Tractors for cocoa beans - Cold War Czechoslovak economic interests in the Third World

Zetor tractor

In part two of our interview with Dr Jan Koura from the Cold War Research Group at Charles University, we look at Czechoslovak economic, political and educational involvement in the Third World during the Cold War. Czechoslovakia sought not just to bring socialism into Africa and Latin America, but also to establish strong economic ties that would benefit its own industry, he says.

Czechoslovakia’s national interests in the Third World

Dr Koura, you were telling me there were voices within the Czechoslovak intelligence services that more focus should be put on national interests?

“Czechoslovak intelligence really wanted to be more active and work for Czechoslovak interestests, for example business interests, in the Third World.

“It is true that the Prague Spring changed the situation. First of all, there was a general turn in the Eastern Bloc’s policy towards the Third World. All of the states enthusiastically entered the Third World arena during the 1950s and early 1960s. They thought they could very quickly turn these countries towards the socialist camp. However, this did not happen, because the Eastern Bloc realised that Latin American and African politicians very often just abused socialist assistance, taking loans but not paying them back.

“We can see in documents from the mid-1960s that both the Czechoslovaks and the Soviets were really upset with the situation in the Third World.”

“We can see in documents from the mid-1960s that both the Czechoslovaks and the Soviets were really upset with the situation in the Third World. They changed their policy, emphasising that Eastern Bloc states had to focus on states that had the potential to become socialist.”

Which countries were these?

“At the end of the 1960s it was, for example, Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana. However, there was a coup in 1966 after which Ghana stopped being a pro-socialist country. Egypt also belonged to this group of countries for a time, but that alliance was also changing. President Nasser was an example of one of those leaders who were playing both sides - the West and the East. During the 1980s, Ethiopia was also marked out for interest, after there was a pro-communist coup in the country. It received quite a lot of support from the Eastern Bloc. Czechoslovak intelligence was also active in Ethiopia during the 1980s. It had a rezidentura in Addis Ababa.”

Educational and cultural exchanges

Accra,  Ghana | Photo: Adotey Hoffman,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

A lot of people from these countries were educated in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. Do you think that in a sort of strange way that can still be beneficial to the ties between the Czech Republic and those countries today, whether it be in economic or cultural terms?

“The Eastern Bloc had these strong ties with the Third World during the Cold War, but that ended very quickly after 1989 when revolutions came to Central and Eastern Europe. The former Eastern Bloc countries began to develop their relationships with Western states, the EU and, later, many of them became NATO members. Their ties with the Third World ended very quickly.

“There is of course the question whether this was the right decision or not. I understand that after 40 years of communism Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic wanted to approach the West more.

“I am a historian, not an economist, so I do not know if it was beneficial for the Czech Republic. However, it is true that these ties still exist to a degree.

“African students complained that it is too cold in Czechoslovakia, that the language is hard and that the culture is too different.”

“When I was doing research in Ethiopia last year, I interviewed some of the former students who studied in Czechoslovakia. Some of them are fluent in Czech. They told me that it is a pity that there are not stronger economic and political connections between the Czech Republic and Ethiopia. There still are thousands of people who were educated in Czechoslovakia or the wider Eastern Bloc, who know the country where they studied and its language. Some of them, though not all, do still have good memories of the times when they studied there.

“I say some,because there were some problems with racism and the climate. African students complained that it is too cold in Czechoslovakia, that the language is hard and that the culture is too different. The culture shock was also very strong for students from Arabic countries, because they had very different habits.

Jan Koura | Photo: Charles University

“The aim of these cultural and educational exchanges was to educate people from the Third World and there was a hope that they would bring socialism into their home countries. They were not allowed to stay in Czechoslovakia, unless they married here for example. The aim was to send them back and spread socialism. However, this tactic of the Eastern Bloc was not successful, because not all of these people were very keen on socialism. Some of them, in fact, sobered up after being confronted with socialism during their studies. They recognised its limitations and that life in a socialist country was more difficult than they had previously thought.”

I suppose one could also add that these people were often interested in subjects such as engineering rather than socialism, correct?

“Yes, or medicine. Of course we cannot view everything through this Cold War and political perspective. Thousands of engineers, doctors, teachers and technicians were educated in the Eastern Bloc and then helped transform their home countries.

“In this respect, we can say that the Eastern Bloc did help change the situation in these countries through technology and knowledge sharing. It adds another level to the Cold War educational exchanges.”

Is it possible to say which foreign students were more likely to have problems in Czechoslovakia than others?

“Thousands of engineers, doctors, teachers and technicians were educated in the Eastern Bloc and then helped transform their home countries.”

“We cannot generalise, but there were conflicts among foreign students. For example, between the Congolese students supporting different sides. Some foreign students also had sympathies for the Chinese version of communism, something that was not accepted by Czechoslovak authorities during the Sino-Soviet Split. There were also some conflicts between the Arab students, because Egyptians could have different views from students from Syria for example.”

From loans to bartering

When you started talking about this relative Czechoslovak success in the Third World during the 1960s, you said that they were often already active in these territories before. What did you mean by that exactly? Why were Czechoslovak agents able to penetrate these countries so deeply?

Ethiopia | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“There were several reasons. Already before the Second World War, Czechoslovakia had quitte highly developed economic relations with the Third World. Czechoslovakia was an export focused country and one of the main weapons exporters to this part of the world. Czechoslovakia profited economically from these exports. Not just weapons, but also cars, or shoes.

“Some of this knowhow was used by Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. For example, it built a shoe factory in Ethiopia. This system was organised in a way where Czechoslovak experts would first help build a factory, then would help with establishing the production processes inside it. They would be paid for this knowhow, but it also meant that some of the resources could be delivered by Czechoslovakia.

“It still needs to be confirmed, but I have a hypothesis that Czechoslovakia wanted these Third World countries to act as its suppliers, or semi-colonies. By this I do not mean exactly the old colonialism of before, but there is some evidence that Czechoslovakia wanted to exploit these countries and tie them to itself economically.

“What Czechoslovakia had a particular interest in was foreign currency. This is because there was no trade in foreign currency within the Eastern Bloc. When Czechoslovakia, as an export focused country, needed to buy some rare materials or products on Western markets they needed these hard currencies of which they had a lack of. Trade with countries such as Ghana or Ethiopia, which were still interconnected with Western economies, could also be a source for hard currency.”

I see. So, in other words, they would sell Czechoslovak products for American dollars. Is that what you mean?

“Czechoslovakia tried to barter its tractors for Ghanian cocoa beans.”

“I think that was what the Czechoslovaks were aiming for, but it did not work. There were ideas such as exporting Czechoslovak tractors to Ghana for British pounds or American dollars. However, these newly independent states often had economic problems of their own.

“Very often these exports were made in the form of loans. Socialist states hoped that these countries would return the money quickly, but that did not happen. The Eastern Bloc then changed its tactics and switched to a barter system, asking for product instead of money.

“Ghana is a very interesting example in this regard. Czechoslovakia tried to barter its tractors for Ghanian cocoa beans. Chocolate production in Czechoslovakia was growing, consumption levels were also intensifying, but cocoa beans were very expensive to buy, especially on the London Stock Exchange. This is why they tried to get them in return for tractors. However, Ghana refused. In part, because when they sold the coco beans on Western markets they would get more money and could then buy better tractors by using the hard currency.”