Havana, Moscow, and Beijing: Looking to the Future in the Shadow of the Past
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Havana, Moscow, and Beijing:
Looking to the Future in the Shadow of the Past

since january 1959, revolutionary cuba's foreign policy has attracted much interest, not least because Cuba has exerted a disproportionate influence in global politics for a Caribbean island. As Piero Gleijeses noted, "Cuba's role in international politics during the Cold War was unique. No other Third World country projected its military power beyond its immediate neighborhood. Extracontinental military interventions during the Cold War were the preserve of the two superpowers, a few West European countries, and Cuba" (2006, 3).

This also gave rise to Michael Erisman cataloguing, in Cuba's Foreign Relations in a Post-Soviet World, five concepts that had been proposed to exist within revolutionary Cuba's foreign policy. These are the superclient/surrogate thesis, the concept of the revolutionary crusade, Fidelista peronalismo, dependency and counterdependency, and realist pragmatism (Erisman 2000, 33–47).

The superclient/surrogate thesis theorized that from 1959 to 1991, Havana merely acted at Moscow's behest. The revolutionary crusade thesis postulated that Cuba desired to spark other revolutions around the world for essentially ideological motives, while Fidelista peronalismo is the Cuban version of the Great Man Theory.1 Since the Spanish conquest, outside powers have dominated Cuba, but Erisman believes that during Cuban-Soviet relations Havana displayed counterdependency, [End Page 507] as the Cuban government repeatedly attempted to reduce its dependency on the Soviet Union.2 Since 1959, the survival of the revolution has been the principal consideration in the Cuban government's decision making, which has made realist pragmatism key for Cuban foreign policy (Erisman 2000, 33–47). Realist pragmatism is closely linked to the ideas of defensive realism, which postulates that the most important interest for states is their own security. States are security maximizers due to the inherently anarchic nature of the international system; Kenneth Waltz wrote that "the ultimate concern of states is not power, rather security" (1979, 4).

Erisman stated that Havana's foreign policy has been too complex to be dominated by simply one of these theories. The ideas of the revolutionary crusade fluctuated in significance after the radicalism of the 1960s, with Gleijeses highlighting its importance in Cuban involvement in Africa in the 1970s (Erisman 2000, 33–47; Gleijeses 2002, 374–79). The superclient/surrogate thesis disappeared with the end of Cuban-Soviet relations, while Fidelista peronalismo receded as Fidel Castro's health deteriorated since 2006. However, Erisman (2000, 33–47) detailed the continuing importance of counterdependency and realist pragmatism. This article will argue that counterdependency and realist pragmatism have been central to understanding Havana's relationship with Moscow and Beijing since January 1959. Additionally, these approaches are likely to continue for the foreseeable future as the Cuban leadership undergoes significant change with Raúl Castro's proposed retirement in 2018.


The timing of the Cuban Revolution was key for the inception of Cuban-Soviet relations. Due to the bipolarity of the international system of the time, if Cuba's relationship with the United States deteriorated, an improved relationship with the Soviet Union was paramount for regime survival. Conflict with the US was exacerbated by the Cuban government's determination to radically change the relationship, with Castro later commenting that "we would not in any [End Page 508] event have ended up as close friends. The US had dominated us too long. The Cuban Revolution was determined to end that domination" (Smith 1987, 144). This situation was compounded by Washington's hostile response when the Soviet Union provided economic and military security for the Cuban Revolution (Shearman 1987, 11). Additionally, the Soviet economic and political models were appealing to the Cuban government for the society that they strove to produce on the island (Bain 2007, 21), further aiding the fledgling relationship between Havana and Moscow.

The advent of the new government in Havana also coincided with Moscow taking a greater interest in the developing world. Additionally, Cuba's geographical location, a mere 90 miles from the United States, was also important in attracting Soviet interest. Cuba quickly became geostrategically significant for the Kremlin as it demonstrated both Moscow's belief that the Cold War was...