The Institute for Cuban and Cuban American studies recently disclosed information according to which Cuban troops are helping the Russian/Iranian effort to save the Assad Government in Syria and establish their influence in the Middle East.
According to the report, Cuban military operatives are advising President Bashar al-Assad’s military and may even be preparing to man Russian-made tanks.
This report was later confirmed by the White House, acknowledging that Cuban troops have been training in Russia.
An important question is why Cuban troops are putting themselves in harm’s way when the Russian army should be adequate to face this military challenge. Why would they do it now? A quarter of a century after the end of the cold war; a time when Cubans were willing puppets of the Soviet Union and sent their troops to places like Angola to fight for global communism? Why would they do it now that relations with the U.S. are on the path to normalization?
There are a number of reasons we can suggest as possibilities.
First, Syria, as a natural ally of Iran, has been close to the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA-Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela).
Iran has been an ally to the countries of ALBA, particularly Venezuela. Since Assad’s well-being is in the vital interest of Iran, Cuba is happy to assist a friend of the “region”. After all, the relationship with Iran first encouraged by Chavez and now led by the current Venezuelan government has been reinforced in the last two decades as Iran continues to expand its influence in Latin America.
Secondly, in 1990 the Soviet Union ceased to provide Cuba with 6 billion dollars annually because the Cold War was over and the USSR needed to recover economically. Therefore, Cuban soldiers were no longer needed to be cannon fodder for the ideological proxy battles of the Cold War.
Although Russia is not fighting a cold war any more, it is in fact competing with the U.S. for spheres of influence. Now an opportunity has opened up for Russia as Western powers stayed away from the civil war in Syria, timidly supporting the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) and abandoning any other strategic goal.
As non-communist Russia seeks to recover its lost world influence, it has called Cuba again, perhaps appealing to the nostalgia of the good old days. Those days were days of glory for Cuba. Cuba was a Soviet proxy, sending troops to fight against Israel during the Yom Kippur war, training terrorists of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Southern Lebanon, including the group “Black September” responsible for the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli athletes; fighting in Angola; helping support the communist Ethiopian government that caused a huge famine in the 1980’s; helping support the bloodthirsty government of Idi Amin Dada in Uganda and Muhammad Gadhafi in Libya; training Iraqis in the art of repression against their Kurdish population; sending divisions to South Yemen and the border of Somalia; training Latin American guerillas and promoting subversion in the region, including against democratic regimes, especially the democratic regime of Romulo Betancourt in Venezuela.
For those who need to be reminded, Cuba also offered its soil to place Soviet-made nuclear missiles almost causing a third world war (Fidel Castro still expresses regret that the Soviets withdrew their missiles). Furthermore, Cuba enjoyed the status of a country that supported liberation movements all over the third world becoming the leader of the non-aligned movement in 1979.
For Castro, the idealist and communist romantic, all of these activities were and are more attractive than the few visas, traveling relief measures, the potential lifting of the embargo and other material benefits the U.S. has to offer. The Russians are providing them a role on the world stage, a second historical opportunity to experience again the good old years when they were global leaders, acclaimed by the anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist world.
This feeling is reinforced by the fact that since the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution, there has been a leftist revival in Latin America supported not only by radical regimes such as the ALBA countries but by many other countries in the region including the two largest: Brazil and Argentina. The restoration of Cuba to the community of Latin American nations had full support in the region and Cuba became a symbol of the new era. The region definitely perceived the reintegration of Cuba as a vindication of the Cuban regime, very much in contrast to the 1980’s and 90’s when the region welcomed the restoration of democracy.
What Russia and the region are giving Cuba is far more than any material reward the U.S can offer.
Against this background, the empowered Castro saw the normalization process as American capitulation.
Even if we apply the materialistic logic of Obama’s reasoning that Cubans will appreciate the value and benefit of a good relation with the U.S., the Cuban government is not the Cuban people. The Castro brothers have kept their rule over 11 million Cubans in total disregard for their basic needs. In Cuba people go to prison for eating more food than the law permits. Now, the 2,000 Cuban troops fighting in Syria are currently at risk of being caught by ISIS and beheaded, burned alive or drowned. Cuba is not about the people. It is about the ideological elite.
Therefore, we should not expect Cuba to feel obliged under the terms of normalization to display a different behavior.
Cuba’s alliance with Russia is also related to Russia’s increasing penetration in Latin America, a region where the U.S. is losing influence and leverage. Russia has reinforced relations with the ALBA countries, which we have covered here in more detail.
Russia is not just interfering in the fragile and volatile Middle East but it is also taking advantage of the anti-American environment that predominates in Latin America.
Cuba’s troops, fighting in Syria alongside Iran and Hezbollah, are a mirror of this geo-political dramatic reality the U.S. is now facing in two major and important strategic regions.