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From the "Island of Freedom" to the Iron Curtain: Rethinking the Role of Soft Power in Soviet-Cuban Educational Exchange Programs

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From 1960 to 1991, tens of thousands of Cubans studied in the Soviet Union. This thesis adds nuance to existing theories of soft power by examining Soviet-Cuban educational exchange programs at both the state-to-state and people-to-people levels. Through an analysis of archival documents, statistical records, and expert testimony, I conclude that the soft power framework as it stands in the literature is insufficient to explain the dynamics of the exchange programs at the state-to-state level. While soft power is a useful lens through which to view the decisions of the Soviet government, it neglects the agency exercised by the Cuban government. The dynamics of Soviet-Cuban educational exchange programs were shaped more by Cuban interests than by Soviet ones. At the people-to-people level, I analyze interviews with Cuban graduates of Soviet educational institutions to explore the mechanisms by which the exchange programs functioned as a tool of Soviet soft power. I find that Cuban students' perceptions of their host country varied by the time period and location in which they studied. Their experiences were shaped both by the way in which they used Cuba as a reference point and by factors that had a concrete impact on their daily lives. iv
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