What was behind Fidel Castro’s strong ties with the Middle East?
The charisma of Fidel Castro was a powerful magnet for newly independent countries
This week, Fidel Castro died at the age of 90. Revered by some as the courageous advocate for a more equalitarian development, hated by many for his dictatorial rule that prevented freedom of expression and individual liberties, the “Lider Maximo” did not leave anyone indifferent and his death will have strong repercussions all across the world and in particular in the Middle East. The romanticized personality cult around his person inspired many rebellions in the region. His influence, framed in the geopolitical context of the Cold War, played an important role in encouraging similar leftist political upheavals against the capitalistic order of a demonized United States, from Algeria to Palestine, and Libya to Yemen.
The charisma of Fidel Castro was a powerful magnet for newly independent countries eager to follow a model after colonization. The Cuban model offered the establishment of a society that would be more egalitarian and educated and devoid of the corruption prevalent under former colonial powers. Castro also served as a link with the Soviet Union and provided military expertise and equipment to defeat counterrevolutionary militias. The repression of freedoms under his regime was not perceived as a repellent for leaders throughout Africa and the Middle East. As a result, it probably participated in instilling seeds of authoritarianism at the very fundamental roots of countries in the region.
The relationship between Cuba and the Middle East was initiated even before the rise to power of Castro as the father of Cuban independence. The poet and nationalist Jose Marti – Fidel Castro’s source of inspiration – famously proclaimed “Seamos moros!” (“Let us be Moors”) in 1893, in support of the Berber uprising against Spanish rule in northern Morocco. This call resonated as the rebellion of 1895 led to the independence of the island of Cuba. Throughout the twentieth century, as author Hisham Aidi explains, Fidel Castro would express support for Arab political causes and call for Arab-Latin solidarity in the face of imperial domination, often highlighting cultural links to the Arab world through Moorish Spain. This cultural link fueled the very philo-Arab pan-Africanism central to the Cuban ideology and policy initiatives, underlining the fact that all Cuban were descendants from Africa or the Middle East, directly or through Spain, and none could claim to be pure or superior in race to his neighbor.
These common sociological and ideological roots explain the importance given by Castro to Arab nationalism movements in Cuban foreign policy and explain Castro’s support of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Baathist movement in Iraq and the Nasser administration in Egypt. Since the 1960s, regular visits from Castro and Che Guevara to Cairo and regular support from Cuba was provided to African and Middle Eastern liberation movements stationed in and supported by Cairo, especially through the deployment of regular military forces and the establishment of decades of military cooperation.
In particular, Fidel Castro always expressed support for Gaza and the Palestinian cause, breaking diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1973 October War as Cuba sought to strengthen ties with Arab countries in the Non-Aligned Movement. Military instructors and advisors were sent from La Habana into Palestinian bases in Jordan to train Palestinian Fedayeen as early as 1968 and Castro’s support for the Palestine Liberation Organization only grew during the 1980s with the training of Palestinian guerrillas during the 1987 Intifada. The strong relationship between Cuba and the PLO weighed on two pillars: an undeniable personal chemistry between Castro and Yasser Arafat cemented during a visit of the PLO leader to the Cuban capital in 1974 and an obvious geopolitical compatibility between Cuba’s “strife to fight imperialism” and the Palestinian quest for independence from US-backed Israel.
The relationship between Castro and another key figure of Arab nationalism, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was more conflictive. If Fidel Castro confided that Egypt’s resistance under Nasser against the joint British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 proved to be inspirational for the rise of his own movement, both leaders had divergences as to the establishment of a transnational leftist movement. Nasser only reluctantly cooperated with Cuba during Che Guevara’s guerrilla operation in Congo-Kinshasa (formerly known as Zaire) in 1965. Domestically, however, both Nasser and Castro were faced with the same challenges: how to achieve national independence, industrialization and striving for the modernization of society in the geopolitical context of the Cold War. Eventually, both had to resort to the same radical options - grabbing Moscow’s support and relying on ideological mobilization to defend the revolution from foreign intervention as well as increasing productivity, land reform and the expropriation of old elites.
Castro’s influence on Middle Eastern nationalism can also be felt in Iraq during the rise of Baathist ideology. Castro was always lauded by Saddam Hussein for the resilience of Cuba in front of American imperialism and used as such to galvanize domestic support when Iraq became isolated economically and politically. The US sanctions on Cuba had always been seen by Iraqis under Saddam as a symbol of America’s hegemony and arrogance. On the ideological level, Cuba was used as a model to promote the Baathist ideology, promoting the development and creation of a unified Arab state through the leadership of a vanguard party over a progressive revolutionary government.
From a Cuban perspective however, the relationship with Baghdad was more ambivalent. One the one hand, Cuba condemned Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait, supporting the latter’s sovereignty. On the other, it also opposed the US military operations and abstained from supporting the bulk of the sanctions imposed on Baghdad. With the launching of the “war on terror,” and particularly with the invasion of Iraq, Castro regularly issued warnings of a new imperial age and again declared solidarity with the Arab world.
In retrospect, the demise of Fidel Castro will have more impact on ideologies promoted internationally than domestically as Raul Castro took over from his brother since 2008 and the future of Cuba will more depend on the type of relationship established with the Trump administration than on the vision of Fidel himself. Outside of Cuba’s frontier, Castro will leave a very unique legacy, in particular in the Middle East, a region where Cuba has sponsored the building of schools, hospitals and military apparatus, a region influenced by the Castrist ideology after its independence and in which many countries had, for the better and the worst, seen Cuba as a model to follow.
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