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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.

1.

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.

Precisely because the Cuban leaders have serious revolutionary aims, we have to ask how seriously their recent overtures toward the Reagan administration should be taken. We do not know whether these public and private signals that they want more peaceable relations are sincere or simply a propaganda ploy. But the US will never know the answer unless it tries to test the intentions of the Cubans and their willingness, in the words of a senior Cuban official, “to seek a relative accommodation” that would imply “mutual restraint.”

The Cubans themselves do not conceal the fact that their signals of a new desire for “mutual restraint” are entirely tactical. That is, they are ready to make a temporary retreat at a time when they find themselves in an unfavorable situation—a policy to be discarded when their situation changes for the better. However, we would point out that practically all changes by revolutionary regimes in the direction of compromise with opponents are tactical when they are first made. If such a willingness to compromise is taken advantage of and a mutual accommodation is actually achieved, the duration of the change in policy becomes prolonged, and the change might become incorporated into Cuban strategy. Eventually, this might—or might not—modify Cuban beliefs, doctrines, and behavior; but to refuse to test Cuban intentions offers no serious possibilities for change at all.

On the conflicts in Central America much of what we heard was familiar. They were, in the Cuban view, produced by economic and social conditions, but complicated by external involvements on both sides: mutual restraint would set the stage for a political solution. What was new was the denial by one of the highest Cuban officials that Cuba has shipped arms to El Salvador during the last fourteen months, and to Nicaragua during the last two months, and his claim that Cuban territory is not now being used to transship supplies to either country. We have no basis to evaluate this. But the same official also said that Cuba would now be willing to participate in broad negotiations with the US government and other countries concerning multilateral issues such as Southern Africa and Central America. He was willing to abandon Cuba’s previous requirement that the US embargo cease before such negotiations could take place.

Most important, the same authoritative official, in response to our query during a formal session, said that Cuba would be willing to accept an international peace-keeping force in El Salvador that would include troops from countries such as Mexico, France, Germany, as well as contingents from the third world. Such a peace-keeping force, probably under UN auspices, would, he agreed, have three main tasks: to maintain a cease-fire; to monitor and control the international flow of arms; and to supervise elections in which the left would participate. He tacitly acknowledged that such a peace-keeping force would foreclose a revolutionary victory by arms; but he emphasized that it would allow a broader political, as opposed to military, solution to the Salvadoran conflict to evolve.

2.

How are these Cuban positions related to the choices facing the US in El Salvador? Three elements seem particularly important there. First, most of the evidence we have seen suggests that the supply of arms and the training of troops by the United States will not be sufficient by itself to defeat the guerrillas in the foreseeable future. Second, in view of public opinion in the US, the continuing human rights violations in El Salvador, and especially the position of the American Catholic Church, Congress will not allow American combat units to be used in Central America.3 Third, the results of the recent election make it highly unlikely that the Salvadoran government will negotiate with the guerrillas—unless bold new factors are introduced. If the administration goes further down the tunnel in El Salvador, it risks being trapped in an interminable and probably hopeless war.

Realists as well as moralists should also consider other probable and even predictable consequences of current US policy. In El Salvador, the Christian Democratic leader, Duarte, stripped of any real power, may return to exile in Venezuela; if he stays in El Salvador he risks assassination. Duarte’s fall from power will sharply reduce the support of the Christian Democratic government in Venezuela for a US policy of military aid to El Salvador. US armed support of an increasingly rightist Salvadoran government will also cause severe tension with Mexico, the other country, along with Venezuela, of greatest interest to the United States in the region.

In pursuing a military victory in El Salvador, the US is likely to increase its covert assistance to the anti-Sandinista exiles in Honduras, with or without congressional allocation of funds. Notwithstanding recurring reports that the hardline Sandinista faction has triumphed in Nicaragua, there are still convincing signs that an intense struggle concerning the revolution’s direction and the status of pluralism is taking place within the ruling coalition. However, if the US encourages attacks across the Honduran-Nicaraguan border this will almost certainly mean a defeat for the advocates of pluralism in Nicaragua and an increase of the flow of arms from Nicaragua to El Salvador.

In these circumstances, if the US increases its military aid to El Salvador, not only will the United States be increasingly isolated from all but the most reactionary regimes in the region; it will certainly face as well widespread protests from Western Europe, especially from Germany and France, and the dissatisfaction of European governments with the US will deepen. If the Reagan administration insists on seeing the turmoil in Central America primarily as a conflict between East and West, then it should be aware—as it does not seem to be—of the wide-ranging costs of such an enterprise. It runs the grave risk of seriously harming the most important American strategic interest, to preserve and strengthen the Western Alliance. In fact, from this geopolitical perspective, the Soviet Union, burdened by the political and financial costs of dealing with Afghanistan and Poland, stands—whatever the outcome—to be the greatest beneficiary of a wider war in Central America. In our hemisphere, the United States, Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras all face tragic and growing losses. The people of El Salvador will suffer most of all.

In our opinion, these consequences could be avoided. President Reagan’s tough rhetoric and policies toward Cuba have, for the moment at least, contributed to a paradoxical situation. They may have created a climate in which the Cubans are drawn to a negotiated solution of the Central American crisis, a solution with low cost to the United States and one potentially acceptable to the Reagan administration. In any case, a negotiated settlement in Central America is not only the best but also the only realistic choice open to the administration now. As we have argued, the administration’s tough rhetoric in Central America is now hollow, since there is almost no chance that US troops will be sent to Central America or the Caribbean. To continue such rhetoric would make strategic sense only if the administration had the resources to match it. It does not. In these circumstances it is the “tough-minded” Reaganite officials insisting on a military victory who are naïve, not the academic experts and members of Congress counseling negotiation.

We are thus at a moment of special opportunity and special peril. The United States may be about to embark on a costly and isolating policy of unilateral military aid to a rightist Salvadoran coalition with all the grave international implications we have mentioned. But Cuba may also be ready to take part in the search for a negotiated settlement.

The moment is propitious, therefore, for an initiative from the international community; but this can no longer take the form of a simple call for negotiations among the domestic forces in El Salvador. In view of the election results in El Salvador, the left and the right are less inclined than ever to negotiate. Despite the US government’s efforts to ensure at least a token Christian Democratic presence in the government, the political momentum has clearly swerved to the extreme right-wing leaders, who are now in a triumphal mood and are flatly rejecting negotiations. The guerrillas, for their part, now can claim that to lay down their arms to talk with a government dominated by Roberto d’Aubuisson is tantamount to suicide. One promising way to break this impasse could be for contingents from Mexico, Venezuela, France, Germany, and third world countries to take part in an armed UN force to keep peace in El Salvador while multilateral negotiations take place.

We also believe that the work of such a peace-keeping force should be extended to include monitoring the flow of arms into and out of Nicaragua. We are not certain that Nicaragua would accept these terms. We think they may be persuaded that such a force would be their best guarantee against spending scarce resources to defend themselves against threats from Honduras supported by the US. An international peace-keeping force on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border, in the Gulf of Fonseca, and in El Salvador would probably be acceptable to the Nicaraguans. With such a force in place, the Nicaraguans could much more effectively monitor any flow of arms from their territory; and they would not be in the position of betraying what they feel are their obligations to “international solidarity.”

In El Salvador, an international peace-keeping force that has the support of Cuba and Nicaragua is probably the only device that would bring the guerrillas to accept a cease-fire and would enable them to participate in elections. Such a force, moreover, may well be the only solution that our West European allies would be willing to sponsor actively; and to recognize this is the case would so drastically alter the congressional and global calculations of the Reagan policy makers that they would, if they are sensible, commit themselves fully to a political rather than a military resolution of the conflict in El Salvador.

Such a choice by the Reagan administration may convince right-wing groups in El Salvador that they indeed face a critical decision—either to participate in negotiations or to go it alone without the help of US arms and prestige. But to stop the right-wing forces from continuing the war would certainly present special difficulties for the Reagan administration. It would be important to any such effort to encourage a political solution that the Cubans openly and actively—not simply tacitly—accept a peace-keeping force, a cease-fire, and elections. The right-wing leaders would have to be shown that they could not rely on other sources of support; and they would have to be offered guarantees that, in return for cooperation, they and their followers would be protected. Applying such a policy of incentives and pressures to the forces the US has backed—and coordinating that policy with multinational arrangements for a peace-keeping force—would be one of the greatest challenges that the Reagan administration has faced so far.

Our proposal seems to us plausible in view of the realities of armed conflict in Central America. However, our main purpose has been to suggest that in Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador opportunities for peacemaking have been emerging that should be considered by the Congress, the international community, and the Reagan administration. At a moment when so many think that the chances for negotiation are exhausted, these opportunities should not be blocked, but pursued vigorously.

Cuba’s interest and possible involvement in a political solution remains a great question. The Cuban leaders hope—or say they hope—that by helping to resolve the Central American crisis they would shield both Cuba and Nicaragua from the fearful consequences of a widening confrontation in the region. They also say they hope that the progress toward such a solution would create a changed climate in which bilateral negotiations with the US could take place, and normal relations between Cuba and the US could be restored for the first time since 1961. Taking up Cuba on these professed hopes would be a momentous test of Cuban sincerity and intentions. It would show whether the Cubans are willing and able to influence the Central American revolutionaries in order to reach a negotiated settlement.

On other occasions the US has ignored signals from its adversaries that they wanted to negotiate in good faith. Sometimes the signals were false. Sometimes they were serious. Let us hope that this time the signals are serious and that the Reagan administration, as well as other governments, will test them.

So far the signs from Washington have been grimly discouraging. In response to the Cuban offers of “mutual restraint” we have mentioned, the Reagan administration has been increasing its pressure on Cuba and reiterating its rhetoric of confrontation. In doing so, we believe, the administration is making a grave error. If such words and actions continue, we may find that Cuban rhetoric will become more hostile, thus ending whatever chances there are for negotiation. That a historic change may now be possible should not be dismissed out of hand; but that is what the administration is now tending to do.

—April

Letters

Cuba and the Us November 4, 1982

Cuba and the Us November 4, 1982

  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.

  3. 3

    In February a Newsweek/Gallup poll found that 89 percent of those questioned opposed the use of American troops in El Salvador. See “El Salvador: What the Polls Said,” The Wall Street Journal, April 23, 1982.

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