CubaBrief: Remembering Mikhail Gorbachev and the Castro regime’s rejection of Glasnost

Mikhail Gorbachev visited Cuba in April 1989.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, died on August 30, 2022. He is best remembered for his efforts to reform the Soviet Union through policies of Perestroika, and Glasnost, and the relatively peaceful liberation of Eastern Europe in 1989, and dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Perestroika recognized that economic central planning was a failure. Economic policies were pursued reforming and restructuring the Soviet economy. Glasnost, initiated by Gorbachev in 1985, was a policy that sought “more open consultative government and wider dissemination of information.” These policies were viewed with great hostility, and rejected by Havana.

Fidel Castro rejected these reforms, and repeatedly criticized them before and after Gorbachev’s April 1989 visit to Cuba. During the visit there was an attempt to highlight the continued good relationship between the two countries, but strains were evident.

The aftermath of the visit underscored the divisions between Castro and Gorbachev.

The June 12, 1989 arrest, show trial and execution on July 13, 1989 of Cuban Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, who had studied in the Soviet Union, and had close ties there was seen as sending a message to officials sympathetic to Glasnost and Perestroika.

Cuban Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez had close ties to the Soviet Union

In August 1989, the Castro regime censored the Soviet publications, Sputnik and Moscow News.

In a speech published in Granma on December 8, 1989 months after Gorbachev’s April 1989 visit to Cuba the Cuban dictator expressed his revulsion for the changes taking place, and defended censoring Soviet publications.

“It is disgusting that many are now dedicating themselves, in the USSR itself, to denying and destroying the historical feat and the extraordinary merits of that heroic people.” …”We could not hesitate to prevent the circulation of certain Soviet publications which have been against the policies of the USSR and socialism. They are for the ideas of imperialism, change and the counterrevolution.”

Gorbachev was a committed Marxist-Leninist, but unlike Fidel Castro, he was unwilling to engage in the wholesale violence to attempt to hang on to Eastern Europe. Violent efforts to crack down on the Baltic States to keep them from leaving the USSR failed. This led to a failed coup by hardliners against Gorbachev in August 1991 that combined with the fiascos in Afghanistan (1989) and Chernobyl nuclear disaster (1986) led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Paul Kengor in his August 30th essay in The American Spectator Mikhail Gorbachev Meets His Maker Did he die a Christian? Only the Lord knows” cites an excerpt from the Soviet leader’s speech on December 25, 1991 that [Gorbachev] had stood “firmly … for the preservation of the union state, the unity of the country. Events went a different way. The policy prevailed of dismembering this country and disuniting the state, with which I cannot agree.” He lamented the “breakup” of Soviet “statehood” and “the loss” of, curiously, “a great country.” Gorbachev would reiterate that position over and over in years ahead. In April 2006, he told USA Today that “The Soviet Union could have been preserved and should have been preserved.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Cuban President Fidel Castro talk before signing agreements in Havana, Cuba on December 14, 2000.(AP: Alexander Zemlianichenko)

This is a sentiment shared by former KGB officer, and current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who invaded Ukraine, to recreate the Russian empire. In 2005, Putin said “First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Both are wrong. President Ronald Reagan, who correctly identified the Soviet Union as an evil empire, was right and “it was time to shut it down.”

Cuba in 2022 is the most miserable country in the world, according to Hanke’s Annual Misery Index, with a regime that is willing to visit violence on its citizenry, and to continue to export its communist model to other countries is further evidence that Gorbachev made the right choice on Christmas day in 1991.

The American Spectator, August 30, 2022

In Memoriam

Mikhail Gorbachev Meets His Maker

Did he die a Christian? Only the Lord knows.

by Paul Kengor

When I heard about the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, I sighed. He was one of the final remaining pivotal figures in the end of the Cold War: Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Václav Havel, Boris Yeltsin, and Lech Wałęsa. Only Wałęsa remains. Gorbachev was 91 years old; he lived much longer than many expected. It’s a historic loss.

I sighed for an added reason. I have written so much about Gorbachev, in so many articles and books, that it’s impossible to try to sum up the man’s life and legacy. Where to begin?

It’s a daunting task, but I think I can add two worthwhile things that others will ignore or get wrong in their tributes to Gorbachev.

First, most of the world will focus on Gorbachev’s role in the collapse of the USSR and invoke him as the hero of Soviet disintegration. The truth is not so tidy. In reality, Gorbachev’s goal all along was to preserve the USSR. Unlike Ronald Reagan, whose goal was to break up the Soviet Union, Gorbachev tried to keep it together, so much so that he repeatedly used force in several Soviet republics (including the Baltic states) in his final years in power.

To his credit, Gorbachev wanted a kinder, gentler, non-totalitarian Soviet Union, even a politically pluralistic one. In February 1990, he formally stripped the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of its sole monopoly on political power when he repudiated Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution. That was a huge positive change, and only he had the power to enact it. But still, he strove to keep the union together. He said so publicly until the very end.

That end came, providentially, on December 25, 1991, Christmas day — a celebration that the Bolsheviks banned in the USSR. That day, Gorbachev called President George H.W. Bush to say: “You can have a very quiet Christmas evening. I am saying goodbye and shaking your hand.” He informed Bush of the inevitable, namely that he was resigning his position as head of the USSR, a country that by then effectively no longer existed because every single republic had declared independence in 1990 and 1991.

That evening, Gorbachev went on Soviet television to announce he was resigning his post. He began his December 25 resignation speech by noting that he had stood “firmly … for the preservation of the union state, the unity of the country. Events went a different way. The policy prevailed of dismembering this country and disuniting the state, with which I cannot agree.” He lamented the “breakup” of Soviet “statehood” and “the loss” of, curiously, “a great country.”

Gorbachev would reiterate that position over and over in years ahead. In April 2006, he told USA Today that “The Soviet Union could have been preserved and should have been preserved.”

No, it should not have. As Ronald Reagan said, it was an Evil Empire, and “it was time to shut it down.” Gorbachev helped shut it down, but the way it unraveled was not what he intended. Still, he deserves credit for helping to peacefully end a Cold War that few of us would have expected to end peacefully. If you had told any of us in 1981 that by 1991 the USSR would cease to exist, we might have assumed it was annihilated in nuclear Armageddon. That nuclear nightmare never occurred, and that was a credit to Gorbachev, Reagan, John Paul II, Thatcher, and the other great leaders of the day.

[ Rest of article ]

Reuters, August 31, 2022

While Rest of EU Mourns, Baltics Recall Gorbachev as Agent of Repression

By Reuters | Aug. 31, 2022

Flowers are placed in memory of the final leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, who died at the age of 91, at the office of the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow, Russia, August 31, 2022. Wikimedia Commons.

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) – Widely praised in the West as a towering statesman who helped end the Cold War, Mikhail Gorbachev was remembered in the Baltic states on Wednesday as a repressive autocrat who unsuccessfully tried to stop them from breaking away from the Soviet Union.

The last Soviet leader, who died aged 91 on Tuesday, tried to prevent Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from seceding after all three declared independence in 1990 after five decades under Moscow’s rule.

In January 1991, Soviet tanks rolled into the Lithuanian capital Vilnius to stamp out the pro-independence movement.

Fourteen civilians died, some crushed under the vehicles’ tracks, and around 700 were injured, according to Lithuanian prosecutors who brought charges against Soviet officers and troops involved in the incursion.

“Lithuanians will not glorify Gorbachev,” the country’s Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, tweeted on Wednesday.

“We will never forget the simple fact that his army murdered civilians to prolong his regime’s occupation of our country. His soldiers fired on our unarmed protesters and crushed them under his tanks. That is how we will remember him.”

The repression was in vain. After a failed coup by Soviet military hardliners in August 1991 undercut Gorbachev’s authority, Moscow acknowledged the Baltics’ independence the following month, precipitating the end of the Soviet Union.

“The world remembers his good deeds, but no less important is that he contributed to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Robertas Povilaitis, whose father Apolinaras was killed by the Soviet army in Vilnius in January 1991.

“There is a dark side to the man whom the West values, respects and mourns,” he told Reuters.

At the time of Gorbachev’s death, a Vilnius court was awaiting his submission in a civil lawsuit filed by Povilaitis and other relatives of those killed in the crackdown.

A Lithuanian court has already found former Soviet Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov and 66 other former military officials guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for their roles.

Gorbachev, whom prosecutors did not charge, declined to testify. The civil lawsuit claims Gorbachev, in control of the military, did nothing to prevent the bloodshed.


For many throughout the Baltics, the overwhelmingly positive tone of tributes from prominent figures elsewhere in the European Union to Gorbachev – awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, the year after the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall – is irksome.

“We Easterners don’t matter, our tragedies are irrelevant,” tweeted former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

Six civilians including a schoolboy were killed by Soviet troops in Latvia in January 1991, all but one during an attempt to take over a building of the pro-independence government in Riga.

“Against Gorbachev’s will, Latvia, too, regained its independence,” Latvian President Egils Levits tweeted.

Civilians also died in other Soviet republics at protests while Gorbachev was in office, including in Georgia in 1989 and in Kazakhstan in 1986.

“The evaluation of Gorbachev depends on who does the evaluation,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told Reuters in a statement.

“I think of him as a jail warden, who decided to ‘reform’ the jail by repainting its facade. Countries on the outside saw the changing facade of that prison, while we saw the jail from the inside.

“But the prisoners wanted freedom, and they broke out, and they did it against Gorbachev’s will.”

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, editing by Gwladys Fouche and John Stonestreet)

Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.

From the archives

The Washington Post, August 4, 1989


HAVANA, AUG. 4 — Cuba’s Communist Party has banned the circulation of two Soviet publications that it says promote bourgeois democracy and the American way of life, the official newspaper Granma said today. The ban on the two Soviet publications, the weekly Moscow News and the monthly Sputnik, was disclosed in an editorial in Granma headlined: “An unavoidable decision, consistent with our principles.”

The disclosure seemed in line with recent comments by President Fidel Castro, who has held power since 1959 and has vowed to continue Cuba’s hard-line communist policies despite Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization policies in the Soviet Union, Cuba’s most important ally. The two periodicals were accused of “justifying bourgeois democracy as the highest form of popular participation and with a fascination for the American way of life.”

“We are fighting for socialism and communism and therefore publications like these do not correspond with our reality or interests and are not for us,” the editorial said.

The Moscow News is one of the most liberal publications in the Soviet Union and contains forthright criticism of Soviet society. Sputnik, contains original material and reprints of other articles which are of less political importance within the country but liberal in tone.

Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1989

No Quality of Mercy

L.A. Times Archives

July 11, 1989 12 AM PT

It is possible that Cuban Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez will be spared from a firing squad by the his old friend and leader, Fidel Castro, but it would be out of character for the Cuban dictator. Castro has decided that his island’s future lies in the most rigid and unforgiving Stalinist Communism, including purges and show trials for those unfortunate apparatchiks who stray from the party line.

Straying from the line may well be what doomed Ochoa and three other Cuban army officers who were convicted in televised trials last week of smuggling drugs and other crimes. In publicly admitting that high-level government officials were involved in drug smuggling, the Castro regime contradicts a long-standing denial of drug shipments through Cuba.

Few ever believed that, and some of his fiercest critics, including officials in the U.S. government, are convinced not only that Cuban officials are involved in drug trade, but that Castro himself has a hand in it. There is no real evidence that Castro is directly involved, but it strains credulity that high-ranking Cuban military officers could engage in illegal activities without the jefe maximo of that tightly controlled island knowing something about it. So there must be more to this case than a sudden decision by Castro to punish drug traffickers.

The Ochoa trial may be as much political as criminal. Ochoa is not just any general. He is a veteran of the Cuban revolution and commanded troops for Castro in Ethiopia, Angola and Nicaragua. Ochoa may have been Cuba’s most popular man in uniform next to Castro. And that may have been why Castro and his heir-apparent, brother Raul Castro, saw Ochoa as a threat.

Ochoa was educated in the Soviet Union, and has close ties there. He was one of the few Cubans with enough prestige and power to disagree with Castro on the merits of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reforms and the need for similar experiments in Cuba. Castro has made it very clear he wants no perestroika and glasnost on his island, and putting a popular and respected leader like Ochoa up against the wall may be one way of reminding everybody in Cuba who’s in charge. That’s the way Josef Stalin did it during the darkest days of Soviet history.

The Washington Post, April 4, 1989


By David Remnick and

Julia Preston

April 4, 1989

HAVANA, APRIL 3 — On the first day of summit talks between Mikhail Gorbachev and Fidel Castro, a senior Soviet official took issue today with a basic tenet of Cuban foreign policy by emphasizing Moscow’s own opposition to the export of revolution. The two leaders themselves, however, carefully avoided any public expressions of friction over their ideological differences. Gennadi Gerasimov, the Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters that “we are against export of revolution,” adding: “The Cuban revolution, for example, had its own local roots.”

While Gorbachev’s “new political thinking” has long ruled out foreign military adventures, the statement is especially controversial now in the Cuban context. On the eve of Gorbachev’s visit, Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Raul Roa had restated Cuba’s belief that it has a “right” to support revolutionary movements in the region because the United States continues to provide support for counterrevolutionaries, specifically the Nicaraguan contra rebels.

Cuba denies it is providing secret arms aid to the Marxist guerrillas fighting the government of El Salvador. Nevertheless, Secretary of State James A. Baker III recently issued a policy declaration to U.S. officials that dismissed the prospect of improvement soon in relations between Washington and Havana because, he said, Cuba continues to support revolutionaries in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Ending a rigorous first day of meetings, Castro said that he and Gorbachev had talked “in a family-like atmosphere.” As he stood in front of the Palace of the Revolution, where he met during the day with Gorbachev, Castro waved away a reporter who asked him whether they had discussed glasnost, Gorbachev’s policy of open debate in the Soviet Union. “We talked about an infinite number of things. It would take us a month to finish talking about all the things we want to,” Castro said.

Castro’s remarks topped a day when both leaders preferred to remain silent rather than answer persistent press questions about how they are handling their different points of view. Earlier in the day, when a reporter asked Gorbachev if Soviet-style change should come to Cuba, Castro took the Kremlin leader by the arm, tried to lead him away and said of the press, “They are all North Americans. You don’t have to talk to them.” Gorbachev gave only a quick and mild answer. “There is change going on everywhere,” he said, and walked off with his Cuban host.

Gorbachev and Castro have taken different ideological paths, with the Soviet Union moving toward liberalization of its economic and political systems while Havana has hardened its line, rejecting market methods, freedom of information and moves toward democracy. Soviet officials have said that Gorbachev would not reduce his economic support of Havana, but Gerasimov said today that Moscow would seek a “gradual balance of our economic ties,” including an increase of Cuban exports to the Soviet Union.

Castro also cast some doubt on persistent speculation in Havana that Gorbachev will pardon Cuba’s foreign debt to the Soviet Union in a speech the Soviet leader is scheduled to make Tuesday before the National Assembly. “He didn’t say one single word to me” about Cuba’s debt, Castro said, adding, “That’s not our problem anyway. It is a terrible problem for the rest of Latin America, but not for us.” If Gorbachev does excuse the debt, the gesture will be more symbolic than substantive. Few analysts have ever expected Moscow, which continues to send $6 billion in aid each year to Cuba, to collect on the debt. According to a senior western diplomat who has worked here: “If Castro ever had to pay back the debt to the Soviet Union, Cuba would have the largest per capita debt in Latin America.”

In their 90-minute session at the Cuban Central Committee building this morning, Gorbachev gave an extensive description of the March 26 multicandidate elections in the Soviet Union, Gerasimov said. With Castro rejecting any similar program of democratization, the Soviet elections are said to be a sore point here. The official Cuban press has carried only a few details about the process and the startling results.

According to Gerasimov, Castro gave Gorbachev an extensive analysis of what he called the two central problems in Latin America: debt and the drug trade. Castro has gone out of his way to present a friendly face to Gorbachev and the hundreds of journalists who are here to watch. As the Soviet leader descended the steps from his plane yesterday, Castro began to beam, and the two men have been going out of their way ever since to show the world a relationship close and comfortable.

During the day, both rejected overtures from the western press for an interview. After Gorbachev had an impromptu, televised talk with a Cuban journalist, Castro said to the reporter, “Very well, congratulations, you have just gotten the first interview with Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Now, go sell it to American television!”

Castro has made considerable efforts to show the world that he is the man in charge of this island nation. Towering in height over Gorbachev, he squired the Soviet through two wreath-laying ceremonies today and a visit to Cuba’s national trade fair. As the two men stepped out of their limousine at Expocuba, a Cuban hostess handed Raisa Gorbachev a wreath of flowers. “See! You can’t say there is a cult of personality in this country, because there were no flowers for me,” Castro said. “We will share our wreath with you, then,” Gorbachev replied.

The New York Times, April 4, 1989


By Bill Keller, Special To the New York Times

April 3, 1989

Mikhail S. Gorbachev arrived in Cuba tonight to an effusive welcome from one of his prickliest allies, Fidel Castro.

On his first diplomatic venture to Latin America, the Soviet leader was greeted with a bear hug and kisses by Mr. Castro, who depends heavily on Soviet subsidies but has little use for Mr. Gorbachev’s more flexible brand of Communism.

Mr. Castro turned out much of Havana for the occasion and turned on the charm, clearly hoping to dispel any impression of friction.

Mr. Gorbachev’s mission is apparently to reassure the Cuban leader of continued friendship while enlisting his support for economic restructuring and detente diplomacy.

Further Image Building

The trip is also expected to pave the way for later visits to non-Communist countries in the region, part of Mr. Gorbachev’s strategy to give Moscow a more benign world image and expand its diplomatic and economic ties.

The congenial welcome today was in sharp contrast to the climate here in early December, when Mr. Gorbachev was originally scheduled to visit.

Two days before that trip was postponed by a disastrous earthquake in Soviet Armenia, Mr. Castro used an armed forces day speech to warn against political experiments that might undermine the authority of the Communist Party and against superpower detente that would leave third- world countries on the outs.

”We may be in for difficulties coming from the enemy camp and difficulties coming from the camp of our own friends,” he said then.

Today Mr. Castro, clad in his trademark military fatigues and accompanied by the entire Cuban Politburo, greeted the Soviet leader and his wife, Raisa, at their plane with a 21-gun salute.

Then the Cuban leader, who normally eschews motorcades, stood alongside Mr. Gorbachev in an open Chaika limousine for a 50-minute ride through Havana to an official guest house, past cheering, flag-waving throngs. The welcome was televised live, with upbeat commentary.

As Mr. Castro was escorting the Gorbachevs into the Government guest house, the two leaders stopped and talked briefly with Cuban journalists. ”All’s clear in our friendship, in our hearts, our souls and our faces,” Mr. Gorbachev said, according to a transcript provided by Prensa Latina, the Cuban press agency.

Throughout Havana during the day, the revolutionary defense committees that serve as Mr. Castro’s political block wardens mounted the equivalent of a civil defense exercise to turn out a huge public welcome.

Newspapers and radios promised a turnout of half a million people, a quarter of the capital’s population, for the first Soviet leader to visit this island since Leonid I. Brezhnev in 1974.

Residents interviewed around the city spoke guardedly, aware that Mr. Gorbachev’s brand of greater tolerance of dissent and economic experimentation have not found favor with Mr. Castro.

For many Cubans, the visit and speeches will be their first detailed exposure to the Soviet leader.

Mr. Gorbachev’s speeches and programs are reported selectively here in the Government-controlled press. Spanish-language Soviet publications are difficult to come by, and many residents profess only scant knowledge of the competitive elections, the freer debate and the market-oriented economic experiments under way in the Soviet Union.

”It is not permitted,” said one worshiper this morning at Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana. ”Nothing is permitted here.”

As the 10 o’clock Mass ended, several parishioners stood by the pews of the church, and after assuring themselves that visiting American reporters were not state security policemen, they spoke excitedly of their hopes that Mr. Gorbachev’s visit would inspire a political liberalization, including greater religious freedom.

Parishioners said they had gotten most of their news about Mr. Gorbachev from Radio Marti, the United States Government station that Mr. Castro regards as a vehicle of imperialist propaganda.

”Cuba needs perestroika and glasnost,” said one woman, who asked that her name not be used because ”you will leave, but we have to stay.” Thanking God for Gorbachev

”God has put Gorbachev in the world, and we are grateful,” she added.

Silvia Valdez, a teacher of Spanish literature, hailed Mr. Gorbachev as ”a man who understands that his country has problems, and he is doing things to change it.”

”We hope he will bring about a change in Cuba, to make it more democratic,” she said.

Mr. Castro, she added, ”doesn’t understand anything.”

”Maybe he will learn from Gorbachev,” another worshiper, Olga Lascan, put in hopefully.

But Rosendo Silvana Rivas, a pensioner, commented derisively, ”He never learned from his mother, so how would he learn from Gorbachev?”

Along the parade route and at Havana’s beaches, most residents welcomed the visit more generally, as a reassuring sign of continued relations with a traditional protector and supplier.

”He represents the Soviet people, and the Soviet people have strongly supported us,” said Marta Martinez, a 40-year-old housewife who was waiting outside the Soviet Embassy complex for a glimpse of the motorcade.

Although Mr. Gorbachev has been opening up Soviet society and his country’s economy while Mr. Castro has been reverting to traditional collectivist measures, Mrs. Martinez said she thought the process that Mr. Castro calls rectification was ”more or less the same” as Mr. Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Sitting with friends on the crowded beach at the city’s eastern edge, Armando Ramos, a young warehouse worker, said: ”I understand very well Mr. Gorbachev’s reforms. But I also understand the process here. In the future I think we will probably have the same process here as they have in the Soviet Union. But not now. We’re not at the same stage of development. We have a long way to go.”

In public, at least, both Soviet and Cuban officials have taken pains to play down any signs of friction between the two Communist leaders. Huge Logistical Effort

The Government mounted a huge logistical effort to assure an impressive crowd along Mr. Gorbachev’s route from the airport.

Residents said the decorations were considerably less elaborate than they had been for other high-level allies.

At a staging area in the Santos Suarez neighborhood, where hundreds of blue-shirted civilian militia gathered in a park to organize crowd control, a militia lieutenant and physics professor, Albert Peres, pronounced the city ”very enthusiastic and very happy.”

Brezhnev is now openly derided in the Soviet Union for presiding over an era of corruption and economic decline that is called ”the period of stagnation,” but such revisionism is not in fashion here.

Mr. Peres said such after-the-fact criticism of Brezhnev ”is rejected by all Cubans.”

”We think that it’s not correct to insult someone after he dies,” Mr. Peres said. ”He was a great friend of Cuba, no doubt about it. Everyone makes mistakes.”