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When Expectations Meet Reality: The Complex Dynamics of Soviet-Cuban Exchange Programs

Authors:

Abstract

From the establishment of Soviet-Cuban diplomatic ties in 1960 to the collapse of the USSR in 1991, tens of thousands of Cubans studied in the Soviet Union. Educational collaboration was crucial for their relationship, and its consequences for Cuba remain significant.
Isabelle DeSisto
Harvard University/University of Cambridge
ASEEES Convention Paper
November 6, 2020
When Expectations Meet Reality: The Complex Dynamics of Soviet-Cuban Exchange
Programs
Abstract:
From the establishment of Soviet-Cuban diplomatic ties in 1960 to the collapse of the
USSR in 1991, tens of thousands of Cubans studied in the Soviet Union. Educational
collaboration was crucial for their relationship, and its consequences for Cuba remain significant.
I spent one month in Moscow and two months in Havana researching this topic. In Moscow, I
worked in three state archives, surveying documents from the Soviet Communist Party, Ministry
of Higher Education, and Komsomol. I also conducted 7 interviews with former Soviet
government officials and professionals who studied alongside Cuban classmates. In Havana, I
conducted 57 interviews with diplomats and graduates of Soviet universities.
I find that these exchange programs reflected the complex relationship between two
countries whose individual objectives were not always aligned. Anxiety played a role at both the
state-to-state and people-to-people levels of the exchange programs. At the state-to-state level,
the Soviet hegemon did not make all of the decisions. In many cases, Cuba’s desire to preserve
its autonomy and anxiety about potential ideological contamination took precedence. At the
people-to-people level, anxieties arose as Cuban students arrived in the Soviet Union. Often,
their romantic expectations of a socialist paradise came into conflict with the Soviet reality.
Cuban graduates returned with a much more complicated perception of the USSR than Soviet
authorities might have anticipated—or desired.
When Expectations Meet Reality: The Complex Dynamics of Soviet-Cuban Exchange
Programs
Introduction: Breaching the Iron Curtain
“When we were getting close to entering Soviet waters near the Nordic countries, I
looked for the iron gates. I thought that they would open, you would enter, and then they would
close,” said Roberto, who was among the first Cubans to travel to the Soviet Union in 1960. 1
Roberto grew up in Havana before the Cuban Revolution, and he was used to watching American
movies that portrayed Soviets as villains, separated from the democratic world by a literal iron
curtain. In the years that followed the Revolution, however, the Cuban mediascape was flooded
with pro-Soviet propaganda. Cubans who followed Roberto set off for the Soviet Union with a
highly romanticized image of the country. “[The Soviet Union] was a dream,” said one.2 Others
described their vision of a “paradise,” a “perfect country,” and “the epitome of splendor.”3
Preparing to depart, Claudia “had the best opinion that one could possibly have about a country.”
She viewed the USSR as an example for Cuba to follow. “Now I am going to see what real
socialism is!” she thought to herself.4
Between 1960, when the Cuban and Soviet governments reestablished diplomatic
relations in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, and 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed into
15 independent republics, tens of thousands of Cubans studied in the USSR. 5 Soviet-Cuban
relations are typically viewed through the limiting prism of Cold War geopolitics. Much has been
written on the would-be nuclear disaster of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Cuba’s economic
dependence on the Socialist Bloc. Some scholars have focused on the legacy of Soviet-Cuban
cultural exchange, including tourism, music and film, consumer products, and Soviet-Cuban
marriages. But Soviet-Cuban educational collaboration is largely absent from the historical
conversation, and the stories of Cuban graduates of Soviet universities remain untold.
What role did student exchanges play in Soviet-Cuban relations, and what were
their consequences for Cuba? To answer this question, I analyzed Soviet-Cuban educational
exchange programs on both the state-to-state and people-to-people levels, using extensive
archival and interview data. First, I collected documents from the Soviet Communist Party,
Ministry of Higher Education, and Komsomol. Second, between June and August 2019 I
conducted 64 semi-structured interviews: 7 with former Soviet government officials and
professionals who studied alongside Cuban classmates, 5 with Cuban diplomats, and 52 with
Cuban graduates of Soviet universities. What emerged from my research is a nuanced picture of
the complex relationship between two countries whose individual objectives were not always
aligned.
Student exchanges as a barometer of Soviet-Cuban bilateral relations
When Fidel Castro and his revolutionary 26th of July movement seized power in Havana
on January 1, 1959, their victory “was received in Moscow with moderate enthusiasm.”6 Cuba
was far away and Castro had not yet proclaimed himself a communist. As relations between
Cuba and the United States worsened, however, Castro turned to the Soviet Union. In early 1960,
the USSR agreed to buy 100,000 tons of Cuban sugar and Cuba issued its first formal request for
Soviet military aid.7 Cuban advances also resulted in the first Soviet-Cuban agreement on
educational exchanges, which provided scholarships for Cubans to receive scientific and
technical training in the USSR.8 On May 8, 1960, the two countries re-established diplomatic
relations, and on April 16, 1961, the day before the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro
announced that his revolution was “socialist.”9
For Cuba, securing an alliance with the Soviet Union was crucial. Castro was convinced
that the American threat had not disappeared after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the U.S.-imposed
economic embargo was strangling the Cuban economy. For the Soviet Union, Cuba was a
geostrategic and propaganda goldmine. Cuba was geographically close to the USSR’s principal
Cold War adversary and Castro had proved that he was fiercely anti-American. Moreover, the
Soviet Union could hardly afford to abandon a fellow socialist nation.
Traditional accounts of Soviet-Cuban history portray the USSR as the puppet master and
Cuba its puppet—a satellite state doing the bidding of its wealthier, more powerful benefactor. In
reality, the relationship between the two countries was complex. Its honeymoon phase came to an
end in 1962, when Khrushchev withdrew Soviet missiles from Cuba. This “came as a shock” to
Castro, who had not been consulted and viewed the missiles as a guarantee against a U.S.
invasion.10 What followed was nearly a decade of economically close but politically tense
relations, in which Cuba increased its reliance on trade with the Soviet Union but openly
contradicted the Soviet position on political issues like support for revolutionary movements in
Latin America.11 This period of increased Soviet-Cuban tensions coincided with a decrease in the
number of Cubans studying in the USSR. During the 1964-1965 academic year, 1,116 Cubans
were enrolled in Soviet universities; by 1969-1970, the number had dropped to just 584.12
By 1970, however, Cuba had abandoned its indigenous model of development and
submitted to Soviet dominance. A combination of Soviet economic sanctions and Cuba’s failure
to deliver on its promised ten-million-ton sugar harvest prompted a re-evaluation of the Cuban
economy, after which Cuba adopted many Soviet organizational and economic models.13 Until
the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union kept the Cuban economy afloat and Cuba aligned its foreign
policy with that of the USSR. Cuba still pursued independent policies, such as backing liberation
movements in Africa, provided that this did not impinge on Soviet interests.14
It was during this period of Soviet hegemony that Cuba sent the greatest number of
students to the USSR. After the exchange reached its lowest point in the 1969-1970 academic
year, the numbers began to climb rapidly. In 1976 there were 2,454 Cubans in Soviet
universities, which exceeded the total number of students from the rest of Latin America.15 At the
height of the exchange in 1986, the number reached 10,905.16 During that year, there were more
students from Cuba than from any other single country, whether socialist or non-socialist.17
However, Soviet-Cuban relations found themselves on increasingly shaky footing during
Mikhail Gorbachev’s tenure as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Although
Castro did not criticize Gorbachev’s reform program publicly, privately he worried that
perestroika and glasnost would have negative implications for the legitimacy of the Cuban model
of socialism, which had borrowed many features from the Soviet system in the 1970s. Economic
relations between the two countries likewise became strained as Gorbachev began to limit costly
aid programs to developing countries.18 After reaching its peak of 10,905 in 1986, the number of
Cuban students in the USSR dropped to 7,369 by 1988.19 In 1991, only 3,672 remained.20
The trend in the number of Cuban students in the USSR can be interpreted as a barometer
for the status of Soviet-Cuban bilateral relations. When relations were going well, the number
grew; when they soured, it dropped.
The traditional narrative of Soviet dominance and Cuban acquiescence might lead one to
conclude—erroneously—that these patterns were driven by the Soviet Union. Perhaps the USSR
used student exchanges as a tool to punish Cuba for its disobedience in the 1960s and reward it
for its compliance in the 1970s. My evidence, however, reveals that Cuban actions and anxieties
were the primary factor influencing the scale of the exchange programs. Throughout the years of
my analysis (1964 to 1991), the Soviet Union pushed to maintain or increase the number of
Cubans studying in Soviet universities. Cuba’s behavior, however, was less consistent.
As tensions rose between Cuba and the USSR in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis,
the Cuban government grew anxious that extended studies in the Soviet Union would jeopardize
Cubans’ loyalty to their home country and expose them to the dangerous political influence of
other Latin American students, whose views on Cuban support of revolutionary movements in
the region contradicted the official Cuban line. Determined to maintain its autonomy, Cuba
pulled back from the exchanges, both sending fewer students and recalling some Cubans in the
midst of their studies. From 1970 to the mid-1980s, the Soviet-Cuban alliance reached its high
point as Cuba abandoned its own model of development in favor of the Soviet model. During
this period, Cuba disregarded its concern for ideological autonomy. Prioritizing economic and
geopolitical concerns, the Cuban government decided to send greater numbers of students to
Soviet universities. Finally, during the late 1980s, the Cuban government’s political vision came
into conflict with Gorbachev’s reform program. Concerned that its students would either defect
from Cuba or be infected with political beliefs that could undermine the Cuban revolutionary
project, Cuba once more prioritized its autonomy by underfilling admissions quotas and ordering
students to return home.
The number of Cubans studying in the Soviet Union increased only in the period lasting
from 1970 to the mid-1980s, when Cuban and Soviet strategies converged. In the 1960s and late
1980s, the numbers decreased, despite Soviet desires to maintain the exchange programs. This
pattern demonstrates that Cuban actions shaped the course of the programs. Thus, in the field of
educational collaboration, Cuba was not a simple puppet.
Anxieties at the people-to-people level
Most Cuban students in the Soviet Union coincided with an historical period often
referred to as “late socialism.” During late socialism, argues Alexei Yurchak, Soviet citizens no
longer subscribed to the hollow ideological discourse of state organs, they felt alienated from the
formalistic rituals of Komsomol and Party meetings, they listened to Western music, and they
made jokes about Brezhnev. Yet the vast majority still believed in the “fundamental values,
ideals, and realities of socialist life,” like equality, community, and education. 21 Cuban students,
however, came from a society where revolutionary enthusiasm had not diminished to the degree
it had in the USSR. They were unaware of the complex relationship Soviet citizens had
developed toward their government’s ideological project. Thanks to the robust pro-Soviet
propaganda they had assimilated in Cuba, their vision of the Soviet Union was that of a paragon
of socialism and an “example of development for Cuba.”22 Cuban students were also carefully
screened prior to departure. They were academically accomplished members of the Union of
Young Communists (UJC), the Cuban equivalent of the Komsomol. As one student put it, “If you
were not ideologically correct, you could not go to the Soviet Union.”23
Thus, the revolutionary context and ideals Cuban students arrived with differed
substantially from the socialist society they encountered in the USSR. Soviet students could
ridicule the formulaic nature of Komsomol meetings while still “engaging wholeheartedly” with
Komsomol work they found meaningful, and could tell political jokes while still having faith in
the “basic ethical ideals and promises of socialism.”24 To their Cuban classmates, however, these
behaviors seemed incompatible.
In the classroom, Cuban students came face-to-face with the contradictions of Soviet late
socialism. On the one hand, they were impressed by the quality of the education they received.
Their professors were accomplished and exacting, and their studies were comprehensive and
challenging. On the other hand, they found the mandatory ideologically-motivated courses dull
and noticed that their Soviet peers were far less committed to their schoolwork and Komsomol
duties than they had anticipated. For example, Soviet students poked fun at Communist Party
dogma and showed up drunk to Komsomol meetings. One of my Cuban interviewees described
how her Soviet classmates would often joke about the dogmatism present in the Soviet education
system. She recounted a popular anekdot that circulated in her university:
“If you wrote your thesis about pink elephants, the first thing [you had to
include] were the classic works of Marxism about pink elephants. Then you added
the communist party documents from all the various congresses about pink
elephants. Finally, it was what Brezhnev had said about pink elephants.” 25
In Cuba, this behavior would not be tolerated. While Yurchak and others argue that Soviet
students’ seemingly contradictory attitudes toward socialist values were an understandable part
of the paradoxes of late socialism, Cubans interpreted them as a sign that the Soviet model was
failing.
Outside the classroom, Cuban students’ experiences with socialist values were similarly
mixed. On the one hand, Soviet people from all walks of life treated Cubans very well, which
painted a favorable picture of Soviet internationalism and solidarity with socialist nations. On the
other hand, many Cubans were surprised by the inconsistencies they witnessed in their everyday
interactions with Soviet people, whose behavior often contradicted the ideological worldview
preached in university lectures.
One area in which Cuban students’ lived experiences contradicted the official narrative
they heard in university was the USSR’s relationship to the West. Beyond bankrolling Cuba’s
economic development, the Soviet Union was a crucial military ally. Despite Kennedy’s promise
in 1962 that the United States would not invade Cuba Castro viewed his northern neighbor as a
major military threat.26 When Cubans traveled to the USSR, they were excited to discover a
successful model of socialist development, proof that American-style capitalism was not the only
way forward. But when they arrived, they were surprised by the extreme measures the Soviet
government took to limit Western influence on Soviet society. For example, the government’s
strict anti-Western policy was reflected in restrictions on which foreign films could be shown in
theaters. However, Cuban students were even more surprised to find that these measures were a
colossal failure. My interviewees described a Soviet Union in which state-controlled media
painted Western countries as the enemy, but young people were captivated by Western culture.
Soviet students played American music in their dormitories and bought blue jeans on the black
market. While nobody expressed open admiration for the U.S., any item that had an American
flag on the tag was a prized possession.
While the Soviet government expected Cuban students to be dazzled by their host
country and to return to the island as skilled, steadfast Soviet allies, the reality was more
complex. On the whole, my Cuban interviewees were grateful to the Soviet government for the
education they received. But, more than anything, they valued the people they met while
studying in the USSR. Although relationships proved fleeting and the 6,000 miles between
Moscow and Havana made contacts difficult to sustain, my interviewees fondly recalled the
friends and lovers they left behind. They returned home with overwhelmingly pro-Soviet
attitudes, but this did not translate to blanket support for Soviet domestic and foreign policies.
Cuban students were generally positively oriented toward the Soviet Union, but they were not
always convinced that the USSR was a shining socialist beacon for Cuba to follow.
Conclusion
Far from being a simple story of Soviet dominance and Cuban acquiescence, the
dynamics of Soviet-Cuban educational exchange programs revealed the complex relationship
between two countries who did not always see eye-to-eye. Anxiety played a role at both the
state-to-state and people-to-people levels of the exchange programs. At the state-to-state level,
the Soviet hegemon did not make all of the decisions. In many cases, Cuba’s desire to preserve
its autonomy and anxiety about potential ideological contamination took precedence. At the
people-to-people level, anxieties arose as Cuban students arrived in the Soviet Union. Often,
their romantic expectations of a socialist paradise came into conflict with Soviet reality. Cuban
graduates returned with a much more complicated perception of the USSR than Soviet
authorities might have anticipated—or desired.
Notes
1 Unless otherwise noted, all interviews were conducted by the author in Havana, Cuba. Cuban businessman,
interviewed July 24, 2019.
2 Cuban professor, interviewed July 11, 2019.
3 Cuban professor, interviewed July 22, 2019. Cuban professor, interviewed July 23, 2019. Retired Cuban military
official, interviewed August 6, 2019.
4 Cuban professor, interviewed July 25, 2019.
5 Smaller numbers studied in other Socialist Bloc countries, like Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and the German
Democratic Republic. Cuban students, author’s interviews, Havana, July-August 2019. Unfortunately, I was not able to
gain access to official statistics of the Cubans who studied in other socialist countries.
6 Yuri I. Pavlov, Soviet-Cuban Alliance 1959-1991 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994), 3.
7 Alexandr Alexeev, “Cuba after the Triumph of the Revolution,” trans. Elizabeth D. Umlas (1984), 14, 20. I would like
to thank Rainer Schulz for providing a PDF copy of this text; no additional bibliographic information was available.
8 N. S. Kolesnikov, Cuba: educación popular y preparación de los cuadros nacionales, 1959-1982 (Mo scow : Editorial
Progreso, 1983), 206.
9 Pavlov, Soviet-Cuban Alliance 1959-1991 , 1; Anthony DePalma, “Fidel Castro, Cuban Revolutionary Who Defied
U.S., Dies at 90,” The New York Times , November 26, 2016 .
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/world/americas/fidel-castro-dies.html.
10 Jorge I. Domínguez, To Make a World Safe for Revolution: Cuba’s Foreign Policy (Cambridge, M A : Harvard U P ,
1989), 42.
11 “Soviet Policies and Activities in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Central Intelligence Agency Directorate of
Intelligence, June 25, 1982, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/19820625.pdf; Domínguez, To Make a
World Safe for Revolution , 71–72.
12 GARF (Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii), f. R-9606, op. 1, d. 2381, l. 1; d. 3956, l. 1.
13 Domínguez, To Make a World Safe for Revolution , 72–73, 180; Yoss, “Lo que dejaron los rusos,” Temas , no. 37–38
(September 2004): 139.
14 Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 , Envisioning Cuba (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Domínguez, To Make a World Safe for Revolution , ch. 4.
15 GARF, f. R-9606, op. 1, d. 7244, l. 2.
16 GARF, f. R-9606, op. 3, d. 1368, l. 1.
17 GARF f. R-9606, op. 11, d. 269, l. 64.
18 Pavlov, Soviet-Cuban Alliance 1959-1991, 112; Domínguez, To Make a World Safe for Revolution, 109.
19 GARF, f. R-9606, op. 3, d. 1368, l. 1; op. 1, d. 589, l. 1.
20 GARF, f. R-9661, op. 1, d. 851, l. 3.
21 Yurchak, ch. 1.
22 Cuban teacher, interviewed by author in Havana, July 19, 2019.
23 Cuban photographer, interviewed July 9, 2019.
24 Yurchak, ch. 3.
25 Cuban professor, interviewed July 3, 2019.
26 “Telegram of President Kennedy’s Reply to Chairman Khrushchev’s Letter of October 26, 1962,” October 26, 1962,
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, https://microsites.jfklibrary.org/cmc/oct26/doc6.html; Pavlov, Soviet-
Cuban Alliance 1959-1991 , 48.
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