Fidel Castro toured the Soviet Union in 1963 at the invitation of the communist leader Nikita Khrushchev. During his 40-day trip across the USSR, Castro gave countless speeches in stadiums, factories, and town centers.
In one of those speeches, Fidel told a mass of people gathered in Moscow’s Red Square:
“The Cuban Revolution became possible only because the Russian Revolution of 1917 had been accomplished long before. Without the existence of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s socialist revolution would have been impossible…”[i]
Fidel had been influenced by the Soviet example years before he even declared himself a communist—and even before the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
In the book The World Was Going our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, former Senior Archivist of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, Vasili Mitrokhin claims that Fidel Castro declared he was a Marxist-Leninist as far back as 1953, during his guerrilla campaign against the Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Years later, when looking back at his beginnings Fidel stated, “we felt that Lenin was with us, and that gave us great strength in fighting.” However, the word socialism didn’t appear in his speeches until 1961.
Despite Castro’s early attachment to Russian communism, the Kremlin did not always feel similarly warm towards Fidel. During his exile in Mexico in 1953, Fidel constantly appealed to the Soviet embassy for arms to support his guerilla campaign. His appeals were repeatedly turned down. It wasn’t until December 27, 1958, that the Kremlin approved a limited supply of arms for Castro’s guerillas.
The only person that realized Castro’s potential early on was the KGB’s First Chief Directorate of the Foreign Intelligence Arm during that time, Nikolai Leonov. He met the Castro brothers in Mexico City in 1956. But Leonov’s interest in Fidel was not enough to impress the Party leadership. Even after Fidel took power in 1959, the Kremlin still doubted his abilities and his commitment as a communist.
The official diplomatic relations between the USSR and Cuba took place in May 1960, when the Soviet embassy opened in Havana. As Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew and senior Soviet archivist Vasili Mitrokhin wrote in their book, The Sword and the Shield, “Thanks to Castro and the KGB, the Soviet Union now had, for the first time in history, a foothold in Latin America.”
Despite their strong alliance, the Soviet Union and Cuba differed in certain ideological aspects. Castro wanted to export the Cuban revolution to the rest of Latin America. They believed that revolutions could happen at any moment, in any part of the world. For the Soviet Union, these ideas were against Marxism-Leninism, which believed in certain standards of modernization necessary for true communist progress.
Against Soviet advice, Cuba made unsuccessful events to set up guerilla bases in Peru, Guatemala, Venezuela, Argentina and Colombia to provoke revolutions throughout the 1960s. Russian criticism of these actions, combined with the death of Che Guevara, served to sour relations between the USSR and Cuba, and led Castro to openly criticize Marxism. The relationship deteriorated to a point where in 1968 Castro staged “microfaction” show trials to purge pro-Soviet loyalists within the Cuban Communist Party, by accusing them of “ideological divisionism.” During the trials, several party members were proven guilty on the basis of having been in contact with the KGB. As a result, the Kremlin cut back most of the economic support it provided to Cuba.
1968 was a hard year for Moscow, bringing not just the Cuban show trials but also the much more widely publicized Prague Spring—the period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia. The KGB was certain that Castro would lend his support to the Czech protest movement in order to score political points against the USSR, but to their surprise the Cuban leader condemned the liberalization movement. Castro’s token of loyalty towards the USSR proved to be somewhat ameliorative to the deteriorating relationship between the two countries.
Most claim that Fidel’s change of heart towards the Soviet Union happened when he realized the extent of Cuban economic dependence on the Soviet Union. As a reward for Cuba’s restored loyalty, the Kremlin bailed out the Cuban economy, and continued its support until the collapse of the USSR.
[i] Castro Speech at Red Square: Fidel Castro (1963)