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Cuba devoted 9–13% of its GDP to military expenditures. Castro built up the second largest armed forces in Latin America; only Brazil’s were larger. From 1975 until the late 1980s, Soviet military assistance enabled Cuba to upgrade its military capabilities. Since the loss of Soviet subsidies Cuba has scaled down the numbers of military personnel, from 235,000 in 1994 to about 60,000 in 2003.
From its inception, the Cuban Revolution defined itself as internationalist, joining Comecon in 1972. Cuba was a major contributor to Soviet-supported wars in Africa, Central America and Asia. In Africa, the largest war was in Angola, where Cuba sent tens of thousands of troops. Cuba was a friend of the Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam. In Africa, Cuba supported 17 leftist governments. In some countries it suffered setbacks, such as in eastern Zaire, but in others Cuba had significant success. Major engagements took place in Algeria, Zaire, Yemen, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.
The Cuban government’s military involvement in Latin America—mostly with the aim of overthrowing U.S. backed right wing regimes, many of them dictatorial—has been extensive. One of the earliest interventions was the Marxist militia led by Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967, though a modicum of funds and troops were sent. Lesser known actions include the 1959 missions to the Dominican Republic] and Panama. In the former, the Cuban government provided military assistance to a group of Dominican exiles with the intention of overthrowing the tyrannical dictator Rafael Trujillo. Although the expedition failed and most of its members were murdered by the government, today they are recognized as heroes and a prominent monument was erected in their memory in Santo Domingo by the Dominican government. The Museo Memorial de la Resistencia Dominicana (“Memorial Museum of the Dominican Resistance,”) where the heroes of 1959 feature prominently, is being built by the Dominican Government. The socialist government in Nicaragua was openly supported by Cuba and can be considered its greatest success in Latin America. Cuba is a founding member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas. More than 30,000 Cuban doctors currently work abroad, in countries such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe. The membership of Cuba in the United Nations Human Rights Council has received criticism.
The European Union in 2003 accused the Cuban government of “continuing flagrant violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. In 2008, the EU and Cuba agreed to resume full relations and cooperation activities. The United States continues an embargo against Cuba “so long as it continues to refuse to move toward democratization and greater respect for human rights”. United States President Barack Obama stated on April 17, 2009, in Trinidad and Tobago that “the United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba”, and reversed the Bush Administration’s prohibition on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans from the United States to Cuba.