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Caribbean Islands-The Cuban Presence

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Caribbean Islands Index

In an effort to break out of its isolation and expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba began a diplomatic and propaganda offensive in the early 1970s that included the Commonwealth Caribbean. Despite their concerns over Cuban subversive activities, as well as growing Soviet-Cuban ties and Cuba's intervention in Angola, the four newly independent Commonwealth Caribbean states--Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago--defied both the United States and the Organization of American States and established relations with Cuba in December 1972. Cuba subsequently established technical and commercial exchanges with Guyana and even closer ties with the Michael Manley government in Jamaica. Cuba's relations with the Manley government helped provide the Castro regime with the diplomatic support that it sought in Third World forums. The Manley and Castro governments became increasingly active in the Nonaligned Movement and were outspoken on Third World issues; both signed numerous agreements during the decade. Cuba also opened diplomatic ties with the Bahamas in 1976 but failed to make any further diplomatic advances in the Commonwealth Caribbean until Maurice Bishop seized power in Grenada in 1979.

Cuba's political offensive made use of Cuban cultural exports and "solidarity brigades" of teachers, doctors, engineers, and advisers to local political groups. Unable to serve as a development model, however, Cuba provided only revolutionary legitimacy and the means for seizing power. By the late 1970s, the Commonwealth Caribbean islands, particularly Jamaica, were clearly a principal focus of Cuban subversive efforts in the region (see Regional Security Threats, 1970-81, this ch.).

In addition to being concerned by Cuba's subversive activities in the Caribbean region and its close ties with Jamaica in the 1970s, the United States became increasingly concerned by Cuba's growing military capabilities. American military analysts noted that these capabilities posed potential threats not only to the Commonwealth Caribbean islands but also to the Caribbean sea-lanes. Furthermore, Cuba developed a growing capability in the 1980s to carry out amphibious operations against the Eastern Caribbean ministates. The Cuban navy's acquisition in 1982 of two Polnocnyclass amphibious landing ships from the Soviet Union, in addition to its smaller amphibious craft, gave Cuba the capability to place an initial assault force of about 1,000 soldiers, with either tanks or artillery support, on nearby island nations. In its 1986 Handbook on the Cuban Armed Forces, the United States Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that the Cuban air force and civil air fleet could land a force of 15,000 to 25,000 combat soldiers anywhere in the Caribbean Basin region within 2 to 3 weeks and have important elements in place within a few hours. Cuban merchant marine and fishing vessels also could transport personnel to any country in the Caribbean. The former has engaged in extensive training exercises for that very purpose. The United States is the only regional power with the means to repel such attacks.

Writing about choke-point warfare and interdiction in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean in 1887, Mahan stated that strategy was a study of positions and that positions should be considered for both their military and their commercial value. After a study of the passages, islands, and harbors of Cuba, he concluded that the island not only was an exemplary haven for submarines and torpedo boats but also held the key to the entire Caribbean Basin. By the mid-1980s, Cuba had the military capabilities to interdict vital sea-lanes in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and to control key passages. Cuba's strategic location between the Yucat√°n Channel and the Straits of Florida places the island in an excellent blocking position.

With extensive funds, equipment, and advice provided by the Soviet Union between 1978 and 1982, Cuba has built a modern air force, navy, and army with offensive interdiction capabilities. The Cuban air force's inventory of over 200 Soviet jet fighter-bombers and interceptors in the mid-1980s far surpassed the other air forces in the Caribbean Basin region. Nevertheless, Cuba's three squadrons of MiG-23s, with their 520-nautical-mile (964-kilometer) range, were capable of striking only three Commonwealth Caribbean members--Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands--as well as Hispaniola (the island containing Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and part of the Florida peninsula. The fact that all of the Eastern Caribbean islands and Venezuela are outside this range may help to explain why the 3,048-meter Point Salines runway in Grenada would have been of strategic value to the Cubans and Soviets.

The Cuban navy also posed a significant potential threat to sea-lanes in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. As a result of the acquisition of two Koni-class submarine warfare frigates in the early 1980s, the Cuban navy developed an ocean antiship capability for the first time. Cuba demonstrated its ability to project an offensive operation into the Caribbean in a May 1983 exercise. The Cuban antiship capability also included three Foxtrot-class diesel submarines and two highly capable kinds of missile patrol boats: Styx missile-equipped Osa-I- and Osa-II-class torpedo hydrofoils. These warships enabled the navy to conduct operations throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and, to a limited degree, in the Atlantic. The Cuban navy probably would use its Foxtrot-class submarines and missile attack boats as the primary means of disrupting the sea-lanes. These craft would be supported both by the Koni-class frigates and by the land-based aircraft of the Cuban air force. The navy's interdiction efforts could be augmented by vessels of the merchant and fishing fleets, which could deploy sea mines in the sea-lanes. The use of Cuba to support Soviet naval units was demonstrated in early October 1986 when a Cuban ship went to the rescue of a Soviet Yankee-class nuclear submarine that caught fire in the Atlantic and sank before it could be towed to Cuba.

Data as of November 1987

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