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.