FOR MANY Latin American leftists, the Cuban government has been a consistently anti-imperialist force and a stronghold of progressive and national liberation movements. The reputation of the Cuban leaders has been recently reinforced by the contrast between the island’s historic opposition to U.S. imperialism and the political surrender to Washington of many well-known personalities, including many former leftists and revolutionaries. However, a careful examination of Cuban foreign policy reveals that while it is true that Cuba has followed a consistent policy of opposition to U.S.-sponsored imperialism, it has not followed that policy toward other imperialist aggressors. In fact, the Cuban government has taken the side of oppressor states on various occasions.
Fidel Castro supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. His support for the invasion was revealing: Beyond the political debt he had incurred with the USSR because of its indispensable economic support, the Cuban leader clearly stated his opposition to Alexander Dubcek’s reforms, which he characterized as “liberal fury” that along with the “bourgeois” liberty of the press was allowing the counterrevolution to speak freely against socialism. Castro also supported the suppression of the Eritrean national movement in the seventies and the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan that began in late 1979 and continued through the eighties.
How can we explain the contradictory policies of Cuba regarding the right of nations to self-determination? First, we need to underline the critical importance of the long alliance that Cuba maintained with the USSR as minority partner of the Soviet Empire. Toward the late sixties the USSR, under pressure from the U.S., had to accept the notion that the Western Hemisphere was an indisputable part of the North American sphere of influence. Consequently, Moscow pressured Havana to withdraw its open support of the Latin American guerrillas. The Cuban government yielded to Soviet pressure, but not entirely since it continued to support insurgent movements in Latin America in a more discreet and limited manner under the control of Major Manuel “Redbeard” Piñeiro.
This contributed to Cuba’s increasing interest in Africa, a region on the fringes of the American geopolitical sphere of influence where Cuban initiatives were more compatible with Soviet foreign policy. Cuba’s political and military presence in Africa (and in other parts of the world) also had a significant effect on the power relations between Cuba and the USSR, since it gave the Cuban leaders greater leverage with the Soviet Union, which for this reason could not treat Cuba as a mere East European satellite.
Cuba’s strategy in Africa was oriented toward building an alliance with African nationalists. In the course of implementing that strategy, Cuba took independent initiatives without previously consulting the Kremlin—as in Angola—which were generally compatible with Soviet policy, thus avoiding the harsh friction that had developed in the context of the guerrilla wars in Latin America.
In the case of Angola, Cuba’s strategy along with its alliance with the Soviet Empire, allowed Cuba to play a very important role in the defense of that country against Western imperialism and its right-wing agents in the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Cuba delivered a heavy military and political blow against South African apartheid state, which supported UNITA. However, Cuban aid was not free of cost to the Angolan people. Thus, for example, Cuban troops actively intervened in internal disputes within the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) like when they insured the victory of the faction led by Agostino Neto against the faction led by Nito Alves.
However, Cuban policy followed a different course in the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Cuba initially supported the Eritrean struggle for independence from the Ethiopian regime headed by Emperor Haile Selassie, but radically changed its tune when Selassie was overthrown by the Dergue, a left-wing nationalist group favorable to the USSR. Fidel Castro decided to ally himself with Ethiopian nationalists against the Eritrean nationalists arguing that the Eritrean struggle would destroy the territorial integrity of Ethiopia, even though Eritrea had been a separate nation that was then colonized by Greater Ethiopia, and afterwards annexed to it. Cuba’s support for the Dergue was not just rhetorical. Cuba trained and armed Ethiopian forces and sent Cuban troops to the Ogaden in the war between Ethiopia and Somalia. The Cuban military intervention was indispensable to Ethiopia’s conduct of the Eritrean war. From the very beginning, the Cuban military intervention was very closely coordinated with the USSR.
For Moscow, that region had a higher strategic priority than Angola because of the port facilities in Massawa and Assab along the Eritrean coast, overlooking Saudi Arabia, which would give the Soviet Union control of the maritime route from the western part of the USSR to Vladivostok in the Far East. It is important to note that in addition to its role in the Eritrean conflict, Cuba’s indiscriminate alliance with African nationalism also involved support for the bloody regimes of Idi Amin in Uganda and Francisco Nguema Macias in Equatorial Guinea.
Reasons of state
In spite of having been forced by the Soviets to curtail its support for the Latin American guerrillas, Cuba continued to back the anti-imperialist movements in the continent. Without a doubt, it played an important role, for example, in the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. But to fully comprehend Cuban policy in Latin America, one must understand that its support of anti-imperialist movements has always been subordinated to the interests of the Cuban state as defined by its leaders. Based on Jorge I. Domínguez’s description of the ways in which the Cuban state has adjusted its foreign policy to advance its own goals, I would point out, in the first place, that in its state-to-state relations, the Cuban government has subordinated its support for opposition movements in any given country to the benefits it could obtain from its relations with the government of that country. Cuba has never supported a revolutionary movement against any government that has had good relations with Havana and rejected U.S. policy toward the island, regardless of the ideological coloration of those governments. The most paradigmatic cases are the amicable relations that Cuba maintained with Mexico under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and with General Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain.
Similarly, Cuba removed its support to progressive and revolutionary movements in those countries willing to suspend hostilities against Cuba. Perhaps the most extreme example of the application of this Cuban foreign policy norm is the maintenance of diplomatic and commercial relations with Argentina after the military coup of 1976 at the expense of the aid Cuba could have provided to opposition movements in that country. In the case of El Salvador in 1983, Castro said that he was ready to suspend his support for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front on condition that the U.S. stop supporting the Salvadorean government.
The Cuban government has been ready and willing to divide and undermine movements that have not been willing to recognize its leadership. This is why in 1966 the Cuban leaders attacked the movement led by Marco Antonio Yon Sosa in Guatemala while at the same time they supported the movement led by Luis Turcios Lima. This was also the reason why when Cuba resumed relations with the traditional communist parties, such as the Venezuelan Communist Party (VCP), which then recognized the leadership of the Cuban government, Castro broke with the movement led by Douglas Bravo, which he had previously supported at the expense of the VCP.
In the seventies and eighties, Cuba adopted an openly pragmatic policy of establishing close ties with any Latin American or Caribbean country ready to have relations with Havana. This policy became more viable after the Organization of American States decided, in 1975, to lift its multilateral sanctions against the island and allow each of its member states to decide on their own the relations they would have with Cuba. After 1989, the collapse of the USSR and the serious economic crisis that it provoked in Cuba strengthened the pragmatism of Cuba’s foreign policy to such a degree that the Cuban leaders closed the Department of the Americas that had directed Cuba’s clandestine activities in the continent. Since then, the Cuban government has emphasized its opposition to American imperialism and neoliberalism more than to capitalism itself. However, in the case of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s neoliberalism, and in spite of Fidel Castro’s criticism of Brazil’s ethanol policies, he and his brother Raúl have continued to support the Brazilian leader. In his recent interview with Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Castro expressed all sorts of praise not only with respect to Lula but also about conservative personalities such as King Juan Carlos of Spain and Pope John Paul II.
In the last analysis, Cuban support for liberation movements has been based on the interests of the Cuban state as defined by its leaders, and not on a commitment to revolutionary doctrine.