Gorbachev Fails to Follow U.S. Script in Visit to Havana

<i> Wayne S. Smith, adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of "The Closest of Enemies" (W.W. Norton), an account of U.S.-Cuba relations since 1957</i>

The Bush Administration clearly hoped that Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s visit to Cuba two weeks ago would result in major new accommodations on the Soviet-Cuban side. Expectations were that Gorbachev would force Fidel Castro to accelerate internal liberalization, a la glasnost ; that he would respond to President Bush’s message on Central America by insisting Cuba join the Soviet Union in unilateral concessions there--such as withdrawal of military support from Nicaragua, or, at least, that Gorbachev’s efforts to bring Castro in line would result in a clash between the two--to Washington’s scarce-concealed delight.

But, in fact, Gorbachev did not reschedule his visit and fly 10,000 miles to pick a quarrel with Castro, let alone carry Washington’s water after he arrived. His chief purpose was to cement a better relationship with Castro--one that will help him in his struggle with his own entrenched apparatchiks.

For that, diplomacy and subtle persuasion were called for--not confrontation. Gorbachev was not so naive as to expect Castro to accept perestroika and glasnost for Cuba. Instead, it was enough that he agreed--in private meetings--to mute his more pointed and public criticisms of the reforms as implemented in the Soviet Union. This Gorbachev probably accomplished--however far apart the two remained in style and substance.

To Washington’s disappointment, there was no clash, no overt move on Castro’s part toward liberalization and certainly no unilateral concessions in Central America. Administration spokesmen rather petulantly complained that Gorbachev had failed to deliver--his deeds in Central America had not matched his words.

As the dust settles, however, a review of Gorbachev’s and Castro’s statements--and those of their advisers--makes clear that the Gorbachev-Castro summit closed no doors. In fact, it left them open, but with a caveat relevant far beyond Cuba or Central America--there must be some response from the United States before Moscow, and Havana, will walk through.


The Bush Administration has been sitting back expecting Gorbachev to take all the initiatives--while the United States did nothing. The summit in Havana shows that is not possible.

Gorbachev did not stonewall on Central America. On the contrary, he rejected export of revolution, strongly reiterated his commitment to negotiated solutions and repeated the proposal he had made to Ronald Reagan in 1987: Both the United States and the Soviet Union halt all military shipments to the region, moving toward creation of a demilitarized zone. That proposal was unacceptable to the United States in 1987, and still is.

Given the uncertainties in El Salvador--where the civil war roars on--the United States cannot tie itself to a full cutoff of military assistance. But in Havana, the Soviets indicated a more flexible position. As one Soviet official put it, reductions in Soviet aid to Cuba and Central America “should be addressed in a package, across the board, in negotiations where we can reach agreements to reduce the overall military presence.” But he stressed, “military assistance cannot be resolved on a unilateral basis.”

In other words, while the Soviet Union is no longer suggesting a complete cutoff of U.S. military assistance to the other countries, it is suggesting the United States do its part--by negotiating phased, reciprocal cuts. Unfortunately, the only U.S. response has again been a flat rejection and a refusal to negotiate.

Washington still demands that Moscow--and Havana--halt, or at least significantly reduce, military assistance to the Nicaraguan armed forces without any matching moves on our side. That won’t work. True, with respect to aid to “irregular forces,” the United States has, for the moment, suspended military assistance to the Contras--but that step has already been matched by the Soviet Union. In a Feb. 21 statement, the Kremlin declared it was not providing and would not provide aid to irregular forces. Cuba also says it is not giving military aid to the Salvadoran guerrillas.

The Bush Administration may argue that the Soviets and Cubans are still sending in arms, but it hasn’t been able to present credible evidence. In any event, it will soon be up to a U.N. inspection team to make certain that all keep their word.

All sides will thus be even on the question of aid to irregular forces. But with respect to regular armies, the other side is ready to move; the United States is not. The Bush Administration not only continues to provide large-scale aid to the Honduran and Salvadoran armed forces, it has several thousand troops in Honduras. The Soviet Union and Cuba have emphasized their readiness to work out step-by-step reductions in their aid to Nicaragua in response to U.S. cuts. Washington refuses, insisting it has security interests in Central America while the other side does not--an argument that might have worked in 1927, but won’t now.

Washington’s unresponsiveness was also part of Castro’s rationale for rejecting Soviet-like reforms. Cuba had hoped for some improvement of U.S. relations. Now, although Cuba has released most of its political prisoners, negotiated seriously in southern Africa, begun to pull troops out of Angola and signaled readiness to cooperate in Central America, the only U.S. response has been to say it isn’t interested in improving relations. It makes hostile moves instead. Thus, says Castro, Cuba can’t afford to relax in the same way as the Soviet Union. With Cuba, and most certainly with the Soviet Union, rapprochement is a two-way street.