In the Cuban Sphere

The Cuban Sphere

Two new histories capture the role Cuba played in the revolutions and counterrevolutions of Latin America.


In February 1962, Fidel Castro spoke the words of the Second Declaration of Havana before a crowd of nearly 2 million in the Plaza de la Revolución: “To the accusations that Cuba wants to export its revolution, we reply: Revolutions are not exported, they are made by the people…. What Cuba can give to the people, and has already given, is its example.” Castro led a country of only 6 million in the process of building a more egalitarian society and economy. But his ability to carry out those plans depended on successfully managing and defeating external and internal threats. Already in 1959, Cuba had sponsored expeditions to try to topple hostile dictatorships. In the decades to come, it would begin to operate with the ambitions of a great power. Sometimes it did inspire other Latin American revolutionaries by its example. It also—contrary to Castro’s declaration—trained and exported soldiers throughout Latin America and Africa in an effort to spread its vision of revolution around much of the southern half of the world.

For some, Cuba in the 1960s and ’70s is the very model of anti-imperialist internationalism and revolutionary solidarity. For others, its efforts to expand revolution beyond its borders helped to destabilize Latin America and strengthen counterrevolutionary forces, clearing a path for many of the region’s right-wing dictatorships. Two new books, Jonathan C. Brown’s Cuba’s Revolutionary World and Dirk Kruijt’s Cuba and Revolutionary Latin America, grapple with this complex legacy. But while Brown and Kruijt start with the same set of questions, they reach essentially opposing conclusions: Brown finds that Cuba’s foreign policy damaged democracy throughout the hemisphere, while Kruijt argues that it helped sustain it.

Scholars working to understand the international legacy of the Cuban Revolution face two related challenges. The first is that the subject is highly politicized: Both the US and Cuban governments have self-serving stories to tell about their role in Latin America’s wave of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. Even before Castro came to power, the United States saw the Cuban Revolution as a threat to its national interests, and it often sought to delegitimize other guerrilla struggles by claiming they were merely the result of Cuban meddling. Cuba, meanwhile, has sometimes gone to great lengths to deny its involvement in these uprisings, but it’s clear that the country did indeed play a role in many of the insurgencies that sprang up throughout Latin America in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. For Cuba, it would have been a breach of solidarity for the country not to have been active across the region.

This politicization of Cuba’s foreign policy leads to the second problem: Neither the US intelligence apparatus nor the Cuban government has fully released the documents relating to its actions in Latin America. Scholars, therefore, need to work without the full range of sources they would normally like to consult for such a complex and contentious topic. It also makes Cuba scholarship something of a Rorschach test, because the lack of documentation means that people often fill in the gaps with their own assumptions about the international legacy of the revolution.

Brown and Kruijt have solved the problem of this absence in entirely different ways. Brown relies primarily on the US government’s documentation of Cuba’s revolutionary actions—which is more readily available than the CIA’s accounts of its own covert actions to counter Cuban influence. Kruijt, by contrast, relies on interviews: roughly 70 with Cubans, and 20 with revolutionaries from other Latin American countries. In spite of their fundamental disagreement over Cuba’s contributions to democracy in the hemisphere, their books are complementary, each adding to our understanding of the dynamics and consequences of Cuba’s foreign policy. Their differences owe primarily to their underlying understandings of democracy, with Brown’s analysis resting on a fundamentally liberal-democratic framework, and Kruijt’s proving more sympathetic to radical redefinitions of the democratic idea.

Cuba’s revolution was a profound disjuncture, in both Cuban and world politics. After Cuba became independent from Spain in 1898, the country’s sovereignty was compromised by the Platt Amendment to the Cuban Constitution, which gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban affairs to quell threats, including threats to property. Even after the amendment was abrogated in 1934, US diplomatic pressure prevented dramatic economic reforms in the country. Cuba’s elected governments were venal and corrupt, and were finally replaced by the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1952. American ownership of key infrastructure crowded out Cuban businesses, while vice tourism, especially from the United States, shaped the urban landscape of Havana. Cuban revolutionary nationalism emerged to counteract all of these overlapping problems; equality at home required Cubans to break from their unhealthy relationship with the United States.

It was not immediately clear, however, that Cuba’s revolution would be a socialist, much less a Marxist-Leninist, one. A multiclass alliance fought Batista’s repressive government in the name of Cuban nationalism. Some fought via strikes; some by bombings in the cities. But when Castro and his allies came down from the mountains and made their way across Cuba in January 1959, it was clear that his movement had become the most important symbol of Cuba’s new national ambition, and that he held the power that would determine its direction.

From the start, the consequences of the Cuban Revolution were not just domestic but international. The revolution produced what Brown describes as “a powerful wave of political change that the capitalist West could not escape and the Eastern Bloc could not ignore.” Both sides saw that a revolution could succeed in the United States’ backyard. It was an unprecedented opportunity for the Soviet Union, and it came to be seen as an unprecedented threat by the United States—and this dynamic unleashed a fury of both revolutionary and reactionary politics in the region.

When Castro came to power, there were only four dictatorships left in Latin America: Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. Yet starting in the 1960s and cresting in the ’70s, military rule began to replace democratic systems in much of Latin America, and would eventually govern a majority of its citizens. While this was not the intention of Cuba’s revolutionaries or its foreign policy, Brown argues that the counterrevolution that Cuba sparked brought an end to democracy in country after country. “It is no exaggeration,” he writes, “to say that the Castro regime exported both its revolution and its counterrevolution.”

To make his argument, Brown begins with the first months and years of Castro’s government to make clear not only how contingent the revolution’s victory was, but also how the early challenges that Castro faced helped create the regional counterrevolution. Castro was undoubtedly popular in 1959, but his power did not go uncontested at this early stage. Those who had set out to overturn Batista’s dictatorship constituted a broad coalition, including many who were not communists. Indeed, Cuba’s communist Partido Socialista Popular joined the guerrilla struggle quite late, and Castro’s own political affiliations were the subject of much speculation in these years.

But in the year after his triumph, Castro began consolidating his rule around a group of loyal communist revolutionaries, and he also began exiling or jailing many of the anticommunists who had supported the anti-Batista struggle and had even fought alongside Castro, but whom he now viewed as a threat. Castro also found himself in conflict with a part of the country’s peasant population that had collaborated with the revolution but whose members were now being passed over for jobs in favor of party bureaucrats, or who objected to being moved to new collective farms. Faced with these challenges, Castro began bolstering his counterintelligence services to fight off any encroachments at home or abroad.

The threats from abroad and from within made things difficult for the new Cuban government, and the internal insurrection—most significantly in the central Cuban mountains of the Escambray—as well as the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 led Castro to develop an expansive view of the connections between those threats. It also turned him into a counterinsurgent commander, as much as he had been an insurgent one. And if the threats were international, then Cuba’s politics would be too. The forces of imperialism would have to be stretched thin.

As Brown discusses, the fighting in the Escambray served as useful field training for the Cubans and for foreign volunteers seeking to bring revolution to their own countries. Over the years, thousands were recruited from many Latin American countries for this purpose. Though some recruits were turned away as unreliable, Cuba unquestionably became the center of a regional effort to spread revolution by the use of violence—not merely, as Castro had said in the Second Declaration of Havana, by the power of example. Cuban-trained fighters (and sometimes Cubans themselves) appeared in the conflicts in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and as far away as Angola.

The great strength of Brown’s book is that, in exploring the dynamics in each of these places, he is able to reveal common patterns. Elected presidents in Latin America faced considerable challenges. Responding with brutality to Cuban-backed insurgencies undermined their legitimacy, but refusing to confront them forcefully undermined their standing with their own militaries, who sometimes stepped in and overthrew them.

Over the years, the United States had developed close ties to many of these countries’ military officers, some of whom had trained in the United States, and it encouraged them to force this impossible position upon their countries’ elected representatives. “The thing was equitable,” said one Argentinean guerrillero training in Cuba. “The Yankees promoted the counterrevolution and the Cubans, revolution.”

But the balance of power was not equitable. Except in very special circumstances, the counterinsurgency wiped out guerrilla groups and engaged in broader repression. Most often, military forces were deeply reactionary and were committed to extirpating leftist ideas from the body politic once they seized power. In a few cases, most notably Peru, military governments oversaw land and social reforms that civilian presidents had been unable to carry out. But in general, while the forces of imperialism were stretched thin, they also grew taut and strong.

It would be unfair to place the blame for the results of the counterinsurgencies on Cuba, and this is not Brown’s argument. Instead, he wants to show how Cuba’s revolution led Cubans and other Latin Americans to make choices about their alignment in the Cold War that would lead to American involvement. For the most part, this restoration of Latin American agency is welcome. The political rhetoric of both the Cuban government and of counterinsurgent leaders, including the United States, too often seeks to cast the choices of their opponents as the result of manipulation rather than legitimate grievance.

But the main risk in restoring agency to everyone is that it comes at the expense of explaining larger structures of power and geopolitics. People make their own history, after all, but not exactly in the circumstances of their choosing. Especially in a book relying on the US government’s documentation, there is a danger that emphasizing the agency of counterinsurgent and revolutionary groups will obscure how US power did shape Latin America’s politics. Nevertheless, Brown is convincing that the Cuban-trained and -inspired guerrillas posed a challenge for democracies in Latin America that was difficult for their elected leaders to solve and that, as a result, created conditions favorable for the right to take dictatorial control.

In a way, this should hardly be surprising. Democracy, Castro said, is the fulfillment of the will of the people. He did not mention elections or the balance of power. Marxist guerrillas argued that they would help “democracy” deliver the will of the people. Kruijt, working from interviews with guerrillas, helps us understand this view of the world. His interview subjects, of course, are hardly representative: Those he could speak with are precisely those who survived the intervening decades, both physically and ideologically. But with that in mind, Kruijt’s work offers rare insight into the psychological experiences of those who participated in the middle to upper bureaucratic ranks of the Cuban Revolution, and who then tried to export this vision to much of Latin America and parts of Africa.

“Revolutions are achieved by generations engaged in collective action, subject to collective suffering and motivated by collective sentiment,” Kruijt writes. Those who fight in them share moral commitments, form strong fraternal bonds, and remember their work as a kind of special “calling,” animated by the desire to serve a higher morality. When it comes to the act of governing, however, these emotional bonds may also produce resentment and dogmatism, and the interviews show that the privileges Castro gave to communists early on produced serious strains—though Kruijt’s subjects stuck around long enough to feel that their grievances were eventually heard.

Kruijt is also able to provide a detailed history of the internal developments of Cuba’s extraordinarily high-quality intelligence apparatus under Manuel Piñeiro, who became one of the most important figures in the Cuban government and one of the few who could speak plainly to Fidel. Piñeiro “was anti-dogmatic, he wasn’t a sectarian,” Kruijt is told. He reportedly instructed his agents: “If we always and only talk to the left, we are wrong. We have to talk with everyone. And remember that between black and white, there are many nuances and many shades of grey.”

Kruijt and Brown agree that Cuba’s contribution to the repertoire of revolutionary tactics—the guerrilla foco—was a failure. The idea, closely associated with the romantic image of Che Guevara, was that a tiny guerrilla force could gather strength and, through asymmetric warfare, eventually overcome a powerful state. This faith in guerrilla warfare led to a variety of strategic blunders on Cuba’s part, making the spread of revolution to the rest of Latin America more a matter of will than of strategy. US counterinsurgency planners read Guevara carefully and decided that the solution was to try to wipe out the focos as they appeared—a policy applied with bloody consequences throughout the continent.

But despite agreeing on the focos’ ultimate failure, Brown and Kruijt disagree on why they failed. Kruijt argues that part of the problem was the “tepid support” of the Soviet-oriented communist parties in the rest of Latin America, which preferred to practice “political abstinence.” But this argument misses how this was also the case in Cuba itself, where communist support for Fidel remained limited until after his victory. Brown argues, by contrast, that the communist guerrillas supported by Cuba never had the broad coalition behind them that had made revolution work in Cuba. Guerrillas “were doomed in the 1960s to make the insurrections in their own countries as Marxist-Leninists—not as the democratic nationalists Fidel’s guerrillas had been in the late 1950s.” This is closer to the mark, for the Cuban Revolution itself was not an example of a successful foco.

Cuba did adapt its foreign policy over time. In 1975, it sent 30,000 conventional troops to fight in Angola, helping to repel US- and South African–backed forces. In Nicaragua’s successful armed revolution in 1979, rural guerrillas triumphed for the same reason that Cuba’s guerrillas had: because they were a part of a broader multiclass military and social struggle against a dictatorship lacking internal legitimacy and international support. Central American guerrilla struggles—along with Reagan’s support for counterinsurgency forces—marked the 1980s.

Kruijt’s interviewees help open a window onto the experience of having participated in these struggles. Fedora Lagos, a Cuban-Chilean radio specialist with El Salvador’s guerrillas in the 1980s who also worked in a guerrilla-run school for children and orphans, shares a heartbreaking memory that stands out in a book that takes a generally admiring view of the actions of the revolutionaries (and makes me wish Kruijt had quoted his sources at length more often). The US-backed Salvadoran Army had just killed several guerrilla fighters, and offered children at the school candies in exchange for information about the location of the guerrilla camps. Hungry, some of the children gave in, meaning that the guerrillas would have to punish them. As Lagos recalled:

There were children who had to be interrogated and sanctioned. That means killing a child of twelve, thirteen years. It was an absolute disaster. Some of them were children of my school. I had to speak with them. I said that they were children but they told me: “No, they aren’t children any more, they are combatants.” With a lump in my throat I couldn’t speak, [the children] spoke to me. They said to me: “We know that they are going to kill us, but please tell them that we will never do it again. We don’t want to die.” Then my favourite girl, fourteen years old, gave me a kiss on my forehead and said: “The only thing they gave us was a sugar bag and three coffee packages. And therefore I have to die.” How can you kill children of eleven, twelve, thirteen and fourteen years who sold themselves for coffee and sugar because they were hungry? There were months that we didn’t have anything to eat; we ate roots, lizards, snakes, iguanas…. “I am not bad,” she told me. For sure, they weren’t bad, but through their fault an entire squad was killed. That is the war.

“Were they shot?” Kruijt asked. Lagos answered, in tears: “No, they couldn’t waste bullets.”

One anecdote, however brutal, should not distort the overall picture. The truth commission in El Salvador held the state agents responsible for 85 percent of the acts of violence and the guerrillas approximately 5 percent. But it’s a reminder of the trauma and the human toll that working to change the social order through violence imposes—and not only on the combatants.

Kruijt, carrying the story of Cuban foreign policy forward into the 1980s and ’90s, describes Cuba’s turn away from supporting insurgency and the role that it sometimes played in negotiating peace accords. Although none of the leftist governments of the “pink tide” of the late 1990s and early 2000s replicated Cuba’s political or economic model, Kruijt argues that they owe some part of their achievements to Cuban solidarity, development aid, and the harboring of exiles from dictatorship. “The Cubans kept the flame of resistance burning through decades of dictatorial persecution and civil wars in the region,” Kruijt concludes. “Most governments in Latin America and the Caribbean cannot say the same.”

Both of these books add in important ways to our understanding of the world that Cuba created; neither can be the last word. Whereas Kruijt ends on a note emphasizing Cuba’s contributions, Brown ends by stressing the costs of its actions. Part of the difference is simply chronological: Brown covers the 1960s, during which many democracies fell, while Kruijt pushes on to the present, when many have been restored. But part of the dispute lies in irreconcilable differences regarding whether it’s the loss of the structures of liberal democracy that is most to be lamented, as Brown assumes, or whether the failure of radical efforts to supplant them constitutes the real tragedy, as Kruijt prefers.

There is no easy answer, or even easy generalizations. The world that the Cuban Revolution helped create, in both the revolutions and the counterrevolutions it inspired, was demanding and austere. Many good lives were lost by way of a revolutionary fervor that believed the world could be made better through violent insurgency. Even knowing the cost, it is hard not to be moved by the conviction. But on the question of democracy, the record is mixed: Sometimes violent insurgencies made dictatorship possible; at other times, they made democracy, even of the liberal type, possible.

But if Cuba’s achievements are ambiguous, the failure of armed revolution to transform Latin America for the better is clear enough, and it leaves the question hanging: How can the cycle of injustice, inequality, corruption, and democratic governments that seem incapable of functioning for the benefit of all citizens be broken? The Latin American governments of the pink tide have made some real progress. Some of these gains have been reversed by government mismanagement, by economic crisis, or by losses to the right, but some of the steps toward social inclusion and meeting human needs will last.

When I lived among former guerrillas in El Salvador, I remember hearing the verses of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Caminante, no hay camino / se hace camino al andar.” (“Traveler, there is no road / the road is made by walking.”) The goal of a meaningfully democratic society—a society in which people have equal worth and equal power—remains in the distance. But we are still walking.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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