Abu Dhabi // Despite its size and distant location, Fidel Castro’s Cuba played an outsized role in the Middle East and Africa over the course of the Cold War.
From Algeria’s struggle against France and the Palestine-Israel conflict, to a controversial role in the Horn of Africa, and the defeat of South African forces in Angola that Nelson Mandela credited with helping end Apartheid, Cuba under Castro regarded the Middle East and Africa as a key part of the world to champion the advance of decolonisation. As time went, his policy in the region became more about pragmatic aims of national interest – with mixed results, but a lasting mark.
Castro almost immediately allied with the Soviet Union after his revolution against the Cuban ruling class, to protect Cuba from the US.
But that necessary relationship was a fraught one as Castro in the early years of his rule enthusiastically backed liberation struggles in the colonised world, hoping that with independence would come a Third World-bloc with real power that would break dependence on either the US or Soviet Russia.
In 1959, Castro sent the celebrity revolutionary Che Guevara on a public relations tour of the Middle East, hoping that his stunning victory in Cuba would inspire similar anti-western upheavals and solidarity.
“The Castro administration hoped that the parallels between the experience of imperialism in Nasser’s Arab world and Cuba’s experience with United States hegemony would build rapport,” David Grantham, an expert on Latin America, wrote last year.
Cuba gave wholehearted support for Algeria’s liberation struggle against French colonial forces, sending doctors, troops and weapons. Soon after Algerian independence, in 1963, Castro also sent troops to Algeria to support and train government forces in their fight against French-backed Morocco.
Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser would never fully ally with Castro, but he did cooperate in 1965 with Guevara while the revolutionary backed insurgents in what was then Zaire.
While Cuba would maintain relations with Israel during the 1967 war and until 1973, both Guevara and Castro laid the foundation for close ties with the Palestine Liberation Organisation that lasted decades and included military and diplomatic support as well as educating many young Palestinians at universities in Cuba.
As the US increased pressure on countries around the world to cut trade ties with Cuba, Castro worked to diversify foreign economic and political ties, especially to countries in the region where Washington did not have overwhelming leverage.
But as his reliance on Soviet economic aid increased towards the end of the 1960s, and Moscow sought to curtail some of Cuba’s foreign policies, Castro was also viewed among regional leaders as increasingly doing Moscow’s bidding. Good relations were maintained with Russian allies in the Middle East, especially Syria. During the war with Israel in 1973, Cuba sent a tank brigade to Syria.
But other policies that were seen as backing Russia played into the Cold War political divisions of the Arab states. Cuba backed South Yemen forces who in 1977 backed Ethiopia against Somalia – which until then had been supported by Cuba. As part of this relationship with Soviet-backed South Yemen, Castro also reportedly offered a small measure of support to the Marxist Dhofar rebellion in southern Oman in the 1970s.
He also tried to balance Cuba’s ties with regional rivals. He was the first head of state to recognise the anti-western revolutionary regime in Iran in 1979, but also maintained close ties to Iraq.
That same year Cuba was voted chair of the increasingly important Non-Aligned Movement bloc of countries.
“Those months in the fall of 1979 were the apogee of his power,” CIA analyst Brian Latell later told US public television. “How can you be a loyal, dependable Soviet ally and accept about $6 billion (Dh22m) of Soviet assistance annually, and at the same time be the leader of the non-aligned nations? Well, Castro was able to carry out that exquisite, seemingly impossible balancing act.”
But his pragmatic refusal to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the next year badly undermined his credibility with Arab and other Muslim countries.