The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #284 on Russia

August 17, 1983

August 17, 1983 | Backgrounder on Russia

Moscow Eyes the Caribbean

(Archived document, may contain errors)

2.8 4 August 17, 1983 MOSCOW EYES THE CARIBBEAN INTROD UCTION The Reagan Administrationis recently stepped-up attention to the Marxist guerrilla challenge in El Salvador has highlighted the growing Soviet involvement in the Caribbean region. singling out the arms supplies carried by the Soviet transport ship, the Alexander Ulyanov, the President merely noted the tip of a large iceberg. Moscow long has eyed the Caribbean, and the Soviets have geometrically increased their presence in the area from Nicaragua to Cuba to Grenada, over the past several years.

The c onstruction of a new airstrip at Port Salines on the Caribbean island of Grenada could threaten Caribbean security. This facility will have the capacity to accommodate every war plane in the Soviet and Cuban inventory. Grenada is closely allied to Cuba, a n d the possibility that its new airfield may be opened to Soviet air traffic emphasizes the importance of the Caribbean region to the United States and the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its local proxies In publicly The Caribbean has received only s p oradic attention over the years. Interest soars for a few months in the wake of a direct challenge, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, followed by an ex tended period of neglect based in part on the assumption that U.S security interests in the area are un a ssailable a growing military threat in the Caribbean region--directly and through its allies. Since 1979, the Soviets have gained access to Nicaragua and Grenada, adding these strategic areas to their, already well-stocked and well-fortified base in Cuba. These gains represent an ominous growth in Soviet power and ability to inflict a high toll on U.S. interests. During a six-month period in World War 11, for example, the Germans sank more Allied shipping in the This complacency is unwarranted. The Soviet Union now poses 2 Caribbean than in the Atlantic and naval base.

In 'addition to 'these territor they did not even have a local a1 gains, the numbers of Sovier personnel and arms in the area have increased markedly in the last three years. There are now mo re than 8,000 Soviets in Cuba and 70 in Nicaragua. The embassy staff in Grenada also has been grow- ing Soviet arms deliveries to Cuba in the last two years are three times the yearly average since 1962 delivering arms directly to Nicaragua. Soviet ships a re also The Soviet threat is directed at the strategic backdoor of the United States, with the intention of making it more difficult to project U.S. power into Europe or Asia. Already the Soviets' Caribbean involvement has enhanced their intelligence gath ering operations and provided more logistical support for their African activities. If the U.S. does not respond to Soviet strategic gains, the USSR will soon be able to threaten American commerce and security.

BACKGROUND The Caribbean is important to the United States geographic ally! economically, and militarily. Indeed 44 percent of all foreign tonnage that enters this country transits the Caribbean. To get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf Coast is not eas y. The area is dotted by thousands of islands and dozens of small states.

The islands, which run in a generally southeasterly direc- tion from Florida to the northern tier of South America, form relatively narrow.passages through which commerce must naviga te. This means that a hostile power could threaten these Ifchoke points with relative ease. The Strait of Florida, between Key West and Havana, is one of the wider passages, yet it is but ninety miles across. The straits between Cuba and Haiti, between th e tiny island states of the Lesser Antilles, and between Venezuela and Grenada are all narrower.

Traditionally, U.S. security policy has been to maintain military dominance in the region, or at minimum, to exclude clearly hostile and powerful foreign rival s. This policy was violated when the U.S. allowed Cuba to become a Soviet forward base. The last two decades, and the last four years in particu- lar, have seen important strategic gains for the Soviets. In March 1979, the government of Grenada fell to a l eft-wing military coup and immediately began moving into the Cuban/Soviet orbit. In-July of the same year, the government of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua fell to revolutionaries. who quickly evidenced their admiration for, and allegiance to, the Cuban di ctator, Fidel Castro.

Both these states are now in the process of building air- fjelds which will accommodate long-range Soviet warplanes, and 3 when completed, will enhance incrementally the ability of the USSR to threaten directly the commercial lifeline s and territory of the United States. Soviet interest is obvious from the number of Russians stationed in the area as technicians and advisors.

There are currently 2,500 Soviet military advisors in Cuba, along with 6,000 to 8,000 civilian advisors and a combat bri9ade.l Nicaragua provides a base for 70 Soviet agents, most of whom operate in the state security apparatus.

SOVIET OBJECTIVES IN THE CARIBBEAN Soviet goals range from low-risk, low-priority items to those entailing a greater risk but also offering a larger return.

Three examples of low-risk objectives are: British colonies in the Eastern Caribbean; using revolution in the Caribbean to foster illegal immigration to the U.S and, facilitating Cuban participation in the lucrative U.S. drug trade, wh ich helps the Cuban government raise money and corrupts U.S. society A much more important Soviet goal is to enhance their ability to gather information from the U.S. and its allies electronically. Naval bases increase the mobility and range of Soviet sur f ace ships that act as intelligence collectors the Caribbean allows Moscow to increase reconnaissance flights as well. Cuba has served for'years'as a base for Soviet TU95 I'BearIl reconnaissance planes that has enabled them to fly from Northern Fleet bases in the Soviet Union, monitor commercial and naval Additional airports in Nicaragua and Grenada will increase Soviet espionage capabilities in the hemisphere, especially in Central America and the northern tier of South America. Cuba,'Nicaragua and Grenada form a well-located geographic triangle, which puts the entire Caribbean under the Soviets' watchful eyes.

A third form of intelligence gathering involves the use of field agents whose Direction General de Intelegencia (DGI) is, for all prac tical purpose s, an extension of the KGB.2 language, Cuban operatives have the ability to work in areas constrained. splitting the former The availability of airfields in widely scattered parts of traffic in the Atlantic, and land at two airports near Havana. I The Sov i ets are aided in these efforts by Cuba Besides fluency in the where the Soviets, for political or cultural reasons, may feel Testimony by Fred C. Ikle, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, before the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs of the Sen ate Foreign Relations Committee, March 14, 1983.

The U.S. Navy and the Caribbean Basin (Washington, D.C tegic and International Studies, Georgetown University, 1983 p. 42.

Center for Stra4 Support for African Activities Soviet policies in the Caribbean al so serve the USSR's designs in Africa. The sudden appearance of Cuban airborne troops in Angola in 1975 marked the beginning of Cuba's role as Soviet proxy in Africa. Castro now has 20,000 combat troops in Angola and about 12,000 in Ethiopia.3 Cuba and Af r ica will be made easier by the 9,800 foot runway in Grenada, scheduled for completion next spring or summer. This airfield will be capable of handling the largest Soviet cargo and transport planes. to Africa than Cuba, it is a convenient refueling point. T his allows more frequent flights involving a wider selection of air- craft. Cuba has played an active role in the construction of the airstrip, providing both workers and money.4 Grenadan Premier Maurice Bishop maintains that the airstrip is designed not f or military purposes but to exploit the country's tourist potential. However, the island has virtually no tourist related infrastructure warranting construction of an international airport, nor have there been any efforts thus far to build new roads or ho tels.

What has been built are a large supply depot and army barracks near the airport, capable of housing more troops than Grenada has in its entire army. Such construction hardly seems ideal for boosting the tourist trade Transportation between Since Gren ada is almost a thousand miles closer Interdiction of Trade Routes The ability of the Soviets and Cubans to operate far out into the Atlantic, which the Grenadan airstrip will provide, endangers U.S. security and commerce. In the event of an emer gency in Europe, in which the U.S. would have to resupply the NATO allies or reinforce U.S. troops, 75 percent of the men and materiel would have to go through the Strait of Florida, within easy reach of the Cuban warplanes. imported into the U.S. transits the Car i bbean Sea within easy reach of the choke points of the'caribbean. for example, is just north of Trinidad, a major transshipment point for the imported U.S. oil. Other transshipment points are located at St. Croix, Aruba, Curacao, Venezuela, and the Bahama s , all within range of existing or future Soviet installa tions. This means that if present trends continue, the Soviets In addition, half the oil Soviet access to Nicaragua and Grenada puts hostile forces Grenada 3 "Cuban Armed' Forces and the Soviet Mili tary Presence ,If U. S. Department of State Special Report #103, August 1982, p. 5.

Struggle for Survival American African Affairs Association, 1980).

Opposition in Grenada to Cuban and Soviet involvement in Grenadan affairs is growing according to Barbar a Crossette, writing in the New York Times August 9, 1983 See also James A. Miller Strategic Minerals SI the West (Washington, D.C.: may soon be in a position to threaten one of America's most im- portant lifelines the completion of the Grenadan airstrip w ill enable the Soviets to threaten Persian Gulf oil lanes before the tankers get near the Caribbean By extending Soviet reach into the Atlantic The U.S. also depends heavily on strategic minerals that come into the Caribbean. Bolivia, and other metals fro m the western rim of South America all transit the Panama Canal.s The South Atlantic routes are even more vital. chromium, indispensable in steel production, nickel, cobalt, and bauxite, used to make aluminum, travel the very routes that Grenada will be ab l e to threaten within one year.6 Of particular concern is the vulnerability of the Panama Canal. Much of the oil that the U.S. purchases from non-Persian-Gulf sources (Indonesia and North Slope oil, for example) steams through the Canal. Under the terms of the 1977 Panama Canal treaties, I U.S. warships have the right to transit the Canal lrexpeditiously,l' this means that they can go to the front of the line. The Canal is susceptible, however, to terrorism which the Soviets could sponsor. Interruption in U . S. access to the Canal would mean a serious lack of mobility for U.S. warships, restrict resupply of U.S. bases in Europe, and the Far East, and delay deliveries of oil Copper from Peru and Chile, tin from Virtually all American supplies of manganese and I Commerce depends on stability. Moscow need only threaten or destabilize countries such as.Trinidad and Tobago to disrupt trade. Possible Soviet measures, via proxies, could include sabo- taging facilities, fomenting strikes by dock workers or even sponso ring terrorist attacks on merchant ships A few such inci dents would make a port insecure.

Cuba as a Regional Power Although clearly dependent on the Soviet Union, Cuba has, become a military power in its own right. The Cuban army numbers 227,000 active troops (including 3,000 airborne) and 60,000 reservists, with 650 tanks.7 The navy consists o f 50 torpedo and missile attack boats, two attack submarines, a Koni class frigate more than 12 Turya class hydrofoil patrol boats and landing craft and the Air Force boasts 200 MiGs. In 1981 and 1982, the Soviets delivered about 66,000 tons of military e quipment to Cuba, more Bruce Weinrod. "Securitv Implications of the Panama Canal Treaties International'Security Review, Vol. IV, No. I11 (Fall 1979 p. 256.

See Strategic Minerals: A Resource Crisis (New York: National Strategy Information Center, 1981).

Jiri Valenta Soviet Strategy in the Caribbean Basin," Proceedings, U. S.

Naval Institute, May 1982. 6 than triple the annual average of the past twenty years. Soviets also supply transport and other logistical support sible for much' of the insurgency in Central America to say that Castro created the conditions for unrest; they had existed for some time. Salvador, is unite the guerrilla factions (usually the price for any material support train cadres, provide weapons, and encourage terrorism to stimulate general repression and weaken the targeted regime's legitimacy. fronts, making a pro-Castro (hence pro-Soviet) line.very likely if the guerrilla factions are successful. Having the Cubans do this involves less risk to Soviet prestige and personnel; it rep r esents no less danger to the U.S Cubans are currently stationed there, along with smaller numbers of Russians, East Germans, and Bulgarians. Adolfo Robelo, former member of the Sandinista junta, recently called Nicaragua an Itoccupied country, If where It n o crucial decision [is taken] without the approval of the Cubans.It8 This has been the case from the very start of the Sandinista revolution. Cuban advisers arrived in Managua three weeks after Somozals fall to begin reshaping the state security system an d implanting Cuban-style communi~rn The Castfo not only has intervened in Angola, but has been respon- This is no't What he has done in Nicaragua and El This allows Cuba to influence guerrilla Nicaragua is becoming a Soviet satellite Four thousand Compared with the 7,500-man National Guard that Somoza main- tained, the Nicaraguan army now numbers over 25,000 regular soldiers, with at least twice that number in reserve and.militia forces. They are supported by 25 Soviet T-54 and T-55 tanks, armored personnel carriers, Hip helicopters, heavy artillery, Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles, and 800 East German army trucks.

Even more threatening are the four airfields which are being enlarged to handle MiG-23s. Located at the four corners of Nicaragua, they event ually will serve as bases for offensive Soviet weapons within easy reach of the Panama Canal, Mexico, and the southern U.S.l0 Soviet TU95 reconnaissance planes from these bases could spy as far as the West coast of the U.S Grenada's potential usefulness t o Moscow is illustrated by the interception on a Brazilian stopover of Libyan arms bound for Nicaragua. If the Grenadan airstrip had been completed, no stop- over would have been necessary. Grenada also serves as a forward base threatening the northern tie r of South America. to the Guianas would make Soviet efforts to back guerrilla move- Its proximity ments in these states logistically easier Westwatch, Council for Inter-American Security, May 1983, p. 2.

Miguel Bolanos Hunter, interview at The Heritage Foundation, June 18 1983.

David C. Jordan U.S. Options--and Illusions, in Central America,"

Strategic Review, Spring 1982 lo 7 Ability to Strike the U.S. Directly The danger from Soviet satellites is not limited to smaller Caribbean states. MiG-23 bombers with Soviet pilots currently based in Cuba and reportedly scheduled for future basing in Nicaraguall can strike an increasing number of civilian and military targets throughout the South and Southwest. in Cuban and Nicaraguan military strength mean that t he U.S. will Increases have to commit more-forces to brock or-retaliate against such an attack.

Soviet TTJ95s with Soviet pilots have been visiting Cuba since 1969, and at least four of these have recently been fitted with bomb bays and Kangaroo nuclear mi ssiles useful for anti- submarine warfare and capable of reaching the U.S airfields can handle these planes and Cuba's 40 nuclear capable MiGs Nine Cuban Other offensive weapons in the Soviet/Cuban arsenal include Soviet submarines, which use the port of C ienfuegos and have been armed with Shaddock-type cruise missiles. Four of the 42 SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles, which precipitated the 1962 crisis, are believed not to have been removed.13 Although the use of these weapons would probably lead to a f ull-scale superpower conflict, Soviet intermediate goals would avoid this risk. In general terms, Moscow seeks to reduce U.S. options incrementally and increase the amount of men, atten- tion, and materiel the U.S. must.commit to the Caribbean reg10n.l By focusing on the Caribbean, the Soviets can force the U.S. to change its traditional policy of concentrating on European security.

No longer can Washington take for granted the security of the Western Hemisphere.

While the Soviets gain by fomenting instab ility, they incur little risk. Their commitment to Nicaragua and Grenada is indirect enough to protect their prestige in case of failure. At the same time, their support is clear enough to divert U.S. attention and to worry U.S. policymakers Nicaraguan Sa ys Missile Sites Being Built Washington Times, July 22 1983.

See also R. Bruce McColm Central America and the Caribbean: the Larger Scenario Strategic Review, XI, 3 (Summer 1983), pp. 28-41.

Sen. Steven Symms, Congressional Record, Vol. 129, No. 54, pp.S5233-5234.

See Sol W. Sanders, "Rapporteur's Report," in Western Hemisphere Stability The Latin American Co nnection (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, 1983 l2 l3 l4 8 8 AMERICAN RESPONSES U.S. Assets in the Region The U.S. must build on its strengths in the region. Its most important assets are U.S. military bases. The largest a re under the Southern Command in Panama-Fqrt Clayton Fort Sherman, and Fort Gulick. Formerly part of the Canal Zone, they are leased from the Panamanian Government under the terms of the Panama Canal treaties. The U.S. is allowed to maintain them until De cember 1999, after which their status is uncertain. Fort Gulick serves as headquarters for the Southern Command, which consists of 9,000 Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel, including 300 Special Forces and the 193rd Infantry Brigade.

The U.S. also maintai ns two bases on Puerto Rico: Roosevelt Along with Roads and the recently reopened Remey Air Force Base. the base at Guantanamo, Cuba, the Puerto Rican bases extend U.S reach in the northern Caribbean. While it is significant that the Caribbean Contingency Joint Task Force, headquartered at Key West, has been upgraded to a new U.S. military command, no troops have been assigned to it permanently.

The U.S. can count on the probable cooperation of some pro- West regimes in the area, such as Jamaica, the Domin ican Republic and Honduras. The U.S. is currently resurfacing several airfields in Honduras to facilitate U.S operations in Central America and demonstrate the American commitment to the area. The usefulness of these bases, however, depends. on Honduran c ooperation. Honduras and other small Caribbean states are subject to Cuban intimidation. Thus, these currently pro-West states may not remain so if the U.S. fails to counter Soviet inroads.

Policy Recommendations No significant change in the Caribbean situ ation is likely U.S. security policy in the Caribbean must have to take place without clear recognition in the U.S of the nature of the threat two complementary objectives: the hemisphere; and the threat of appropriate, more direct measures against the So v iets themselves relief of the immediate danger to In the short term, the U.S. should increase surveillance especially over Cuba, Nicaragua, and Grenada. ReCOMalSSanCe flights and satellite surveillance would allow the U.S. to deter mine whether the Grenad a n airstrip really is being used, as pledged, only for tourist traffic. Closer surveillance of Nicaragua would alert the U.S. to any attempt by the Soviets to introduce offensive weapons, and also might uncover more evidence of Nicaraguan activities to pro mote insurgency in El Salvador offensively oriented armies by Caribbean nations. Cuba and Nicaragua have forces far exceeding legitimate defense needs.

The U.S..should oppose emphatically.the existence of large, 9 Substantial reductions in these forces sho uld be a Drecondition for improvement of relations with the U.S malization of relations with Cuba or toward a resumption of aid No step; toward nor to Nicaragua should be taken before the size of their armies con- forms to .defense needs only. President R e agan is correct to exclude Cuba and its satellites from the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI). Economic sanctions against Cuba should also be maintained- to bring pressure on the Castro regime and to demonstrate continued American resolve In the long term, the U.S. must protect its territory and sea lanes as well as prevent more Caribbean regimes from falling under Soviet influence. For this, the U.S. needs a larger navy. It must be possible to station a carrier task force in the Carib- bean permanently wit hout drawing down U.S. naval forces elsewhere. A carrier task force would preempt Soviet inspired conventional military options by insuring a rapid and effective response.

The U.S. must become less dependent on Caribbean trade.15 Contingency planning to tr ansfer some trade from the Caribbean to the Atlantic ports, out of reach of Soviet Caribbean installations, should be undertaken. In the meantime, the strategic stockpile of minerals must be enhanced to increase U.S reaction time. I A long-term plan for a v oiding future Cubas, Nicaraguas and Grenadas must include economic assistance and other development strategies such as those embodied in the CBI. Economic growth will enable the states of the Caribbean to avoid the types of problems that Castro can exploi t Yet not all revolutionaries are motivated by economic grievances. Ideology or commitment to violence also may be motivating factors. Because professional revolutionaries will always exist and because they have the promise of training and support from Cas t ro and the Soviets, long-term economic vision must be accompanied by military measures to foster conditions that allow economic growth Chief among security related measures must be support for pro-West regimes inspired subversion. Attempts at subversion i n any friendly state should be met with a firm U.S. response. Vacillation only encourages the radical forces.

The U.S. should also support regional self-defense efforts.

Two attempts to overthrow the government of Dominica, for example, prompted the forma tion of a mutual security system in the Eastern Caribbean. A memorandum of understanding signed late last year by Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, and Dominica allows any signatory state facing internal subversion t o request aid from the others. This is clearly a response to the Grenadan revolution and has received strong moral support from the U.S These states will be the targets of Soviet They must be given the tools to resist See James A. Miller, op. cit 10 Mater i el support is appropriate as well. The U.S. could provide transport vessels and technical assistance. Increased security assistance to these states is also needed, given the harsh and threatening rhetoric of Castro and Grenada's Maurice Bishop. Such assis tance may require revision of the laws pro- hibiting aid to constabulary forces since some Caribbean states do not have standing armies.

To raise the U.S. military profile, more military advisers and trainers could be provided to states that request them w ould redress the enormous imbalance that currently exists between U.S. and Soviet advisers in Latin America. In 1981, Soviet advisers outnumbered their U.S. counterparts 50 to 1 tary command at Key West. Earmarking soldiers to the Caribbean would help the U.S. respond more effectively, were a Caribbean crisis to occur while U.S. troops were engaged elsewhere. Some or all of these soldiers could be trained as a Caribbean Rapid Deployment Force to deter or counter the Cuban airborne forces currently threaten ing the region. would be increased by strengthening existing U.S. bases and ac quiring new ones. Improving the airstrips in Honduras is a step in the right direction; the possibility of taking similar steps elsewhere should be explored.

The plan to base a squadron of missile armed patrol hydro- foils at Key West is a good idea, but it is insufficient. It will take a carrier presence and.more frequent military maneuvers to demonstrate U.S. strength adequately. The Soviets realize the importance of "showing t he flag" and have sent increasing numbers of their warships to Cuban ports in recent years. As a last resort the U.S. must be prepared to deploy troops to counter a Soviet or Cuban move that threatens U.S. security This The U.S. should also assign permane n t forces to the new mili The usefulness of such a force If the U.S. appears tentative or ineffectual, Caribbean states may seek an accommodation with Cuba and the Soviet Union giving Moscow a political advantage without firing a shot. Even larger states s u ch as Colombia and Venezuela may feel the need to gravitate toward strength. Colombia's efforts, which began last summer, to join Castro's llnonalimedll movement and the efforts of both states to welcome Cuba back into'the Organization of American States a re probably no-confidence votes for the U.S pletely,solve the problem. The Soviet threat in the Caribbean cannot be dealt with exclusively by actions against Grenada, Nicaragua, or Cuba. Only when its policies of destabilization and military challenge are made more risky and expensive to the USSR itself will Moscow alter 'its ways.

The U.S. should take advantage of Soviet military weak points. Aid to the freedom fighters in Nicaragua, coupled with the repeal or modification of the Boland amendment that pre vents None of the measures suggested thus far, however, will com 11 the U.S. from providing support for the overthrow of the Sandinista government, would take some pressure off the Salvadoran government by forcing the Sandinistas to use more of their vast military stockpile at home. Aid to the freedom fighters in Afghanistan would be an even more direct form of pressure. The result of these policies would be to confront the Soviets with a new reality: that Soviet expansion is going to entail risks and expe n ses record shows that Moscow moderates its behavior only in response to determined resistance The CONCLUSION The Soviet military threat in the Caribbean is mounting. The U.S. must redress the mistakes of the last twenty years which have allowed U.S. super i ority to slip away. Unless Washington acts now, the Soviets may be in a position to demand a larger role in the Western Hemisphere. They could use their growing advantage in the region as leverage to force the U.S. to include the USSR in regional arrangem e nts. Moscow could also demand that the U.S. sign nonaggression pacts with Soviet satellites on unfavorable terms. With each concession the U.S. makes, the Soviet presence in this hemisphere becomes more entrenched and legitimate in the eyes of the world A n y significant change in the Caribbean situation is going to require bold leadership, a clear recognition of the threat, and creative and long-term solutions. Bold leadership entails assign- ing priorities and making allocations at a time when military and foreign aid budgets are under increasing attack A recognition that the threat is Soviet inspired will help decision makers anti cipate and perhaps forestall Soviet moves. This is where cre- ativity, imagination, and long-term vision come in. The problem c annot be solved tomorrow nor will it go away tomorrow. But it is threatening U.S. survival today I i i I I I I I I I I I Edward Lynch Policy Analyst

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