By Philip Brenner. Philip Brenner, co-editor of "The Cuba Reader," teaches international relations .
The Christian Science Monitor
MIKHAIL GORBACHEV's recent trip to Cuba created considerable confusion in Washington. Some said he was a puppeteer who tried to pull back on the strings of his puppet. Others argued that Mr. Gorbachev was the stern parent who went to lecture his errant child. The most extreme warned that we should not consider his mission a benign one. He is, they contend, no less than a wily general who conferred with his rapid-deployment-force commander about plots to cause the United States trouble.
These explanations, however, missed the essence of the Soviet- Cuban relationship, which is much like Israel's relationship to the United States. Compare Israel with Cuba:
Threat perception: Both countries see fundamental threats hovering at their borders. Their neighbors have tried to isolate them, and several times have tried to overthrow their governments. Israel's nearby enemies still refuse to recognize Israel and maintain threatening postures. Cuba's principal worry, the US, also refuses to discuss normalization of relations and continues to impose a hostile trade embargo.
Military capability: Israel and Cuba have built the most sophisticated and successful military machines in their regions. In both cases, their defense depends on the continued support from a superpower, and each has linked its armed forces and intelligence closely to the US or Soviet Union.
Superpower relations: Israel is less than 1,000 miles from the USSR; Cuba is less than 100 from the US. Yet each is enmeshed with the superpower that's farthest from it. Israel's annual per capita aid from the US is about $750; Cuba's per capita aid from the USSR is about $500. Israel's economy is tied to the West. Cuba is a member of the communist trading bloc, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), and 85 percent of its trade is with CMEA countries.
Identity: Each country views its destiny in almost messianic terms. Both have small populations - Israel with 4.2 million people, Cuba with 10.2 million - that have transformed their countries against great odds. Israelis believe they have a divine injunction to rebuild the country as a Jewish homeland, and they have made the desert blossom. Cubans believe they are the vanguard of the third world, and their achievements in health care, education, and urban development are respected among poor countries. …