Cuban Foreign Policy

Cuba has approximately 35,000 troops in Africa today. Relative to its population, that is comparable to U.S. involvement in Vietnam at the height of the war. The Cuban military presence in Africa, with Soviet support, has become a major and divisive concern of the Carter Administration, leading in the spring of 1978 to a public shouting match between Presidents Castro and Carter over the degree of Cuban involvement in the invasion of Zaïre's Shaba province by former Katanga gendarmes based in Angola.

In the debate on how to respond to Cuban overseas activities, a major argument is whether Cuba has a foreign policy of its own. Some routinely describe Cuba as a puppet of the Soviet Union, and Cuban soldiers as mercenaries in the pay of their Soviet master. Because the Cuban government's autonomy in foreign policy is perceived as close to zero, it becomes impossible to treat a mere province as a sovereign government. Sino-Soviet relations and Soviet-Yugoslav relations were once similarly portrayed, and time proved each perspective wrong. I believe it is wrong in the case of Cuba, too.

Cuba is a small country, but it has a big country's foreign policy. It has tried to carry out such a policy since the beginning of the revolution, but only in the second half of the 1970s did it have the conditions - internal resources, lack of U.S. opposition, and an African context that welcomed what Cuba seemed best able to provide - to become a visible and important actor actually shaping the course of events.

II

Cuban foreign policy may, in fact, be the outstanding success of the Cuban Revolution. Its foremost accomplishment is that it has made it possible for revolutionary rule to survive for two decades, in the face of what was until very recently implacable and multifaceted U.S. opposition. In 1959-60, suspicion hardened into hostility and serious disputes emerged with the United States, and for nearly a decade thereafter Washington, as we know, literally spared no effort to bring down Fidel Castro and his associates. Yet 20 years later - after the Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis, intense covert pressures, a continuing U.S. embargo, and now the Cuban engagement in Angola and Ethiopia - Cuba's revolutionary family remains in control. The economy fell and rose; political forms at home were changed; but the same set of individuals that consolidated its hold on government in the early 1960s remains at the helm today.

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