Fidel Castro’s Top Moments in the Middle East

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Fidel Castro is dead at 90. He presided over the only pro-USSR Communist state in the Western Hemisphere, and was therefore a thorn in the side of Washington, which insists on hegemony and capitalism in the New World.

Castro was the last of the Communist guerrillas turned national leader. He outlived Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Abd al-Fattah Ismail Ali Al-Jawfi of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. At home, he presided over an authoritarian one-party state. On the other hand, despite its poverty, in health statistics like deaths per 100,000 of mothers in childbirth, Cuban health care produced statistics not so far from those of the rich USA (as low as 40 compared to 28 in the US). Cuba’s per capita GDP, at near $7,000, is higher than Thailand, South Africa, Iran or Jordan.

The US state department complained that Cuba critiqued the US role in the Middle East:

“a) Portraying U.S. actions and diplomacy in the region as those of an aggressor, seeking to impose hegemony by force such as the recurrent attacks on Iraq, violation of sovereign rights (no-fly zones), the perpetuation of unjustified economic sanctions to countries in the region (Iraq, Iran, Syria), open political intervention and the use of brutal force as acts of retaliation (the Bin Laden case/Yugoslavia); b) portraying the U.S. as the main obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the Israel/Palestine and the Gulf conflicts, and c) discrediting U.S. policies, especially by gaining support for Cuba’s agenda at the U.N.”

Not sure in what respect any of this was incorrect.

On the other hand, Cuba had an interventionist phase in the 1960s and 1970s. Castro inserted himself into numerous conflicts in the Middle East, in part of fight what he saw as imperialism. The adventures were gradually for the most part abandoned in the past two decades.

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Cuba was a player, with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, in the Non-Aligned Movement, though critics pointed out that Havana’s closeness to Moscow precluded genuine non-alignment.

Cuba helped train the Algerian army in the 1960s after Algeria achieved independence from France. Both countries were proponents of Third Worldism.

Cuba gave serious help to the Palestine Liberation Organization, including training of guerrillas and offering scholarship to Palestinian students to study in Havana.

Cuba joined Libya and Algeria in supporting the Polisario Liberation Front in the Western Sahara against Morocco, which annexed that territory in the 1970s when it was relinquished by the Spanish colonial authorities. When, in later decades, Moroccan relations with Algeria improved, Castro dropped the Sahara intervention.

To its credit, Cuba broke off relations with Iraq in 1980 when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran.

Likewise, Cuba denounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1978, despite its dependence on the Soviet Union for a lifeline, given the US boycott of Cuba.

Castro opposed the Arab Spring youth revolts; it is hard to see, though, the difference between a Mubarak or the newly capitalist al-Assad gang and Fulgencio Batista, against whom Castro himself revolted. Cuba had had a longterm relationship with Arab authoritarian governments. In the past couple of years, Cuba has provided military trainers and advisers to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

In general, you have a sense that Cuban foreign policy became confused about the Middle East after the initial heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. When postcolonialism, Third Worldism and anti-imperialism were keynotes, Cuba had foreign policy successes. But the rise of Muslim fundamentalism as a revolutionary force was unwelcome in Havana. Castro even took refuge in conspiracy theories, such as that al-Qaeda and Usama Bin Laden were covert US operations. It sided with its old friends from the socialist one-party states, such as Syria, that survived into the twenty-first century.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

PressTV: “Syria, Cuba celebrate 50 years of establishing diplomatic ties”

9 Responses

  1. I was surprised by the GDP per capita you quoted as I had always believed – despite a few weeks spent there in 2005 – the economy was a basket case. The power of negative press in defining reality. After decades of economic warfare, its GDP turns out to be similar to many of its neighbors.
    My visit coincided with a visit by Hugo Chavez and our hire car was stopped on a country road within sight of the limousines. We later followed in their wake and were cheered by crowds of onlookers – totally undeserved but we felt like visiting royalty. The affection for the two leaders appeared genuine.

    • Calculations using Purchasing Power Parity would probably make Cuba look even better due to the cheap medical care compared to its neighbors.

  2. Castor puts the rest the saying “only the good die young” he lived 90 years so he must be one of the oldest leaders of a country ever. He has seen off numerous presidents of the USA and managed to keep the American thirst for regime change and gross interference in other people’s country at bay for all those years. If he had a fault it was his rabid belief that total communism was the only possible model of government. Cuba might have done rather better following say, the Swedish model of government which understands the worth of free enterprise and innovation whilst making sure that socialist programmes for the benefit of the population are always top of the agenda. Many saw Castro as a tyrant, but compared with the human excrement that passes for leaders of the world’s countries today he was at least genuine in his purpose.

  3. You didn’t mention South Africa. The fact that Castro was instrumental in kicking their army out of Angola which shocked the West and it’s Apartheid ally in fighting “communism” ( popular revolution) which sunk the idea that South Africa and spelled doom for the South African Apartheid government. It’s why Mandela made his trip to Cuba in 1991 to personally thank Castro.

    Ironically Cuba’s legacy in Africa will shine while America’s…..not so much.

  4. Likewise, Cuba denounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1978, despite its dependence on the Soviet Union for a lifeline, given the US boycott of Cuba

    Meanwhile, all through Fidel Castro’s years in charge of Cuba the United States was considered the dog wagged by the Israeli tail. Would anyone care to ascribe Moral Courage Quotients to Fidel Castro and Uncle Sam during that time?

    The figures cited for Cuba’s GDP and other nations prompts the question, “What would these numbers have been like if Cuba didn’t have to contend with the onerous burden of the illegal and immoral embargo imposed on it by its bullying neighbor to the north?”

  5. “Cuba gave serious help to the Palestine Liberation Organization, including training of guerillas and offering scholarship to Palestinian students to study in Havana.”

    In fact, Fidel Castro was likely one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestinian cause, last year giving vigorous public condemnation of Israel for their conduct during their incursion in Gaza.

    Palestinian leaders, especially those of Marxist orientation, have heaped praise on Castro today.

    Earlier, young U.S. House member Justin Amash from Michigan, the only Palestinian-American serving in Congress, had broken ranks with fellow Republicans by supporting Obama’s decsion to initiate diplomatic relations with the Castro regime.

    Castro once had a notable meeting with Malcom X, who was one of the first public figures in America to speak out in favor of the Palestinians.

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  6. One wonders if Cuba could survive being revolutionary
    without being a closed and authoritarian. Allende’s example can be multiplied; whenever a revolution was democratic, US imperialists would overthrow it. This lesson has not gone unnoticed by third world peoples and the Cuban people who is still by and large support the Revolution. So, let’s put things in perspective.

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