Cuba is at a turning point. President Fidel Castro has been using his power boldly during the past two years to reshape internal affairs along lines not seen since the late 1960s. Instead of delegating authority to powerful subordinates, as-he had done since the early 1970s, he has recentralized it. Instead of liberalizing the economy, he has reversed several market-reliant policies of the past decade. And instead of stressing pragmatic policy goals, he has again been emphasizing the need to follow the "correct" ideological route in building socialism.

Despite these internal changes, Cuban foreign policy has remained on course. What Cuba does, and what happens in Cuba, matters because its government has been "the mouse that roared" in world affairs. Cuba has posted personnel overseas in three dozen countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. In no fewer than a dozen of these, including "world hot spots" such as Nicaragua, Ethiopia and South Yemen, there is also a Cuban military presence. No fewer than 30,000 Cuban troops support the Angolan government.

Cuba’s high profile is due both to the strong support of the Soviet Union and to its own assertive leadership style. Cuba is, simultaneously, the Soviet Union’s most effective ally in the Third World and a prominent member (with Castro a former president) of the Nonaligned Movement. Cuba participates in Latin American politics and is a full-fledged member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, which binds the Soviet Union to its partners. And, of course, Cuba and the United States are neighbors; this proximity also contributes to the island’s significance.

In late 1984, President Castro looked around and did not like what he saw at home. He began a reorganization of internal affairs, dismissing many top government and party leaders from various organizations and factions. The three key changes have been the 1985 dismissals of the interior minister, Ramiro Valdés; the president of the Central Planning Board, Humberto Pérez; and the party secretary for ideology, Antonio Pérez Herrero. One common theme of these dismissals is that the officials’ work, though on some counts successful, displeased President Castro, as did their conspicuous display of decision-making autonomy.

Before his ouster, Ramiro Valdés was considered the third-ranking official, after Castro’s brother Raúl. (Raúl, who heads the armed forces, is Fidel’s designated successor.) Valdés, a commander of the revolution since the war against the government of Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, worked to consolidate the new government’s power after victory in 1959 and during the critical decade of the 1960s. He used all means, including repression of any opposition, widespread imprisonment of dissidents and ample use of the death penalty. When he stepped down at the decade’s end, the counterrevolution had been crushed. He returned as interior minister in late 1979 to stifle the discontent that became evident to the world in 1980 when more than 125,000 Cubans left from Mariel harbor for the United States. Again he succeeded. Valdés’ dismissal in December 1985, which was announced in curt, cold tones, may have stemmed from allegations of corruption and abuse of power against him. Valdés was also blamed for failing to stop a wave of common crime, and he may have opposed some of the liberalizing trends that have not been reversed, such as more permissive social and religious attitudes and an openness to non-communist influences. At the Cuban Communist Party’s Third Party Congress in February 1986, Valdés was dropped from the Politburo, which completed his fall from power.

Humberto Pérez was the architect of Cuba’s economic recovery during the past decade. To understand his achievement, recall Cuba’s circumstances in the 1960s. This allegedly centrally planned economy did not have a five-year plan until 1976. In the late 1960s, it had no plan of any kind, no budget, no auditing, and not even financial statistics to determine costs. Labor unions were moribund, and workers were expected to work overtime without pay. Wages were paid with little regard to effort, quality or hardship.

Pérez was able to make some headway; the economy did recover from its collapse of the 1960s. It withstood even the much lower prices for sugar (the commodity which still accounts for at least three-quarters of Cuban export earnings) that have been typical since 1975. It even grew somewhat in the early 1980s, weathering the economic storm that has devastated most of Latin America. Living standards rose. Cuba may be one of the few countries where the application of Soviet economic procedures, including some modified market mechanisms, increased production and even efficiency.

But Pérez did not perform the miracles expected of him; the Cuban economy remains troubled and dependent on external aid. He was dismissed in July 1985 because the results were not good enough. There was insufficient plan discipline and too much reliance on the market, and his policies by late 1984 seemed to have led to serious balance-of-payments problems. The new top official for the economy, Osmani Cienfuegos, scored high on loyalty to the Castro brothers and on organizational skills, but his main prior experience was training insurgents for overseas revolutions in the late 1960s.

Antonio Pérez Herrero tried to create a real communist party. To understand the magnitude of his task also requires looking back to the 1960s, when the allegedly Marxist-Leninist state barely had a functioning communist party. No party congress was held until 1975; the Central Committee had met rarely. That presumably democratic regime had a makeshift constitution, no nationwide elections and no legislative assemblies. Pérez Herrero was no democrat, but he sought to apply Marxism-Leninism systematically to run Cuba. His dismissal in 1985 was the first since 1968 which publicly linked a party official’s departure to a policy dispute—in his case, the new, short-lived opening toward the United States, and the new opening toward the Roman Catholic Church, which is still under way. He was opposed to both overtures.

As a means to infuse new leadership at the top, at the Third Party Congress in February 1986 nearly half of the alternate Central Committee members were dropped, as were 37 percent of its full members. For the first time since the Politburo’s creation in 1965, there was a major change in its membership, including the departure of two commanders of the revolution. The following were also "firsts": the new interior minister (Division General José Abrantes) is not a Politburo member; no naval officer is a full member of the Central Committee; and a black man who was not a part of the original revolutionary coalition, Esteban Lazo, entered the Politburo. Also, both the proportion and the absolute number of military members of the Central Committee fell to the lowest levels ever, in order to assert the power of civilian party elites more clearly.

This was not, however, a bloody or vicious purge. No one dropped as a member or alternate of the Politburo was also asked to leave the Central Committee. No faction was crushed, no overarching policy dispute surfaced. Recruitment was also rational. Promotion to the top organs rewarded good performers and followed appropriate hierarchical channels. No one was promoted to the Politburo who had not been at least a Central Committee alternate. Many appointments to replace ministers or party officials who had been dismissed were promotions of those with experience. In short, the shake-up has been radical, but not reckless.


What had gone so wrong that required so much change? Castro’s criticism stresses lack of economic efficiency (despite the growth) and discipline, and too much reliance on market methods. He blamed these substantive and ideological failings on top officials. Castro seems motivated by ideological, political and economic factors. His solutions apparently are to recentralize economic decision-making authority as a means to achieve efficiency, and to reemphasize socialist, revolutionary values as a means to motivate people. Both solutions were tried and failed in Cuba in the 1960s, but Castro seems determined nevertheless to try them again. He believes that the regime is today more ideologically mature and better organized, and thus able to achieve these goals without the costs incurred in the 1960s. I think he is wrong.

As a result of Castro’s critique, personnel changes were most drastic in the malperforming sectors. The military personnel who lost seats on the Central Committee were mostly from the Interior Ministry and the navy; the first was blamed for abuses, corruption and its inability to stop a crime wave in 1985, and the second for its serious disarray. Similarly, the Interior Ministry general in charge of intelligence from Grenada was dropped from the Central Committee; Cuba had been in the dark about many changes that led the Grenadian government to commit suicide in 1983, setting the stage for the U.S. and English-speaking Caribbean intervention.

Fidel Castro criticized (generally accurately) his government’s performance in his report to the Third Party Congress, thereby explaining the dismissal of many on his economic team. He noted "the absence of comprehensive national planning for economic development." The budget, he said, "continued to be ineffective. Rather than regulating spending, it, in effect, promoted it along with improper social consumption." He questioned the reliability of government statistics. He criticized the poor use of external financing for projects that "have not always been undertaken with the rational and disciplined approach" needed. He indicted industry: "We are still facing technical and organizational deficiencies in production, failure to make the best use of foreign technical assistance, lack of technical discipline and precision in industrial repair and maintenance." He regretted that there "are serious service problems in Havana, particularly in housing maintenance, public facilities and public transportation" (there is little private car ownership). Havana suffered, too, he said, from "inadequate" water supply and from "serious problems with the telephone service." He criticized education, the revolution’s pride: "Some classes are still mediocre or poor . . . [and] some students are promoted without having gained the required knowledge."

Indeed, he complained about everything except his own performance. Born in 1926, Castro seems healthy, able and ready to rule Cuba until the next century. Supremely confident as ever, conscious that he still has the support and affection of many Cubans, shrewd and politically effective, he still towers over Cuba’s national life. One of the world’s most experienced leaders, with a prodigious memory, he is a powerful and tireless orator as well as seductively persuasive in conversation. He still pays detailed attention to animal genetics, elementary school texts and the quality of baseball teams. Castro can be charming, or ruthless if he must be, but his style of rule has come to rely more on listening, choosing and mediating than on shouting, initiating or imposing. And yet he, above all, is responsible for his government’s problems.

Although Castro rightly criticized his deputies’ performance, he is to blame to the extent that the flaws have been in design and not implementation. He has promoted military and social expenditures that have broken the budget. He has demanded infeasible goals in national plans. He has promoted the interests of the countryside at Havana’s expense. And he is personally disorganized in his management of the government. Furthermore, Castro is certainly responsible for the risky direction in which he has been taking the country in the past two years.


There is a specter haunting Cuba. It is the specter of capitalism. It impedes Fidel Castro’s political control of the economy. It threatens his core, radical ideological beliefs. To protect them, he has launched new policies to rediscover the regime’s "revolutionary roots." At the Third Party Congress, he vented his anger. The management system (borrowed from the Soviet Union) "could become a complete farce, as regards enterprise efficiency, if we attempt to achieve enterprise profitability by raising the price of products, construction, and productive services." Indeed, he said, "prices in maintenance, construction and transportation . . . are scandalously high." He concluded: "I believe we still have a lot to learn in the field of efficiency, and becoming the sorcerer’s apprentice, i.e., apprentice capitalists, is not the solution." Unlike the Soviet Union, most of Eastern Europe, and certainly China, Cuba may be the first communist regime in the late 1980s to back off from market mechanisms in order to improve production and efficiency.

In the 1970s, the government authorized private contracting for services, such as plumbing repairs. That change was popular and successful. Provided workers met their obligations to their state enterprise employers, they could contract privately for work on evenings or weekends. State firms had been incompetent and slow to meet customer needs. In 1986, however, Castro warned that "some people have confused free-lancing with capitalism." Moreover, in the plastic arts, where high rates stimulated artistic production and rewarded quality, Castro said that "there are those who paint and sell paintings or do decorating work, mostly for state agencies, who have even earned over 200,000 pesos a year." To him, this "showed some state officials are irresponsible." A new commission has been appointed to change this and perhaps other cultural policies.

In an April 1986 speech, Castro charged that "some of our enterprise heads have also become capitalist-like entrepreneurs." (The official newspaper ambiguously reported that there was applause.) Castro continued: "The first thing a socialist, a revolutionary, a communist cadre must ask himself is not if his firm is making more money but how the country makes more." He criticized managers "who want their enterprises to be profitable by increasing prices and distributing bonuses by charging the earth for anything." He cited the example of elevators reinforced with stainless steel sheets installed in the Hermanos Ameijeras hospital. At first, he said, he admired the high quality of the work, but he recoiled when he learned of the high prices one state agency had charged another for the work.

Castro could have admired the work and recognized that it was done well because the management system was working as designed. Firms had been urged to show their efficiency by becoming profitable; they could retain part of their profit and declare a bonus for workers and managers. In return, it was hoped that the quality of work would be better. The hospital example showed how performance and profitability did improve. Castro was questioning the success of his government’s policies.

Some of Castro’s reform policies are akin to Mikhail Gorbachev’s in the Soviet Union. In 1985 the Cuban government launched a campaign against corrupt and incompetent officials. The government has also taken steps against anyone who is "diverting resources" for private use "thanks to his friends and connections." Another Gorbachev-style policy ordered bars not to serve beer before 3 p.m. so as not to disrupt work or the neighbors during the day. But Castro’s new policies go beyond this to question the very mechanisms of material incentives. "Although we recognize that there is room for bonuses under socialism," he warned, "if there is too much talk of bonuses, we will be corrupting workers." Instead of money, "is there no appeal to the obligation of the workers? Is there no appeal to the duty of young people, telling them that this is an underdeveloped country that needs to develop, that it cannot be on the basis of offering pie in the sky?"

To stamp out the curse of the market, in May 1986 the government banned the free peasant markets. They had been legalized in early 1980, following the example of other communist countries. All those who raised crops could sell freely in these markets, without price controls, any surpluses remaining after national plan target commitments to state agencies had been met. This measure rewarded peasants, increased output of food crops and improved supplies in the cities. But Castro became incensed by the emergence of middlemen and the new wealth that these policies made possible. In mid-1986 the government also amended its 1985 housing law to forbid private sales of homes. The law had promoted home ownership, but some thought it meant that they could sell their homes or those they built as they wished.

Such market means, Castro told the Interior Ministry on its 25th anniversary, reflected unacceptable "liberal bourgeois" tendencies. Instead, "socialism must be built through political work." These market "mechanisms only build capitalism." The glories of the revolution, he said, were "not based on money" but "on concepts, on ideas, on principles, and based on certain moral values that people treasure."

Appeals to patriotism, to socialist values or to the commitment to build a revolutionary society are a depletable resource. People may tire as time passes or may become skeptical of being called upon to perform miracles again. In the late 1960s, Cuba sought to build a better society based on higher values and to create a "new man," motivated by political consciousness, not by "evil money." In those years, the government closed down the bars, determined the right length of women’s skirts, sent homosexuals for "rehabilitation" to forced labor camps, called on workers to work overtime without pay, and disdained the use of financial incentives. These efforts failed. With understatement, Cubans refer to those times as the "tough years." Will Cubans in the late 1980s work for values greater than self-interest? Castro has said that he is not launching a cultural revolution, and yet that is what people fear. He and his government seem to be moving backward.

In discussions I held in Cuba in June 1986, many people deeply committed to the revolution said that the closing down of the free peasant markets was a mistake. The government, they said, could have adopted intermediate steps, such as a better tax and auditing policy, or the normal use of police powers against crime. Instead, the policy swung from unregulated markets to no markets. Beneath this, they had a more serious worry. The trend toward the use of some market means (promoted by Humberto Pérez) had been part of policies since the early 1970s. Castro’s explanation of recent changes seemed to herald a renewed ideological zealotry to alter what had seemed like the "rules of the game" for over a decade. This larger fear created even greater anxiety.

There were reports about overzealous officials who ordered that houses built without state authorization be torn down, leaving people homeless. In northern Holguín province, 17 peasant families were evicted and their homes destroyed. They appealed to the local Roman Catholic bishop, who protected them from further harm. Town citizens gathered in front of party offices to protest. Mothers threw down their children’s emblems from the Young Pioneers’ Union and stepped on them. Some asked how the Batista regime’s evictions differed from these. Other officials eventually intervened and promised to build new housing, giving temporary shelter to those who had lost their homes.

The new anti-capitalist values have a counterpart in economic organization. Beginning also in late 1984, when Humberto Pérez’ power declined sharply, economic decision-making has been increasingly centralized. Cubans report that top leaders at times decide simple details that had been delegated in years past to state enterprises. These leaders’ preferred alternative to Cuba’s mild and successful use of market means is ideology and centralization or, as they might put it, the call to better discipline, sacrifice and organization to build a new society with new and better citizens who respond to the revolution’s vision. In the past, this "vision" led to economic collapse.

These criticisms that I heard in Cuba (with which I agree) could not have been recorded had people not been willing to discuss them. I detected no fear. Many stressed their loyalty to the revolution and told me that they criticized it as a sign of their faith in its capacity to overcome error. They stressed, too, that there were party policies to tolerate and promote such criticism as means of rectifying errors. Nor would a Roman Catholic bishop have dared to intervene against the authorities had there not been a change in church-state relations. But would the new path to virtue continue to tolerate disagreements? The government’s history provides little reassurance: its past pursuit of a socialist utopia unleashed arbitrary, ruthless repression.


In the Cuban leadership’s view, the regime must rebuild its ideological, political and economic foundations the better to meet its commitments and resist external pressures. Pending internal changes, however, Cuba needs time and room to maneuver internationally in order to implement the new domestic policies. Paradoxically, then, the internal radicalization under way requires at least temporary foreign policy moderation.

In late 1984 President Castro also looked abroad and did not like much of what he saw. To gain some political breathing space, he decided to try to improve relations with the United States. Prospects for improvement over Central America were poor. He turned instead to bilateral issues and to southern Africa. Since 1975 Cuban troops had been in Angola. In 1976 they thought they had won the war, but it has yet to end. Cuban forces have been in Angola longer than U.S. ground combat forces were in Vietnam, with a higher percentage of Cuba’s population deployed as troops there than the United States had deployed at the peak of its war in Vietnam.

For the first time, in late 1984, Angola’s government, with Cuba’s support, put forth a proposal that accepted the "linkage" between a phased Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola and Namibian independence. Serious differences remained between this proposal and U.S. and South African preferences regarding the timing and simultaneity of the changes and the size of the residual Cuban troop presence; Angola and Cuba proposed to send 20,000 troops back to Cuba but keep 10,000 Cuban troops in northern Angola to protect Luanda and the Cabinda oil enclave. But at last there appeared a way out of war through diplomacy. The Reagan Administration’s patient diplomacy deserved much credit, too.

These prospects changed quickly, however. In July 1985 pressures in the United States led Congress, at President Reagan’s request, to repeal the Clark Amendment, which had forbidden U.S. support to insurgencies in Angola. By late 1985 the U.S. government began to help Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels in their fight against the Angolan government; Cuba and the Soviet Union escalated their aid to the Luanda government as well. The chances for negotiated peace, or for improved U.S. relations with Angola and Cuba, receded.

Cuba also sought to improve bilateral relations with the United States. In December 1984 Cuba agreed to accept the return of all those who had gone to the United States in the 1980 Mariel boatlift whom the United States had determined were excludable under its immigration laws. In turn, the United States agreed that up to 20,000 Cubans could immigrate every year, the normal number for most countries. The United States would also immediately take as refugees some 3,000 former political prisoners released by Cuba. This agreement was a success for the U.S. government. It would send back thousands of Cubans in U.S. prisons, including many who had never committed a crime in the United States. U.S. acceptance of Cuban emigrants was not a concession, but one of its goals: normal emigration would deter a "second Mariel," and it would also serve the values of family reunification in U.S. immigration law.

While Cuba sought to make it easier for regime opponents to leave, a policy it has often (but not always) followed, its main interest in the agreement was political. The Reagan Administration recognized Cuba’s sovereign equality. At least one aspect of U.S.-Cuban relations was "normalized." Moreover, the United States agreed to distinguish immigrants from refugees. Only a minority of the Cubans to come would be categorized as refugees; most would be normal immigrants. Thus the U.S. government certified that they did not have "a well-founded fear of persecution" in "fleeing from communism." As a result of the agreement, the U.S. government had to argue in a U.S. federal court that the Cuban government would protect the human rights of the excludables about to be returned and that no federal judge should prevent their departure.

The Reagan Administration decoupled strategy from ideology. It got Cuba to address the U.S. immigration agenda and to agree to most U.S. goals. In return, Cuba received symbols: this most anti-communist of administrations had made a deal with the Castro government. It did not last long, however. On May 20, 1985, the Voice of America’s Radio Martí program went on the air to tell Cubans about their government. A furious Cuban government suspended the migration agreement; it also suspended the visits to Cuba by Cuban-Americans begun in the late 1970s. But a year later the Cuban government again allowed visits by Cuban-Americans. Moreover, feeling that Radio Martí was quite ineffective, Cuba signaled its willingness to accept the broadcasts as a fact and to reinstitute the migration agreement. Cuba’s new economic troubles, political discontent and rising common crime reminded its government that emigration could be a safety valve. Cuba’s search for U.S. concessions to match its own shift, however, reached an impasse in the summer of 1986: Cuba demanded too much, the United States was willing to concede too little. One result is that the pressures that led to the Mariel exodus in 1980 are building up again in Cuba.

U.S.-Cuban relations might have improved as a result of breakthroughs in southern Africa and over migration. That did not happen. Facing down the seventh U.S. president who attempted unsuccessfully to weaken his regime since he led his comrades to power in January 1959, President Castro has begun to look to the post-Reagan years and to relations with other governments to strengthen Cuba’s general international stature.


Revolutionary victories in Grenada and in Nicaragua in 1979 reassured Cuba that the torch of revolution lit the path to the future in the Americas. But they also frightened many in the United States and elsewhere. Much of the English-speaking Caribbean joined the United States to overthrow Grenada’s government in 1983. Although the Sandinista government retained more support in Latin America against U.S. efforts to overthrow it than Grenada had, Latin America’s initial enthusiasm for the Sandinistas had waned by the mid-1980s. Cuban support for the Salvadoran insurgency in 1980 and early 1981, which included military supplies, confirmed the worst fears of its adversaries. Cuba seemed to have returned to its slogan of the 1960s: "It is the duty of revolutionaries to make the revolution" everywhere.

Earlier, during the 1970s, Cuba had broken out of its isolation, promoted by the United States and formalized in the collective sanctions imposed by the Organization of American States in 1964. Those sanctions were lifted in 1975, in part because Cuba turned away from supporting insurgencies in the Americas; by the decade’s end, Cuba had good relations with a majority of the hemisphere’s governments. In 1979-80, however, amid new fears of revolutionary successes, serious incidents, especially at several embassies in Havana (including the rush of thousands into the Peruvian embassy and their later departure from Cuba), brought Cuba into conflict with Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Colombia broke relations with Cuba over the latter’s support for the M-19 guerrillas. At Argentina’s initiative, Cuban-Argentine trade relations withered. Moreover, Cuba’s air force mistakenly sank a Bahamian coast guard boat (Cuba later apologized and paid compensation). Elections in St. Lucia, Dominica and Jamaica brought to power governments more hostile to Cuba. By early 1981 Cuba’s policy in Latin America and the Caribbean lay in shambles.

Since 1981 the U.S. government has intensified efforts to isolate Cuba. Among other things, it has enforced penalties on third-country firms that import Cuban nickel and incorporate it in products exported to the United States; it has reimposed a ban on U.S. tourist travel to Cuba; it has prohibited travel by Cuban scholars to the United States; and it has sought to discredit Cuba before governments and banks holding Cuban debt.

Thus Cuban foreign policy had to become more moderate if it was to be effective. Despite U.S. efforts, Cuba has rebuilt its relations with many Latin American countries (though not with the English-speaking Caribbean). It has emphasized government-to-government relations, not support for revolution. Argentina has become its premier trade partner in the Americas. In 1985 Ecuador’s conservative president, León Febres Cordero, became the first Latin American head of state to visit Havana since 1960. Cuba distanced itself somewhat from insurgencies in Colombia and in Peru and refrained from further large weapons deliveries to the Salvadoran guerrillas. Relations improved with Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru and Venezuela. In 1985-86, they were reestablished with Brazil and Uruguay. They remain good with Panama and Mexico. President Castro has voiced publicly a private hope of many Latin Americans: that the foreign debt be canceled (though Cuba continues to honor its own debt to Western banks).

Cuba supports Nicaragua’s government. Thousands of Cuban civilian and military advisers have worked in Nicaragua throughout the 1980s. As earlier in Grenada, many Cuban civilians in Nicaragua are military reservists; Cuba learned from its Grenadian experience to post younger and better-trained reservists to Nicaragua, who can put up a better fight against U.S. troops should they attack. Cuba has also said, however, that it would not reinforce its forces in Nicaragua if the United States attacks, because it is infeasible and too dangerous. Cuba has supported the Contadora process because an agreement would consolidate Sandinista rule. Cuba supports a negotiated settlement in El Salvador as well because it believes that neither side can win that war, and that negotiations might bring more power to the revolutionaries than they could wrest by force of arms.


No other country of Cuba’s size, and few with more resources, match the worldwide scope of Cuba’s foreign policy. A major actor in Africa’s international affairs, Cuban troops in Angola are near the front lines facing South Africa. Cuban troops worked with the Soviets to help Ethiopia defeat the Somali invasion in 1977-78; having won, most Cuban troops were withdrawn from Ethiopia by the mid-1980s.

Cuba supports insurgencies in Africa under the banner of anticolonialism and antiracism; it, in turn, enjoys much support from African governments, many of which approved of Cuban efforts in both Angola and Ethiopia. Cuba backs the fight of the Namibian group, SWAPO, for independence from South Africa, and the African National Congress’ struggle to topple the South African government. More controversially, Cuba recognized the Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic—the Polisario insurgency—as an independent state fighting the Moroccan "occupation" of the former Spanish Sahara; some Cubans are in the Sahara, and hundreds sent by Polisario receive training in Cuba. To be sure, Cuba is not the "cause" of these troubles (or of El Salvador’s). Cuba is a significant factor in Africa mainly because of the link between Namibia’s independence and its troop presence in Angola. But Cuba’s support for revolution abroad remains a fundamental principle of its foreign policy, so long as it does not impede good relations with most governments in Africa or in Latin America.

Benin and São Tomé and Príncipe are not familiar names. Libya and Algeria are better known. All host Cuban cooperation personnel. Cuban aid to the first two is free; Cuba charges commercial rates to the latter pair, and to other oil-producing countries. Cuban state firms behave like any firms competing in the world market. Their comparative advantages are two: prices lower than prevail in world markets for comparable services, and political solidarity with the host government. Some Cuban overseas work has mainly political goals: to help Cuban allies and bolster Cuba’s influence. And so it is that Cubans toil deep in Libya’s deserts to build roads, and account for a majority of the health personnel serving the poor people of São Tomé and Príncipe. And over 20,000 people from over 80 countries have been trained in Cuba in the mid-1980s.


Since 1959 Cuba has called on the old world to redress the political imbalances in the new. In the early 1960s Cuba’s relations with most industrial democracies (other than the United States and West Germany) were favorable enough to help it thwart the U.S. trade embargo. These relations improved further in the 1970s; trade boomed with all of them except the United States. By 1975, 36 percent of Cuban exports and 52 percent of imports were being traded with non-Soviet bloc countries. As Cuba’s economic performance improved, it became creditworthy enough to incur debt with Western governments and banks (except the U.S. government and banks). Cuba’s debt in convertible currencies increased tenfold between 1969 and 1982.

These relations have deteriorated since the late 1970s, however. Western governments drew back after Cuban interventions in southern and eastern African wars (1975-78). The U.S. government pressured its allies to curtail their relations with Cuba. Cuban economic performance, though still generally positive, was weaker than during the first half of the 1970s. Specific disputes, ranging from excessive sugar prices charged to Japan to Cuba’s views on the status of West Berlin, roiled Cuban relations. Cuba, feeling vulnerable, reconcentrated its trade with the Soviet bloc, which has accounted for not less than 80 percent of Cuban trade since 1982.

In 1982, Cuba, like most Latin American countries, sought debt relief from market-economy creditors. This Cuban debt (as opposed to its debt to the Soviet Union) is not large by world standards or those of the Cuban economy. Creditor governments and banks, and Cuba, have bargained hard but pragmatically and have rescheduled Cuban debts every year. In 1982, the rescheduling terms put Cuba at about the median of the settlements reached by Latin American governments. Since then, as is true throughout Latin America, Cuba’s terms on the rescheduled debt have improved, though less than for Latin America as a whole. Cuba also launched a vigorous export drive. It now sells some 200 products in market-economy countries, though mostly in small quantities. Cuba still relies on sugar for the bulk of its worldwide trade and, more recently, on petroleum for its sales to market-economy countries. Yes, petroleum.

Cuba produces little petroleum on its own, though output has risen in the 1980s. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union agreed to let Cuba reexport the Soviet-supplied petroleum that it conserved. Targets were set; Cuba bought Soviet petroleum in transferable rubles, used less than it bought, and resold the difference for hard currency. By 1985, Cuba’s hard-currency earnings from petroleum reexports were three times greater than its hard-currency earnings from sugar exports. When the world oil price fell, Cuba was hit hard. It will lose about one-sixth of its expected 1986 hard-currency earnings. In May 1986, Cuba announced that it would stop payment on its convertible currency debt for 90 days, though it soon reversed itself and made a small payment to reassure its creditors. Despite these troubles, Cuba’s relations with industrial democracies (other than the United States) still give it political and economic breathing space.


Does Cuba in fact have its own foreign policy, one with autonomy from the U.S.S.R.? To be sure, the Soviet Union has exercised its hegemony over Cuba. When Cuba crossed boundaries that the U.S.S.R. had set, the U.S.S.R. retaliated. In late 1967 and early 1968, the Soviet Union imposed economic sanctions on Cuba because it opposed some Castro policies, and the two countries disagreed on relations with revolutionary groups and with governments. It slowed down oil deliveries to Cuba while it increased oil exports to Cuba’s Latin American adversaries; it postponed weapons deliveries and suspended technical collaboration. Soviet government and party officials worked with some Cubans who sought to change their government’s leadership and policies. Castro yielded. Since then, Cuban and Soviet policies have converged, though they are not identical. Cuba does not publicly criticize Soviet policy even when there may be differences. In the crunch, Cuba sides with the Soviets without fail—as in voting with them at the United Nations when the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan and in boycotting the Olympics in Los Angeles.

But within the confines of Soviet hegemony, there have been three developments. First, Cuba has gradually consented to it. The Cuban government’s political and ideological learning has led it to recognize that it could not survive without massive Soviet support and that Cuba’s own influence in world affairs would be inconceivable without its Soviet alliance. Second, Cuba has much political space to develop policies of its own that do not challenge Soviet interests. For example, Cuba began supporting insurgencies in 1959, before its alliance with the Soviet Union, and has retained a much more active relationship with revolutionaries than has the U.S.S.R. Third, Cuba at times leads the Soviet Union, persuading it to behave as it otherwise would not. The Third World has in general a higher priority in Cuban foreign policy than it does in the Soviet Union’s.

Cuba led the Soviet Union into both Angola and Central America. As Arkady N. Shevchenko, a high Soviet foreign official who defected, described the decision to send 36,000 Cuban troops to fight in Angola in 1975-76: "[Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily] Kuznetsov told me that the idea for the large-scale military operation had originated in Havana, not Moscow." General Vernon Walters, deputy director of the CIA in 1975, concurs: "I believe that as between being a tool of Moscow or pursuing his own aims, Castro was pursuing his own aims—which happened to be, in large part, convergent with those of Moscow." Cuba had had closer relations than the U.S.S.R. with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The U.S.S.R. was reluctant to intervene in Angola when the MPLA first asked, while Cuba responded quickly. Cuban troops were ferried to Angola on Cuban ships and planes, and were commanded by Cuban generals. Soviet support arrived only later.

So too in Central America, as President Castro explained in a December 1982 speech reported in the Cuban press:

One of the great lies that the imperialists use concerning Central America is their attempt to impute the revolution in this area to the Soviet Union. . . . [The U.S.S.R.] has had nothing whatsoever to do with Central America. . . . The Soviets did not know even one of the present leaders of Nicaragua . . . during the period of revolutionary struggle. The same holds true for El Salvador . . . with the exception of the Communist party of El Salvador—. . . not one of the major groups—the Soviet Union did not know the leaders of [most Salvadoran] revolutionary organizations and had no contact with them. The same goes for Guatemala. . . . We Cubans . . . have relations with the revolutionary movements, we know the revolutionary leaders in the area. I am not going to deny it.

The Soviet Union’s policy had been to support the communist parties of Latin America, which in the 1960s and early 1970s did not support armed struggle. The Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Chilean parties changed their minds, as did the Soviet Union, after seeing the gains made by the Cuban-supported Sandinistas in the late 1970s. That Cuba led the Soviet Union into two of the world’s most explosive disputes—Angola and Central America—is no cause for cheer. Cuban autonomy and leadership are major sources of instability in both regions and are clearly adverse to the interests of the United States and its allies. Cuban behavior was not contrary to Soviet interests, but the drawing in of the Soviet Union was not foreordained. It would be a simpler world if Cuba were just a Soviet puppet.

Cuba remains nonetheless vulnerable to Soviet pressures. The Soviet bloc accounts for over four-fifths of Cuban trade; it has also subsidized the Cuban economy since the mid-1970s at a level equal to at least one-tenth of Cuba’s gross product. This calculation does not include the vast transfers of Soviet military equipment to Cuba, which are free of charge. Nor have Soviet-Cuban relations always been cordial in recent years. For example, in 1981 the Soviet Union cut the price it paid for Cuban sugar while it raised the price it charged for petroleum and other products. I estimate that the Soviet sugar price fell 18 percent from 1980 to 1981, though it recovered by 1983. That cut helps explain why Cuba had to renegotiate its debt in 1982. Cuba’s terms of trade with the Soviet Union deteriorated by about one-sixth from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s (though that is far better than what prevails between Cuba and market-economy countries that do not subsidize their trade with Cuba).

Soviet-Cuban relations, in short, are complex, embodying unequal power and the exercise of Soviet hegemony as well as Cuban consent to Soviet hegemony and occasional Cuban leadership. Cuban and Soviet policies, even if not identical, are generally hostile to U.S. interests. But the skillful defense of U.S. interests, and of those of its allies and friends, requires a more subtle understanding that, against all odds, the Cuban government does have a foreign policy of its own.

Cuban internal affairs are heading for trouble as its government adopts policies that disconcert even its supporters. And yet, damnable as many abuses the Cuban government has committed against its opponents and many innocent people in the name of revolution and socialism undoubtedly are, Cuba’s foreign policy remains that government’s fundamental achievement.

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  • Jorge I. Domínguez is a professor of government at Harvard University. His book, To Make a World Safe for Revolution, will be published in 1987. His research on Cuba has been supported by the Ford Foundation.
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