Written by Benjamin Creutzfeldt.

“To the Cuban people internationalism is not only a word but something which they have put into practice for the benefit of large sectors of mankind.” Thus spoke Nelson Mandela in July 1991 in Havana, reflecting on Cuba’s support in Angola in 1975, a decisive pushback against South African apartheid forces and CIA-backed militias.

Sometime later, in a shift from armed insurrection to peaceful development, Fidel Castro began advocating for peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group. Havana hosted the dialogues and a deal was reached just as the Cuban leader breathed his last in November 2016.

These and other interventions in the global arena are an astonishing achievement for an island nation of just over ten million people. It is difficult to overstate the global reach of the Castro-led revolution, its struggle for sovereignty and its belief in national transformation and social equality.

Interestingly, the same ideas feature prominently in the discourse of Chinese president Xi Jinping: he consistently argues for sovereignty in domestic and international affairs and creates new multinational institutions for more even-handed representation; he speaks of a rejuvenating transformation of his country, and argues forcefully for equality of opportunity and the elimination of poverty.

However, when carrying these ideas beyond their borders and weighing in on political battles waged outside its territory, China has long erred on the side of caution, broadly adhering to its principle of non-intervention and wary of antagonizing the United States. Cuba, by contrast, has a track record of punching above its weight regardless of Washington’s ire, drawing the Soviet Union into Latin America in the 1960s, supporting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela, on top of being an inspiration to social reformers and left-wing idealists around the globe – especially in the Hispanic world.

This is particularly remarkable considering the blanket embargo Cuba’s closest neighbour, the United States, has imposed on the island nation since 1961 – one of the less honourable policy legacies of the Kennedy administration, perpetuated by his successors despite repeated calls by a majority of United Nations member nations to lift the sanctions for humanitarian reasons. Barred from trading with the world’s largest economy, Cubans have nonetheless been resourceful enough to import agricultural products and digital technology, while carrying goodwill far afield through missions of educators, military advisers, and teams of well-trained doctors and nurses.

Many Chinese secretly yearn to tread as boldly on the global stage as the Cubans have, but its leadership has not dared to do so. Beijing today has in fact far greater potential and capacity to transform the fate of billions, but fails to carry a persuasive message into the world. President Xi’s authoritarian streak undermines the appeal of the China model, making it easier for Western leaders trapped in a cold-war mindset to hold on to the hollow promise of a “free world.”

At the very moment the latter Castro is set to pass the baton to a younger generation, the Communist Party of China has allowed Xi Jinping to rule in perpetuity, a trend set by other strongman leaders such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. This makes the change of the guard in Havana look positively out-of-step with authoritarian fashion.

Castro’s successor, possibly Miguel Diaz-Canel, will have to do all the more to prove his mettle both to party colleagues and beyond. Does he carry more than an opportunistic belief in the socialist ideas that have brought his country to where it stands today? Will he be able to balance the offers of friendship from Russia and Beijing, and fend off the relentless pressure of the Cuban right ensconced in Florida? Will he avoid becoming an awkward transitional figure such as the ineffective Hua Guofeng of China before Deng Xiaoping reshaped the nation, or dragging his country down into an abyss as Nicolas Maduro has done with Chavez’ ambitious movement?

Venezuela has become a financial risk and a reputational liability for any country associated with it. Washington has been attempting to manage this by speaking aggressively against the Caracas government while muting references to the fact that the U.S. is still the largest buyer of Venezuelan oil and thus its number one financier. Beijing has been less outspoken but has radically drawn down personnel working on oil and infrastructure projects in the country and had the bulk of its loans repaid through oil exports.

Havana, by contrast, renewed its support for the Maduro administration as recently as last December. The new leadership is unlikely to relinquish its support for Venezuela. However, it may find itself in the unenviable position of being perceived as a “junior” in the relationship: a leader who can no longer claim the moral authority of revolutionary battles fought and won. Worse, Cuba might end up as a safe haven for an ousted Maduro, and potentially further ostracized as a consequence.

President Xi’s power has shored up his support at home, but the Chinese are as uncertain now about how to navigate Latin America as there were when they started arriving en masse fifteen years ago. They maintain their friendship and solid economic relations with Cuba but are quietly frustrated and somewhat doubtful. Cubans realize that they have their work cut out for their economy to “regain international credibility and update their economic model” if they wish to strengthen ties with China. But perhaps that is not really their desire, for dependency comes at a price, and if one thing is sure to continue to define Cuban politics, it is national pride to steer its own course.

The only way the U.S. can hope to reduce China’s influence in Havana is by opening up trade and investment to the island, but the current administration has moved in the opposite direction. Similarly, if President Trump wanted force change in Venezuela, he would have to jump over his own shadow (and Marco Rubio’s metaphorical dead body) to draw Cuba closer, in the hope that it might relinquish its ideological and material proximity to Caracas.

Much will depend on how Castro’s successor pilots the small but conspicuous Cuban ship through the crosswinds of the Caribbean. He need not rush into an unsteady democracy that can be manipulated by a notoriously meddlesome United States government, but he would do well to ease political pressure on his own people, put some distance into the untenable relationship with Venezuela, and maintain his country’s fierce independence through well-balanced partnerships with the global powers-that-be.

For when Nelson Mandela spoke of internationalism, he did not mean the U.S.-led global system – sometimes labelled “the liberal world order” – nor Donald Trump’s piñata of “globalism” he so cheerfully bashes. What he meant was the sovereignty of all nations, the freedom from colonialism, and the responsibility of every person for our shared humanity.

Benjamin Creutzfeldt, PhD, is Resident Postdoctoral Fellow for China-Latin America-U.S. Affairs at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC. Image credit: CC by U.S. Embassy The Hague/Flickr