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Cuba after the Cold War:

Cuba-US relations, regime legitimacy and new political and

economic relations as political factors to support Cubas continuation

of its socialist regime and subsequent resistance to neoliberal

globalisation after the collapse of the Soviet Union

(word count: 2386, excluding footnotes and bibliography)

Dominik U. Niemann

Leiden University

d.u.a.niemann@umail.leidenuniv.nl

9 March 2017
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After the final dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in 1991, many authoritarian and socialist

countries around the world, not only in Eastern Europe but also in countries of the Global

South, turned their back to Socialism and economically, ideologically and politically adjusted

their stance in favour of the emerging phase of neoliberal globalisation (Saxonberg 2013, 10;

Carmona Bez 2004, 1-2; Westad 2010, 1). Cubas respective stance however remained

unchanged and despite enormous economic and geopolitical difficulties, Cuba as of today (and

despite recent Cuban-US rapprochements) continues to be one of a few countries to

successfully maintain a largely centralised market economy and a socialist political regime

(Sweig and Bustamante 2015, 9-10). While, in a historical context, there are undeniably

societal, cultural and economical reasons for Cuba not to turn its back on Socialism after the

end of the Cold War, and while these reasons influence one another and must not be dismissed

in general discourse, the paper will identify and examine three political factors that supported

Cubas continuation of its socialist regime and its subsequent resistance to neoliberal

globalisation: (1) the [historical] Cuba-US relations, (2) the legitimacy of Fidel Castros post-

revolutionary socialist regime and the subsequently pertaining eminence of socialist ideology,

and (3) the post-Cold-War political (and necessarily economical) ties to Russia and China

(Carmona Bez 2004, 50-53, 86-87; Morley and McGillon 2002, 4-5; Yamaoka 2004, 309-

312). Despite the distinctions established, it is important to point out that these factors

naturally coincide and greatly influence one another and thus only serve as points of departure

in order to approach and re-construct a multifaceted political agenda pursued by the Cuban

government after the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR). While necessarily referring to

Cubas historical foreign relations to the US and the USSR, particularly with regard to Cubas

political and diplomatic stance during and following the national revolution of 1959 and the

subsequent hotter period of the Cold War in which Cuba took a special and at times pivotal
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role between the two rivalling Superpowers, the paper will effectively focus on the period after

the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 while eventually also drawing a line to current affairs

and political prospects for Cubas government (Sweig 2015, 7-9).

Cubas relations to the United States have historically been capricious as they developed

from a North-American notion of Pan-Americanism and Good Neighbour Policies towards

Neo-colonialism and finally ideological opponency (Gronbeck-Tedesco 2015, 16-17).

Gronbeck-Tedesco suggests a tripartite history of Cuba in relation to the United States:

Firstly, the (I) Wars of Independence (1868-98), where the US played a significant role in

Cubas struggle against the Spanish Crown (Ibid. 5). Following the victory over Spain, the US

assumed full credit for Cubas independence, neglecting the Cuban effort entirely, and posed

this as a justification for keeping a political and economic carte blanche in Cuba, thus effectively

dominating the countrys political landscape and economy (Prez Jr. 1999, 359; Saull 2006,

271). Although Cuba had as a consequence become the playground of [US-]American

millionaires and the Mafia, the countrys elite still economically benefitted from this duplicitous

Pan-American relationship (Haslam 2011, 187). Therefore, the (II) Republican phase of Cuba

prevailed from 1902-58 (Gronbeck-Tedesco 2015, 5, 16). Only then, the Cubans (other than

the political elite) realised that long-term US foreign policy did not include the retreat from

filling governmental positions and regulating Cubas economy, thus seriously confining the

islands newly gained independence (Prez Jr. 1999, 358; Gronbeck-Tedesco 2015, 9).

Emerging from the insight of this lack of sovereignty in their own land, the 26th of July

Movement around Fidel Castro instigated the Cuban Revolution and brought about the third

phase, which Gronbeck-Tedesco calls the (III) phase of Revolution and which he argues lasted

from 1959 until the present day (Ibid. 5,9). Written in 2015, the author might not have

foreseen the rapprochement of both countries in mid-2015, where diplomatic ties were slowly
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restored by i.a. reopening the US embassy, which could be seen as a forth phase of this shared

history1. During this third phase of Revolution, as a response to the exploitative nature of US

closeness, Cuba repulsed the idea of Good-Neighbourhood and detached completely from

the US in political as well as economic and ideological terms (Ibid. 5). The general sentiment

against neo-colonialist2 US dominance was cleverly indoctrinated by the newly established

Castro regime, resulting in the public politicisation for the setting up of the US embargo against

Cuba in 1960, the failed US-Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, and subsequently the Cuban Missile

Crisis in 1962 (Smith 1993, 129; Duncan 1985, 53; Sweig and Bustamante 2013, 102). Against

popular belief however, the eminence of Socialist3 ideology was developed only after the

revolution as a means to justify a strict Anti-US stance and to guarantee both the political and

economic support by the Soviet Union (Duncan 1985, 41; 53). Evolving from the deep

historical resentment to US influence and the resulting lack of sovereignty in their own country,

fuelled by the military encounters mentioned above, it can thus be argued that Cubas political

ideology, at least under the leadership of Fidel Castro, was bound to categorically reject an

opening towards the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Therefore, by accepting and

taking part of the neoliberal globalisation, the country would have overtly admitted the failure

of its ideology and the resulting political system, its essential dependency on the Soviet Union

and moreover, it would have had to obey to any political or economic demands by the US

1
It is worth noting however that tendencies of a US-Cuban political and economic rapprochement had been
visible since 2012, (or arguably even since 2008, when Raul Castro succeeded his brother in office) which
Gronbeck-Tedesco seems to completely neglect here (cf. Sweig and Bustamante 2013, 101-2).
2
Please note that due to the lack of space, I am unable to establish why one can speak of a neo-colonialist
dominance. In short, US firms controlled large parts of Cubas economy, which at that time was mainly based
on sugar. 60% of rural land was owned by foreign (mostly US) companies (cf. Gronbeck-Tedesco 2015, 38).
3
In fact, it has been argued that Castros rendered ideology developed during the course of the revolution and its
following years as Castro did not consider himself a Socialist during the revolution but a nationalist and only
later proclaimed it (under the increasing intellectual influence of Che Guevara) to have been a Socialist
revolution. During the course of the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, fearing further US attempts to overthrow his
regime, Castro began to seek out for political ties with the USSR and portrayed himself a Marxist-Leninist in
order to please the Soviet-government (Duncan 1985, 40-41).
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government which was one of the main factors to have triggered off the revolution and the

resulting ideology in the first place.

As already suggested in the previous part, Fidel Castro took the politically and

ideologically central role not only during the revolution itself, but also during the post-

revolutionary phase until his resignation from office in 2008, due to illness (Sweig and

Bustamante 2013, 101-2). While the Fund for Peace currently ascribes to Cuba a very low state

legitimacy4 (7.3/10, 10 being the lowest possible score, cf. Messner et al. 2016, 19: Cuba) and

while it has been argued that Castro already lost its ideological legitimacy before 1989 (19915),

scholars are unable to impugn that some sort of legitimacy of Castros regime, albeit possibly

not tangible through a liberal lens, prevailed since the revolution and past the collapse of the

Soviet Union (Saxonberg 2013, 20). However, if there had been no legitimacy of Castros

regime, even though opposed on Cubas citizen by his totalitarian regime, the system might

have collapsed during the dissolution of the USSR and the resulting economic crisis (Ibid. 21).

Saxonberg argues that Castro held a legitimacy that was grounded in his achievement of

overcoming US dominance by means of national revolution and the consequent public political,

cultural and ideological glorification of it (Ibid. 2013, 35; Yamaoka 2004, 311-15). In line with

this, Steve Ludlam pinpoints that [t]he fundamental claim to legitimacy of Cubas political

leadership is that only the socialist revolution can preserve the sovereignty of the Cuban state and its

constitution, which, having been approved by 98 per cent of the electorate on a 98 per cent turnout, is

probably the most popularly-endorsed constitution in history (2012, 243). Within this national

4
It should here be noted that the Fragile State Index clearly shows a Liberalist approach to understanding and
mapping the world, since it presupposes, a functioning democracy as an ideal or precondition to state legitimacy
(cf. Messner et al. 2016, 13), which is therefore one of the main factors influencing the score. (cf. Snyder 2004,
56-57)
5
Although the USSR officially dissolved in 1991, economic ties to Cuba had decreased since the mid-1980s
and Cuba found itself in an economic crisis by 1989 the latest, albeit its negative peak after 1992. (Cf. Cuba:
Total Imports; Total Exports; GDP; GDP growth: 1980-1995, World Trade Organisation and The World
Bank)
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mindset, Castro himself effectively integrated his charismatic authority which not only helped

to perpetuate the glorification of the nations achievements but also to justify his own position

as a quasi-totalitarian leader6 who was publicly loved and glorified by the Cuban public

(Hoffmann 2009, 233-34). Another reason for the regimes persistent legitimacy might be the

constant investment in and maintenance of the social welfare system that Cubas government

had implemented since the revolution and which was upheld even in times of economic crises,

such as during the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Carmona Bez 2004, 2, 124). The marking

of the US as the national enemy in political, economic as well as ideological terms and the

subsequent glorification of the revolution over US dominance, paired with Fidel Castros

charismatic authority and the regimes constant investment in social welfare thus seems to have

given the Cuban government enough legitimacy to overcome the collapse of the Soviet Union,

despite economic and political difficulties, and to uphold a socialist system in an increasingly

neoliberal world.

After it had lost the Soviet Union as its most important economic and political partner

and in consideration of the remaining US embargo, Cuba was obliged to reorientate itself in

terms of both its political and economic foreign relations. The situation had changed

dramatically and the new established Russian Federation, in the light of its newly affirmative

stance towards the US, immediately reduced trade and political relations with Cuba and

positioned itself strictly against the Cuban revolution and its ideology (Miller 2005, 59-60).

However, trade and political relations between the two countries did not entirely cease to exist

and a slow rapprochement process was facilitated. By 1995, the Russian government under

Boris Yeltsin had realised that the privileging of links with the West [had] not necessarily [been]

6
Please note that there exists an academic discourse on the totalitarian status that Castro held during that time.
Hence the cautious expression without further argumentation as due to the limited word count. (For the
academic debate cf. i.a. Saxonberg 2013, 33-35)
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in Russias best interest (Ibid. 2005, 76). Especially since US-Russian relations did not flourish

as much as initially assumed, Russia quickly sought to re-establish full political dialogue with

Cuba, granted several major credits and signed a bilateral trade protocol for sugar in exchange

for oil (Ibid. 2005, 76-77). While these Russian-Cuban relations rather slowly developed after

1991, China was one of the first countries to establish unprecedented political links with Cuba.

Already in 1989, both foreign ministers had visited each others capital and in the following

years, many more political and economic meetings were arranged, reaching its peak of

importance when both Fidel Castro and Jiang Zemin, at that time Chinas head of state,

exchanged official state visits, in 1992 and 1995, respectively (Treto 2013, 96). By then,

Castros government had already established direct links to Chinas defence and state security

ministries and had paved the way for intensive economic exchange between the two countries

which remains one of Cubas main trade partners until today (Ibid. 96-97). Cubas trade and

political relations to Western Europe, Canada and Central America, albeit a remarkable

decrease after the dissolution of the USSR mainly due to US influence, were never fully

abandoned and further contributed to Cubas ability to overcome the US embargo and the

continuation of its socialist system (Morley and McGillion 2002, 100). Building up close

political and economic ties with both China and Russia while maintaining relations to

European and Central American countries as well as Canada can therefore be seen as the

necessary and crucial effort for Cuba to have overcome the deep economic crisis that emerged

after 1991, also called the Special Period (Fernndez 1993, 17; Miller 2005, 87-89).

The collapse of the Soviet Union exposed Cuba to an existential crisis as it not only

meant the victory of the US capitalist system but also a sharp cut in Cubas foreign political

and economic relations. The country was forced to either redefine its system and commit itself

to the ongoing neoliberal globalisation or to adhere to its revolutionary understanding of a


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socialist system and (once again) stand up against US dominance. Pursuing the latter without

losing the support of Cubas people appears to have only been possible through a combination

of societal, cultural, economic, ideological and political factors. While focussing on the political

factors, the essay has shown that (1) the historically deep political and ideological opposition

to US dominance, combined with (2) a relatively strong political legitimacy of Fidel Castros

socialist regime and (3) the emerging trade and political relations to mainly China and Russia

enabled Cuba to maintain its socialist stance after the collapse of the Soviet Union and remain

comparatively resistant to neoliberal globalisation. Recent developments under the Obama

administration might have marked a fourth phase, a rapprochement of Cuban-US relations.

Cuba has certainly undergone political and economic changes in its system7 and the recent

death of Fidel Castro might have marked yet another step towards a full integration to the

global market. In view of respective future policies, it will be interesting to observe whether

these recent achievements will be influenced by the new US-presidency of Donald Trump.

7
which unfortunately however were impossible to include in this essay. (cf. i.a. Sweig 2015, 101-113)
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Political Fluctuation". In Cuba's Ties to a Changing World, edited by Donna R.

Kaplowitz, 127-142. Colorado: Lyenne Rienner Publishers.

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