In response to:

Cuba, the US, and the Central American Mess from the May 27, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

After a two-day conference in Havana with a group of Cuban senior foreign-policy officials, Seweryn Bialer and Alfred Stepan recommend that the United States take more positive steps to test the sincerity of recent “public and private signals” that the Cuban government wants “more peaceable relations” with the US.

As Bialer and Stepan note, “[o]n other occasions the US has ignored signals from its adversaries that they wanted to negotiate in good faith.” Not, however, in the case of Castro’s Cuba. Without the benefit of the results of tests of such signals from Havana (and of similar signals from the US to Havana) over recent years, one is likely to conclude with Bialer and Stepan that “the Reagan administration… is making a grave error” by “increasing its pressure on Cuba” at this time. But a look at these results may well lead one to conclude otherwise.

In 1975, for example, the United States voted in the Organization of American States to lift sanctions imposed on Cuba in the early 1960s. The US also modified controls that prohibited foreign affiliates of US companies from trading with Cuba and terminated all restrictions on foreign flagships in the Cuban trade. Those gestures of good will were, by all indications, made to pave the way for discussions with Castro’s representatives on the viability of a substantive dialogue. In the face of the US initiative, Cuba intervened in Angola in October 1975.

Despite that failure, a new round of talks was begun in 1977. The United States halted reconnaissance flights over Cuba and lifted restrictions on travel to the island, and Interest Sections were established in Havana and Washington. It is evident that American actions were again perceived as a sign of weakness, for in May 1977 Cuba increased its troops in Angola, and by December it had begun to send soldiers to Ethiopia. In view of these Cuban actions, the US decided to suspend initiatives on its part until the Cuban government showed some restraint in Africa. This, of course, never happened.

Not realizing that any lessening of pressure on the Castro regime and any indication of willingness to blink at its misconduct would be seized upon without delay, the United States made new, indirect overtures, in December 1978. The State Department issued a paper on “US Policy Towards Cuba” dealing with “the important gains” made by this country through an increase in “useful communications with the Cuban government.” The report recommended the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, provided that Cuba improved its African posture and agreed on compensation for expropriated US properties, As one might have expected from the earlier pattern, a few months later it was learned that two Soviet brigades and MIG-23s capable of carrying atomic weapons were on the island. President Cartes protested but finally accepted an explanation offered by the Kremlin, and shortly thereafter Fidel Castro undertook his adventure in subversion in Central America (a fact not even Castro now denies).

The United States and Cuba have many areas of common interest but few interests in common. There can no longer be doubt that Castro’s ultimate interest lies in implementing his interpretation of the principle of proletarian internationalism, which is expressed in the Cuban Constitution with an emphasis on armed struggle that is unparalleled in the charters of other socialist states. According to the Constitution, Cuba has the “internationalist right and duty” to “help…the peoples that struggle for their liberation…,” “espouses the principle of…the combative solidarity of the peoples,” and “recognizes the legitimacy of wars of national liberation…and the right of the peoples to repel imperialist and reactionary violence with revolutionary violence.”

Given recent experience of the US in its dealings with Cuba and this constitutional statement of principles, it is no wonder that current “US officials don’t treat talks [with Cuba] seriously.” If the Cuban government has expressed some willingness to “temper revolutionary feelings” and has shown “feelings of vulnerability,” as the authors of the article report, it may well be because the Reagan administration has so far indicated that it will not be passive in the face of Cuban provocations. At least that much may already have been achieved by US non-complaisance towards Cuba; beyond signals of good will, Cuban professions of interest in “mutual restraint” may be signals that the current US approach is correct.

Past tests of similar Cuban signals clearly suggest that to conclude otherwise without more evidence is unwise. Surely a change in US attitude can await more reliable signals from Havana, such as release of Cuba’s political prisoners, more liberal policies on emigration, greater respect for human rights and some proof that Cuba is indeed prepared to end its intervention in Africa and Latin America. Only when substantive signals of this nature have been given will it be a “grave error” not to take dialogue with Castro seriously.

Carlos Ripoll

Queens College, CUNY

New York City

Seweryn Bialer and Alfred Stepan replies:

In our article we did not assume that Castro’s behavior in the past or the present does not conflict with basic US interests. All the facts about false signals or the unreasonableness of Cuban authorities cited in the letters in response to our article may be entirely true. What we do not agree with is that the past is the only guide to the present or to the future. This was not true with such communist countries as Yugoslavia or China and may become untrue with regard to Cuba. Therefore there exists a need to test any serious Cuban signal to the United States. Furthermore, the major initiatives in the past were started by the United States, but this one was started by Cuba; and we indicated new political and especially economic factors that might now make it in Cuba’s interest to advance a serious initiative. Maybe the time is now or, if not, maybe the time will come when signals such as those we reported will prove significant and valid. With the Falklands’ static abating and the Central American mess spreading, there may still be time to test Cuba’s signal.

This Issue

November 4, 1982