60 years of weapons and white coats

HAVANA: As its revolution turns 60, Cuba is still reaching out all over the world to spread the socialist ideology that carried Fidel Castro to power in 1959.

Soldiers, doctors and teachers have all assumed the roles of ambassadors as weapons and humanitarian aid were exported to other parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

But while the ideological romanticism of the revolution has faded, Cuba has managed to resist a United States embargo and widespread criticisms of its one-party state and political repression.


It may be politically isolated, but Cuba has had its fans over the last six decades.

Catalan Carlos Garcia Pleyan was living in France during the May 1968 protests. He came across a copy of Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” — a book reconstructed from a four-hour speech he gave in court when on trial for leading an assault on the Moncada army barracks — and was instantly seduced.

“I was dazzled … In the summer of ‘69 I was already in Havana looking for work. The next year, having graduated, I settled definitively in Cuba,“ the sociologist and urbanist told AFP.

“The Cuba of the 1960s was an example of revolutionary audacity and social innovation that contrasted with the conservative reality of Europe, and seduced whoever supported social justice.”

Political scientist Luis Suarez, a former director at the Center for American Studies, says Cuba followed the principles of national independence hero Jose Marti: attempting to limit US influence in Latin America through Cuba’s independence, and recognizing a “second independence” as part of a regional revolution.

From there, “the support that Cuba gives… to those sustaining an armed struggle in their own countries, and also to various governments … has favoured the unity of Latin-America and the Caribbean.”


In 1961, Cuba exported arms to Algeria’s National Liberation Front that was battling France for independence.

Two years later, Cuba intensified its diplomatic mission, sending doctors and a first military contingent to support Algeria in its territorial dispute with neighbor Morocco, known as the Sand War.

“We went to Africa to cooperate with the African fighters struggling for the most sacred human right: freedom!” Oscar Oramas, who served as a Cuban diplomat in several African countries, told AFP.

Cuba offered its support to several African independence movements in a decade in which most of the continent shook off the shackles of European colonialism.

Castro’s detractors accused him of “exporting the revolution,“ while his supporters described his foreign policy as “a duty of internationalization.”

It wasn’t always successful, though: fellow revolutionary icon Che Guevara headed a Cuban military detachment in Belgian Congo in 1965, as well as an international guerrilla movement in Bolivia two years later. Both missions failed, and the latter resulted in Guevara’s death.

Doctors and teachers

After 20 years of seeking change through revolution, Cuba’s focus then switched from weapons to white coats as the regime realized its aims would be better served through political, social and economic cooperation.

Cuba expanded its presence in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean through doctors, teachers, builders and technicians.

Its military support had not been totally abandoned, though, as thousands of troops were sent to Angola and Ethiopia, while military advisers embarked for Nicaragua and Venezuela.

More than 300,000 Cubans — soldiers and civilians alike — landed in Angola alone.

But the main focus now was on humanitarian programs, such as literacy and ophthalmology, in Latin American countries, including those with conservative governments.

It is in the health sector that Cuba has been most active, though, with doctors being sent to 67 countries, some as humanitarian aid while others bring in US$11 billion, (RM 44 billion) a year to boost the country’s coffers.

Sovietization and disillusionment

Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Bloc contributed to the waning of the “fascination and romanticism” that European intellectuals had once felt, according to Garcia Pleyan.

Yet in Latin America, “the Cuban revolution remains a source of inspiration for internal change among the left and populists,“ said Suarez.

The deaths of the continent’s two great socialist leaders, Castro in 2016 and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez three years earlier, as well as a resurgence of the political right across Latin America, have increased the challenges facing Cuba.

Relations with the European Union have never been better, but after a brief thaw under the stewardship of Barack Obama, tensions with the US have been mounting again since President Donald Trump took office.

Consequently, the island nation has closed ranks with its remaining regional leftist allies: Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia.

Now as much as ever, Cuba is reaching out to its ideological partners further afield: China, Russia, Vietnam and North Korea. — AFP

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