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“The Spirit of the Sierra Maestra”: Five Observations on Writing about Cuban Foreign Policy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Tony Smith
Tufts University


For a variety of reasons, explanations of Cuban foreign policy lack in persuasiveness. Some authors adopt a kitchen-sink approach in which any number of factors are adduced to explain Cuban behavior, but they do not pay adequate attention to how these various pieces fit together into a coherent whole. Other writers concentrate on a single factor to explain Cuba's globalism, but in the process load more explanatory power than it can bear onto a sole variable. Still others have a penchant for prescribing proper foreign policy for the United States, with the result that the study of Cuban policy in its own terms is often shortchanged. Only by studying the character, world view, and charismatic influence of Fidel Castro can a center of gravity be found for the study of Cuban foreign policy.

Review Articles
World Politics , Volume 41 , Issue 1 , October 1988 , pp. 98 - 119
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 1988

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1 Dominguez, , “Cuban Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs 57 (Fall 1978), 88CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Duncan, , “Cuba,” in Davis, Harold Eugene and Wilson, Larman C., eds., Latin American Foreign Policies: An Analysis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 155Google Scholar.

3 See, for example, del Aguila, Juan, “Cuba's Foreign Policy in Central America and the Caribbean,” in Lincoln, Jeannie K. and Ferris, Elizabeth E., The Dynamics of Latin American Foreign Policies (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984), 212Google Scholar; Furtak, Robert K., “Cuba: Un Cuarto de Siglo de Polttica Exterior Revolucionaria” [Cuba: A quarter-century of revolutionary foreign policy], Foro Internacional 25 (April-June 1985), 343–44Google Scholar; and Eckstein, Susan, “Cuban Internationalism,” in Halebsky, Sandor and Kirk, John M., Cuba: Twenty-five Years of Revolution, 1959–1984 (New York: Praeger, 1985)Google Scholar.

4 Gonzalez, , “The Complexities of Cuban Foreign Policy,” Problems of Communism 11–12 (November-December 1977)Google Scholar.

5 Smith, Tony, Thinking Like a Communist: State and Legitimacy in the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), chap. 5Google Scholar.

6 Commenting on the current period, Dominguez, Jorge I. finds that “paradoxically, then, the internal radicalization under way requires at least temporary foreign policy moderation.” See “Cuba in the 1980s,” Foreign Affairs 65 (Fall 1986), 126Google Scholar. For an account that stresses the conformity of internal with external policy, see Herp, Enrique Balyora, “Internationalism and the Limits of Autonomy: Cuba's Foreign Relations,” in Mufioz, Heraldo and Stulchin, Joseph, Latin American Nations in World Politics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1980)Google Scholar.

7 See, for example, the account of Soviet foreign policy in 2Brzezinski, Zbigniew, Game Plan (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986)Google Scholar.

8 See, for example, Leogrande, William M., “Foreign Policy: The Limits of Success,” in Dominguez, Jorge I., ed., Cuba: Internal and International Affairs (Santa Monica, CA: Sage Publications, 1982)Google Scholar; Marjorie Woodford Bray and Donald W. Bray, “Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Third World Struggle,” in Halebsky and Kirk (fn. 3); and Erisman, Cuba's International Relations, pp. 7–8.

9 Robbins, , The Cuban Threat, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1985), chaps. 2 and 7Google Scholar.

10 The same approach appears earlier in Dominguez's writing. Thus in 1978, he identified the first objective of Havana's foreign policy as “the survival of revolutionary government,” and directly linked the decision to “go global” to its comprehensible and legitimate sense of a threat from Washington. In the case of Cuba's subversive activities in Latin America, for example, the weakest regimes there were the most likely to be dependent on Washington, and hence hostile to Havana. As a consequence, Cuba “had the most concrete of national interests in supporting the opposition to those governments that sided with the United States against Cuba.” Dominguez (fn. 1), 85–86.

12 See, for instance, Robbins (fn. 9), chap. 7.

13 Blasier, , The Giant's Rival: The USSR and Latin America (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983), 101Google Scholar.

13 The origin of the term “surrogate myth” or “thesis” would appear to be in Gonzalez (fn. 4). (It should be noted that Gonzalez recognizes Soviet influence over Cuban policy.) I was able to trace two of his three sources. One essay is quite alarmist about Soviet intentions in Angola, but says very little at all about Cuba: Vanneman, Peter and James, Martin, “The Soviet Intervention in Angola: Intentions and Implications,” Strategic Review (Summer 1976)Google Scholar. The other is Volsky, George, “Cuba's Foreign Policy,” Current History (February 1976)Google Scholar. Volsky does indeed declare that Castro “was ‘persuaded’ to dispatch troops to Angola by the Kremlin,” but he goes on to describe Castro's room for maneuver as so great that “any change of [Cuban] policy, however drastic, is always within the realm of possibility.”

14 Probably the earliest work that clearly establishes Cuba's autonomy in foreign affairs is Jackson, D. Bruce, Castro, the Kremlin, and Communism in Latin America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969)Google Scholar.

15 Other useful accounts include Valenta, Jiri, “Soviet and Cuban Responses to New Opportunities in Central America,” in Feinberg, Richard E., ed., Central America: International Dimensions of the Crisis (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982)Google Scholar; Leiken, Robert S., “Soviet and Cuban Policy in the Caribbean Basin,” in Schulz, Donald E. and Graham, Douglas H., Revolution and Counterrevolution in Central America and the Caribbean (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984)Google Scholar; and Packenham, Robert A., “Cuba and the USSR since 1959: What Kind of Dependency?” in Horowitz, Irving Louis, ed., Cuban Communism, 7th ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987)Google Scholar.

16 Cited in Bourne, Peter G., Fidel: A Biography of Fidel Castro (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986), 204Google Scholar.

17 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (New York: Random House, 1966), 205Google Scholar.

18 See Lynn, Kenneth S., Hemingway (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987)Google Scholar.

19 Earlier accounts that appreciate Castro's significance include Matthews, Herbert, The Cuban Story (New York: Braziller, 1961)Google Scholar, and Matthews, Fidel Castro (New York; Simon & Schuster, 1969); Lockwood, Lee, Castro's Cuba, Cuba's Fidel (New York: Macmillan, 1967)Google Scholar; as well as abundant references in Thomas, Hugh, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Harper & Row, 1971)Google Scholar, and Gonzalez, Edward, Cuba under Castro: The Limits of Charisma (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), chap. 8Google Scholar. More recent studies include Montaner, Carlos Alberto, Fidel Castro y la Revolucion Cubana (Madrid: Playoral, 1983)Google Scholar; Bourne (fn. 16); Szulc, Tad, Fidel: A Critical Biography (New York: William Morrow, 1986)Google Scholar; and Franqui, Carlos, Diary of the Cuban Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1980)Google Scholar.

20 Recognition of the importance of ideology is expressed in Gonzalez (fn. 19), chap. 7; Valdés, Nelson P., “Revolutionary Solidarity in Angola,” in Blaster, Cole and Mesa-Lago, Carmelo, eds., Cuba in the World (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979)Google Scholar; and Duncan (fn. 2), 160ff.

21 Thomas, , “Marxism in Latin America,” in Avineri, Shlomo, ed., Varieties of Marxism (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977), 393Google Scholar.

22 Draper, Theodore, Castroism: Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger, 1965)Google Scholar. For other sources that dismiss the matter, see Smith (fn. 5), 223, n. 1.

23 For further discussion, see Smith, Tony, The Pattern of Imperialism: The United States, Great Britain and the Late-Industrializing World since 1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), chap. 2Google Scholar, and Smith, , “Requiem or New Agenda for Third World Studies?” World Politics 37 (July 1985), 532–61, at 544–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 For the account here and immediately following, see Smith (fn. 5), chap. 5.

25 Dominguez, Jorge I., Cuba: Order and Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 142Google Scholar.

26 Erisman insists on the distinction between nationalism and communist ideology, however. See also Mark Falcoff, “How to Think about Cuban-American Relations,” in Horowitz (fn. 15).

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