10. Issues Paper Prepared in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research1

To What Extent Will Soviet Policies and Activities In Central America and the Caribbean Affect US Interests?

Moscow is aware of US sensitivities, and of the President-elect’s stated views in particular, on the Soviet presence and activities in the Caribbean and Central America. Pending an assessment of the new Administration and of the opportunities for establishing a working relationship with it, Moscow probably will not gratuitously undertake provocative actions there that would prejudice the bilateral relationship.2 Nevertheless, the Soviets will continue to probe the parameters of US tolerance of their political-military initiatives in the region.3

Moscow claims that the Caribbean Basin is no longer a US sphere of influence and has taken actions, both overt and covert, whose aim seems to be to challenge the US position in this strategic zone.4 So far, however, the Soviets have attempted to broaden their own role and influence in ways that would avoid provoking an open confrontation with the US.5

Cuba as a Factor in the US-Soviet Regional Relationship

Cuba has been a sore spot in the US-Soviet relationship since the 1962 missile crisis, which delineated Soviet military frontiers there and laid the foundations for a future Soviet Caribbean presence. Soviet relations with Cuba in the interim have become something of an anomaly. Moscow is committed to keeping a communist regime in Cuba, and to this end it broadly underwrites Castro economically and militarily, but it remains ambiguous about the nature and extent of its commitment to Cuba’s military security. In this ambiguity, and the ways in [Page 21] which the Soviets maintain it, lies the source of greatest ongoing concern to US policy.

Upwards of 6,000 Soviet military personnel may now be in Cuba: military advisors, technical personnel, and a Soviet brigade. With the resolution of the 1962 missile crisis, in which the Soviets agreed to dismantle offensive (i.e., nuclear) weapons bases and systems in return for a conditional assurance by the US not to invade, the issue of Soviet troops in Cuba temporarily subsided. But the issue of the use of Cuba to enhance Soviet strategic capabilities repeatedly has arisen since then: e.g., in 1970, with the start of construction of a facility that appeared to support Soviet nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines; in 1978, with the delivery to Cuba of MiG–23 aircraft that are potentially nuclear-capable; and in 1979, with the identification of the Soviet brigade.

The Soviets have also projected their military presence into the region in other ways: there have been 20 deployments of Soviet naval vessels to the Caribbean since 1969, 19 of them stopping in Cuba; TU–95 reconnaissance aircraft have been deployed to Cuba to collect intelligence on US naval operations along the Atlantic coast.6

With the souring of US-Soviet relations in recent years, Moscow no longer saw prospects for a normalization of US-Cuban relations, as it did in the mid-1970s. If the outlook should become more favorable, it would undoubtedly back Cuban demands for the end of the economic blockade and of US air surveillance of Cuba and a return of Guantanamo. The Soviets are interested in US-Cuban normalization partly as a means of lessening, however slightly, their economic burden in Cuba and also of enhancing Cuba’s international image, but they might also fear the consequences for their political ties with Havana of an increased US presence. Furthermore, the Soviets may believe they have some leverage in Cuba that could be usefully exploited against the US: Brezhnev implied last summer that the USSR could retaliate in the Caribbean for US actions against the USSR on Afghanistan.

Soviet Role in the Central American Insurgencies

Apart from Cuba itself, no Soviet military personnel7 are known to be in any of the countries in the Central America/Caribbean area, nor is there confirmation of direct Soviet military aid. Through Cuba, however, and possibly through other channels, the Soviets in the last several years have given aid8 to the Nicaraguans and possibly other [Page 22] Central American insurgencies. Both Cuba and the USSR want to foster revolutionary change in the region, and it is likely that the Soviets at least acquiesce in Cuban inputs of materiel. At the same time, the USSR is careful to avoid open identification with Cuban military assistance efforts.

Moscow’s general line toward guerrilla movements in Central America, which it sees as the wave of the future, is one of encouraging leftist groups in each country to unite as a means of mounting effective opposition to existing rightist regimes. In backing local communists and other leftists, it has implicitly endorsed the belief of these groups that violence is their only road to power. Moscow may anticipate that some of the communist parties eventually will play key roles, but at this stage, it does not insist that communists be at the forefront of these coalition movements. In some instances—Nicaragua, for example—it has avoided identification with local communists and has fully backed the new leadership in the expectation that its political course will veer steadily leftward.

Meanwhile, the Soviets have expanded the web of official relationships established with Nicaragua’s ruling FSLN junta last spring when several cooperation agreements (economic, planning, agricultural, cultural/educational, party ties, etc.) were signed in Moscow. They have established contacts with Nicaraguan trade unions, signed a radio/TV agreement and begun9 to explore the feasibility of a major hydroelectric project. They have also established a direct air link with Managua.

In El Salvador, the Soviets may well have supported the formation of the United Revolutionary Directorate (DRU), the umbrella organization that directs the insurgency. If the ruling junta were to decide to accommodate the left, however, Moscow probably would encourage the DRU to cooperate in the expectation that the left would emerge as the main political force.10

Moscow rates the leftist configuration in Guatemala as in a politically immature stage, but it may in the future see exploitable opportunities if the leftist groups are able to rally behind a single leadership as they have in El Salvador. Moscow probably has similar, though more distant, hopes for the leftists in Honduras.

Setbacks in the Caribbean

If Moscow believed it was riding the crest of a wave last year, when Marxist influence in the Caribbean seemed on the rise, it probably [Page 23] now realizes that the tide is receding.11 Manley’s defeat in Jamaica probably came as no surprise to the Soviets. As it was, they did not want to underwrite a regime which, however friendly, had been unable to attract enough economic assistance from noncommunist sources to sustain itself. (The Soviets had made clear that they would not take on the Jamaican burden even to further the Marxist cause.) In Grenada, the East Europeans have joined the Soviets in supplying a modicum of economic and other forms of assistance to bolster the Marxists, but the Soviets are likely to doubt the viability of the regime.

Moscow has made overtures to the government-controlled labor movement in Guyana, and it tries to cultivate the Burnham regime even at the expense of the local communists whenever the prospects look promising. Its main avenue of penetration in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, given the lack of an official Soviet presence, is to work covertly with local communist parties against the pro-US regimes. Moscow limits itself to financial subsidies and tactical advice, but these activities include supporting the resort to violence by the local parties.

Extension of Soviet Influence by Other Means

Moscow is actively pursuing cooperation in the economic, technical, cultural, and other spheres. With the exception of Cuba, however, it generally has been unwilling to make long-term, costly commitments of economic aid to underwrite new clients. Its economic and technical assistance has been limited to a few countries (Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and to some extent, Guyana and earlier, Jamaica). Domestic Soviet economic stringencies and the traditional reluctance of most countries of the region to become closely associated with the USSR have been restraining factors.

Soviet aid might be more attractive in the future as these countries attempt to assert greater independence vis-a-vis the US and their other traditional Western suppliers of arms and economic assistance, but whether the Soviets will become more generous is questionable. In other spheres, such as educational and cultural cooperation, the Soviets prefer a slow but steady expansion which is intended to lay the basis for closer political ties.

Implications for US Interests

The growth of Soviet ties with these countries tends to complicate US relations with them. Some states, for example, may have second thoughts about supporting the US on political issues of marginal or secondary interest to them (e.g., denial measures on Afghanistan) if they believe trade and aid opportunities with the Soviet Union would [Page 24] be jeopardized. Substantial Soviet economic and technical assistance, linked to political and military objectives, could thus create new challenges to US interests in the region.

Moscow is well aware of US sensitivities, but it will not abandon the gradual buildup and intensification of its own activities in the region. Still it probably will continue to avoid provocative initiatives that could complicate its dealings with Washington, especially when it is attempting to shape a relationship with the new Administration.

In extending military assistance to Central American insurgencies, the Soviets will use indirect channels to minimize the risk of provoking the US. While this assistance apparently is on a small scale, it could eventually go beyond the transfer of light arms and involve military advisors and more sophisticated equipment. In Nicaragua, for example, the Soviets might be tempted to send military advisors, perhaps in return for access privileges for Soviet naval forces, but they would test each step carefully for the US reaction before proceeding to the next.12

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Haig Papers, Day File, Box CL 25, Jan. 30, 1981. Confidential. Drafted by Kulski (INR/SEE) on December 19, 1980; approved by Stoddard (INR/CA); cleared by Misback (INR/IAA) and Williams (INR/PMA). Spiers sent the paper to Haig under cover of a January 30 memorandum, in which he wrote: “Earlier I forwarded you a list of 37 issues papers prepared for you by INR. Attached are those dealing with Central America and the Caribbean, which you asked to see first. I will send you papers on other areas/issues in small batches in coming weeks.” (Ibid.)
  2. Haig wrote to the right of this sentence: “Not so are now doing this.”
  3. Haig placed a check beside the end of this sentence.
  4. Haig placed a check beside the end of this sentence.
  5. Haig wrote to the right of this sentence: “What would these [cause]? [illegible] even you have not shown such a point!”
  6. Haig placed a check beside the end of this sentence.
  7. Haig underlined “no Soviet military personnel.”
  8. Haig placed a check next to “aid.”
  9. Haig placed a check next to “begun.”
  10. Haig wrote to the right of this sentence: “Sure!”
  11. Haig underlined “that the tide is receding” and placed a check next to it.
  12. Haig initialed and wrote at the end of the report: “Excellent paper realistic & analytical. Only one problem. Why isn’t this info used in our policy?”