Cuba as a Cold War Client State

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Columbia University
School of International and Public Affairs
History of the Cold War
U8715

Cuba possessed some remarkable characteristics as an ally of the Soviet Union. Certainly being in the Western Hemisphere and having a distinct Hispanic culture that was very different from many other allies of the Soviet Union were two. Another fact that foreign policy experts at the time did not appreciate was that Cuba often executed distinct foreign decisions separate from the directives of the Kremlin. While European Communist nations could generally not act on foreign policy initiatives without the explicit approval of the Soviet Union, this was not the case with Cuba. Its active interventionist policies in Latin America, and later Africa, were at the time thought by the United States and its partners and allies as executed on the direct behest of the Soviet Union. However, recent research has proven this not to be the case. It was clearly not a traditional client state, and had the ability to act with a great deal of impunity in much of its international affairs. The question this paper examines is how much autonomy Cuba had in foreign policy the limits to its unilateral action. Key considerations are the points at which the Soviet Union interests conflicted with Cuban foreign policy initiatives and what enforcement measures the Soviet Union could have taken to place Cuba in line with its own intentions. It is important to understand the nature and limits of this Cuban foreign policy autonomy because a clarification of the same allows us to better define conflicts in this era as truly proxy wars or battles that were fought for other reasons. The traditional view of superpowers directing and controlling all the actions of states in this period can be shown to be simply invalid, and Cuba’s autonomy in these matters illustrates how much third world nations at the time determined the course of world events. Even early in its own revolution, Cuba demonstrated the propensity to conduct a foreign policy without “any need to refer to Soviet Union.”1 Typical of this characterization was its warm relationship with Algeria and the sending of medical aid to a nation thought to be an ideological partner and friend. This friendship and deployment of medical personnel has been attributed solely to the initiative of Cuba. Beyond this early example of independence of action, the defining juncture in the development of an independent Cuban foreign policy was the Cuban missile crisis. The nature of Cuban-Soviet relations was greatly changed during this event and influenced Cuba’s decisions in regards to security thereafter. After the Cuban revolution in 1959 and before the Cuban Missile Crisis, relations between the two countries developed slowly. The Soviet Union was clearly wary of agitating the United States, but eventually mutual interests developed around the trade of oil and sugar as much as on ideological grounds.2 As the relationship with Cuba matured and its slant towards Marxism-Leninism became clear, the Soviet Union approached the possible placement of nuclear missiles as an experiment. The leadership of the Soviet Union made the decision in somewhat of an uncalculated manner, underestimating the resolve with which the United States would react to these missiles. It was almost entirely the decision of Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who is said to have come up with concept alone while vacationing in Bulgaria.3 Nikita Khrushchev was known for not thinking things through and rash decisions were part of his character. The prospect of a United States invasion of Cuba was troubling to him and he had hoped to counter it in a strategic manner.4 Both nations had reasons to believe an invasion by the United States was possible, but the Soviet approach to the problem as advocated by Khrushchev was wrong. Cuba, so soon after the attempted invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and with ongoing covert actions against its government would have...