President Mikhail S. Gorbachev announced Wednesday that he has decided to begin withdrawing Soviet troops from Cuba, winding down a 32-year military alliance with the Western Hemisphere’s only Communist regime.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III hailed the move as “a very substantial gesture” that would help Gorbachev win economic aid from the West.
“We will soon begin discussions with the Cuban leadership about the withdrawal of the Soviet training brigade in Cuba,” Gorbachev told reporters at the Kremlin after meeting with Baker for more than two hours. He said he expects that the brigade will leave Cuba in the “near future.”
Gorbachev said the Soviet Union has about 11,000 military personnel in Cuba. Other officials said the training brigade he mentioned included fewer than 3,000, or about one-fourth of the total.
But a senior State Department official indicated that Baker understood from his meeting with Gorbachev that the Soviet Union intends to withdraw all the troops over time.
Baker, who met with Gorbachev on the first working day of a five-day visit to the Soviet Union, said the pullout “will be very important in terms of public opinion in the United States.”
In the past, Baker has warned that the United States was unlikely to offer significant economic aid to the Soviet Union if Moscow continued to support the hard-line Communist regime of Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
The Cuban government reacted angrily to the Soviet announcement, condemning Gorbachev for failing to consult it about its decision and insisting that the number of troops on the island was far fewer and less militarily significant than described by the Soviets.
Havana also complained that Gorbachev failed to raise the issue of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, which the Cubans call an illegal occupation of their territory.
In Moscow, Baker also said he is encouraged by Gorbachev’s new commitment to transform the Soviet Union’s sclerotic state-run economy into a free-market system. He said the United States is ready to help as soon as “a credible reform program” is in place.
Gorbachev looked vigorous and ebullient as he met with reporters in the Kremlin’s vast, chandeliered St. George’s Hall. After several months on the political ropes culminating in an abortive coup last month, he appeared back in his old form, unveiling a foreign policy surprise as if to demonstrate that he still has the power to shape events.
A decision to phase out the Soviet military presence 90 miles from Key West would end an issue that has been a thorn in the side of U.S.-Soviet relations for three decades--and that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
In recent years, as Gorbachev and other reformers have steered the Soviet Union toward democracy and a more capitalistic economic system, Castro has become one of the Kremlin’s harshest critics. At the same time, Soviet reformers have asked why the Kremlin should spend billions of dollars to help Castro when the Soviet economy is in a state of collapse.
Gorbachev has already cut Soviet economic subsidies to Cuba, and he indicated Wednesday that he plans to continue that process, saying the two countries should base their relations on “mutually beneficial commercial exchanges.”
The resulting economic squeeze has forced Cuba to ration food and fuel and to replace buses with bicycles and tractors with oxen. State Department officials estimated that Soviet trade subsidies to Cuba last year were worth $2.3 billion but have been dropping fast. They said Soviet military aid was worth about $1.5 billion last year.
The withdrawal of the training brigade announced by Gorbachev would still leave as many as 8,000 Soviet troops on the island, including a motorized rifle brigade of about 3,000 and an unknown number of military intelligence personnel.
Gorbachev’s figure of 11,000 for Soviet troop strength in Cuba was significantly higher than most Western estimates, which run from 7,700 to 9,000.
The Soviet military uses Cuba as a major base for electronic eavesdropping on the United States and Latin America, as a facility for resupplying submarines that patrol the U.S. coast and as a landing point for Backfire bombers. It is unclear from Gorbachev’s remarks whether those functions would be affected by his cuts.
But in an era when the Soviet and U.S. armed forces no longer view each other as probable enemies, the Bush Administration was more annoyed by Moscow’s economic and military aid than by its continuing military presence. A senior official traveling with Baker said Gorbachev’s announcement did not satisfy every U.S. demand for a change in the Soviet relationship with Cuba, but “it’s getting mighty close.”
Baker also said he is pleased to find that Gorbachev and Boris N. Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Federation, had forged a new, cooperative relationship that Baker called “superb.”
After spending the morning at the Kremlin, Baker met with Yeltsin for three hours at the building where the Russian president led popular resistance to the coup attempt last month. Officials said his schedule was designed, in part, to show that the Bush Administration wanted to deal with both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who have long been political rivals, without unduly favoring either.
In response to questions from Baker, Yeltsin said he wants the Soviet Union to have a strong central government to coordinate activities in its republics--and to control the Soviet arsenal of more than 30,000 nuclear weapons.
“Control over strategic nuclear weapons will be exercised, as before, by one center . . . and no republic will have access to such control,” Yeltsin told reporters after the meeting. “Mr. Gorbachev and I have given our guarantees of this to the secretary of state and to the American people in general.”
Baker told both Gorbachev and Yeltsin that the United States is ready to rush food and medical aid to the Soviet Union if crippling shortages occur this winter.
More extensive forms of economic aid, he said, will become possible as soon as Gorbachev’s central government and the country’s 12 republics agree on a comprehensive reform plan and begin working with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to implement it.
Those organizations have called for sweeping reforms in the Soviet Union, including an end to all price controls. Perhaps more important to the Bush Administration, they can press their stringent demands without making the United States or other Western governments directly responsible.
But Soviet officials, facing a year in which production may fall by more than 20%, appeared more enthusiastic about capitalist reforms than ever before, State Department aides said. They noted that Gorbachev pointedly included a single economic adviser in his meeting with Baker: Grigory Yavlinsky, a free-market “radical” whose advice Gorbachev rejected as recently as July.
Gorbachev and Yavlinsky told Baker that they expect to have their new economic reform plan drafted within six weeks, a senior State Department official said.
“Our economy is on the road to collapse,” a Gorbachev aide said. “It is a major threat to any government, whether it’s led by Gorbachev or Yeltsin.”
Yeltsin put it more simply. When Baker greeted him with a cheery “How are things?” the bluff Russian replied: “There are ups and downs. Sometimes it’s bad--and other times, it’s very bad.”
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux, in Mexico City, contributed to this story.
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The Soviet Union has been Cuba’s major military sponsor for three decades since the Communist revolution in Havana. Their relationship was a Cold War keystone. On Wednesday, the Kremlin began a process of withdrawal. Here is a look at the military history:
The Current Picture Military Forces in Cuba CUBA: 180,500 SOVIET UNION: 11,000 UNITED STATES: 2,400*
THE REVOLUTION: Soviet penetration of Cuba began shortly after revolutionary Fidel Castro spearheaded the overthrow of dictator Fulgenicio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959, and formed a Marxist-inspired government. In 1960, Moscow agreed to supply oil in return for Cuban sugar. It also promised to equip Castro’s army with weapons, including rockets. Details of the military buildup are not well known, but substantial activity is believed to have occurred in 1960-62.
BAY OF PIGS: Concerned about Cuba’s role as a Soviet client-state and exporter of revolution, President John F. Kennedy approved an invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles in 1962. The operation, at the Bay of Pigs, was a disaster. Castro’s forces captured most of the invaders.
MISSILE CRISIS: In October, 1962, the Soviet-Cuban relationship brought the superpowers to the brink of thermonuclear war. Responding to pleas from Havana, which said it feared a U.S. invasion, the Kremlin shipped over missiles and materials to build launch sites, from which nuclear attacks on U.S. cities could be mounted. The Kremlin backed down after President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade and demanded removal of the weapons.
SUBMARINE DISPUTE: In 1970, Washington detected heavy equipment arriving at the Cuban port of Cienfuegos. It accused the Soviet Union of building a strategic submarine base and issued a warning. But the Kremlin denied it. In 1971, Washington said the Soviets had agreed not to establish any base for offensive arms in Cuba.
BRIGADE ‘FOUND': In 1979, Washington claimed it had discovered a Soviet combat brigade of 2,000 to 3,000 troops in Cuba. President Jimmy Carter called it “a very serious matter.” But a week later, Washington conceded the brigade had been there for years.
WEAPONS EXPORTER: For most of their long relationship, the Soviets have shipped weapons through Cuba to Cold War trouble spots. These have included Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Angola and Ethiopia. At one point, the Kremlin was sending 66,000 tons of arms to Cuba per year, the State Department estimates. But these have dropped as the Soviet Union has scaled down its overseas military involvements in the last few years.
Sources: Associated Press; World Book Encyclopedia; USSR: A Concise History; State Department
* At Guantanamo Bay