewed sense of confrontation between the two superpowers, are creating an atmosphere of increasing danger. The Cubans fear that they will find themselves badly exposed in the case of a new cold war.

Second, the Cubans showed themselves alarmed at what they perceive as the menacing rhetoric and the aggressive policies of the Reagan administration with regard to East-West relations in general and to Cuba and Central America in particular. As one Cuban official put it: “When Reagan was elected, we expected to have to deal with a conservative but not with a radical conservative.” The Cubans still have difficulties in comprehending President Reagan’s policy and connecting official rhetoric to what the US may do. What will actually follow, they ask, from the administration’s statements insisting that Cuba is the principal villain of the hemisphere? They seem to feel isolated and appear to be caught off balance; they complain that while they have been in touch with high officials of the Reagan administration, such contacts are sporadic; that their American interlocutors misunderstand the Cuban position, and that the US officials don’t treat the talks seriously.

Third, the Cubans gave us the impression that both they and their Soviet patrons are overextended. The USSR is far away and some of the Cubans seemed concerned (justifiably, in our opinion) that in view of current Soviet military capacities, the death-watch in the Kremlin, and the Soviet fears of Reagan, the Soviets would react chiefly with rhetoric and threatening gestures should the US move against Cuba or its revolutionary allies in Central America. Moreover, a Soviet reaction to another US blockade of Cuba or to mining of its ports would, in our view, come in Europe or the Middle East rather than in this hemisphere. In addition, the current forecast for Soviet economic growth, well known to the Cubans, is worse than for any other period during the Brezhnev era. This forecast is clouded further by the added economic costs to the USSR of Poland and Afghanistan. In Eastern Europe there is growing concern among high officials that the USSR may not continue its subsidies at the same level as in the past. We surmised that the Cubans have similar concerns.

Cuban-Soviet relations were among the most fascinating topics in our talks. Whenever the subject of the Soviet Union came up, the Cubans expressed respect for and gratitude to their patrons; but they had little to say in defense of Soviet actions. Their lack of cultural affinity with the USSR seemed clear. They insist that their close economic and political relations with the Soviet Union are permanent and that they believe in Marxist-Leninist principles. If it is true, as was recently reported, that Secretary Haig has made an offer to Castro to “sever his bonds with the Soviet Union and ally Cuba with the West,”1 that offer would seem, for the present, to have no chance of acceptance. At the same time the Cubans were eager to put more distance between themselves and the Soviets. They did not hesitate to say that on a number of important issues they have differences with the USSR; indeed, they discussed their differences more frankly than the officials of any East European country, with the exception of Yugoslavia, are willing to do.

With regard to Afghanistan, the Cubans say they voted with the USSR on the UN resolution because they had no choice. But a senior official was at pains to stress that “we did not applaud the sending of Soviet troops” and that “we have been constantly trying to find a political solution that would lead to the withdrawal of Soviet troops.” They did not discuss this at our formal meeting, but they indicated they were keenly aware that, more than anything else, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan hurts Cuba’s standing as a leader of the “nonaligned” movement.

On Ethiopia, the Cubans say they differ with the Soviets over Eritrea. They consider that the Eritreans have a legitimate case against Ethiopia, and assert that Cubans do not participate, as the Soviets do, in attempts to crush the Eritrean rebellion. Our impression is that they see what is happening in the Horn of Africa as being to a large extent the result of unwise Soviet policies. That is, by first arming the Somalis and then switching support to Ethiopia, the Soviets have created a dangerously inflammable situation.

A senior official called Poland a “socialist tragedy,” the result of “grave errors in the construction of socialism.” In contrast to our impression from discussions with East German, Czech, and Soviet officials, Cuban officials seem aghast at the possibility of a Soviet invasion of Poland or a civil war; they discuss seriously the possibility of domestic political compromise between the workers and the government. Cuba, much more than the USSR, wants to be in good standing with the international left; and the immense hostility toward the Polish crackdown of most left-wing parties in Western Europe and Latin America has created, as in the case of Afghanistan, great costs for Cuba. Moreover, both Afghanistan and Poland are examples of the kind of regional Realpolitik that has threatening implications for Cuba.

Finally, although the Cubans proclaim that they do not agree with the general position of the Communist Party of Italy—which broke decisively with the USSR over the Polish issue—they support its right to an independent position. The Cubans told us that Enrico Berlinguer, the head of the PCI, visited Cuba recently and had “constructive” talks with the Cuban leadership.

It appeared, at least, that Cuba’s desire for some degree of autonomy from the USSR might be greater than is generally recognized. No doubt the expansionist aims of the Soviet Union and the convictions of the Cubans often coincide or overlap. Moreover, Cuba’s economic and military dependence on the Soviet Union has increased—partly, it would seem, because of Cuba’s current isolation. Nevertheless, the Cubans are angry at being considered by the United States as mere proxies for Soviet expansion. They insisted to us that they had their own history of independent relations with the Angolan revolutionaries and stressed that the Cuban commitment of troops to Angola in the face of the South African invasion was made on their own initiative.2 Twice a senior foreign-policy official asserted that if the US does not like Cuban policy, and wants to try to influence it, it should talk to Havana not Moscow. One general impression we carried away is that Cuba remains a revolutionary country, while the interests of the USSR—a global power in an expansionist stage of development—are more nationalistic than revolutionary.

  1. 1

    AP report from Washington, the New York Daily News, April 23, 1982, p. 10.

  2. 2

    Of course the level of Cuba’s commitment could not have been attained, or sustained, without Soviet support.

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