The Cuban Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa

The Cuban Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa

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By Ahmed Abdelhamid Ahmed | Summer 2023

On November 3rd, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution that demanded the end of the US blockade of Cuba. Despite an international consensus of 185 countries voting in support of the resolution, there remained only two countries that directly voted against it: the United States and Israel. Surely the United States would vote in favor of its own foreign policy, but why would Israel break away from the rest of the world and support the blockade of a tiny Caribbean island nation a thousand miles away? This piece aims to answer that question by tracing the legacy of the Cuban Revolution and its forging of transnational anti-colonial solidarity with revolutionary struggles in the Middle East and North Africa.

Just like the Gaza strip, Cuba is under an economic blockade by the US. In 1962, US President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order fully implementing a trade embargo on Cuba. The Kennedy administration’s goal in instituting the embargo was clear, as stated by his deputy assistant secretary of state, Lester D. Mallory, in 1960: “…to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.” Although the US has not succeeded in overthrowing the government in Cuba, the embargo has led to the economic collapse of the Cuban state and the impoverishment of its people.

The Kennedy administration’s legacy remains alive as Cuba continues to struggle amid the Israel-backed US blockade. It was implemented following the Cuban revolution and ensuing historical events such as the nationalization of US-owned property and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Revolution led to the overthrow of the US-backed Batista Regime and the insurrection of Fidel Castro as the leader of post-revolutionary Cuba. Castro’s Marxist-Leninist ideology would drastically change Cuban involvement in foreign affairs.

Cuban-Palestinian Solidarity

In the same year that Fidel Castro took power, Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s brother, and comrade Che Guevara would embark on an unprecedented trip to the Gaza Strip in late 1959. This would later result in Cuba being one of the first countries to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a nationalist organization which aims to establish Palestinian statehood. Castro, being a staunch advocate for Palestinian liberation, proclaimed that the Palestinian cause “will prevail sooner or later in spite of the betrayal by Arab reactionaries, imperialist maneuvers, and Israeli aggression.”

Castro’s solidarity was both in word and deed. The Cuban government sent fighters to aid the Arabs’ fight against Israeli aggression during the War of Attrition that followed the Six Day War, as well as in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Later, during the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in 1973, Cuba would go on to entrench its solidarity with the Palestinian cause even further, breaking off all diplomatic ties with Israel. Additionally, around that time, Cuba co-sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution, which equated Zionism with racism. Although eventually Cuba softened its stance towards Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it remains one of the few countries to not establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. To Cuba, Palestine is reminiscent of its own revolutionary struggle against imperialism and colonialism, and from this resemblance, transnational anti-colonial solidarity was born.

The Decolonization of Algeria

Cuba’s solidarity with revolutionary struggles in the region goes beyond Palestine. In alignment with its goal of aiding global revolutions, Cuba was actively involved in liberation struggles all around the MENAA region, from the Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen to the Western Sahara and beyond. One especially notable example of Cuba’s involvement in the liberation struggles in this region was its role in the decolonization of Algeria.

Algeria and Cuba share an intertwined revolutionary history. The Algerian Revolution broke out in 1954—only a year after the Cuban revolution started—when the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) staged armed revolts throughout the country and demanded independence from French colonialism. In an act of transnational solidarity, Cuba sent military, medical, and civilian assistance to the rebels of the FLN.

Through its alliance with Algeria, Cuba was able to contribute to other African revolutions during this time of global decolonization. Subsequently, Algeria became the “organizing center” for anticolonial movements throughout the continent, from the Congo to Angola. In 1962, newly independent Algeria forged full diplomatic ties with Cuba, and its president, Ahmed Ben Bella, would visit Cuba that same year. During this visit, as Ben Bella recalls, “the two youngest revolutions of the world met, compared notes, and together envisioned the future.”

Algeria remains in a state of revolutionary solidarity with both Cuba and Palestine. In the aftermath of the recent normalizing efforts between Arab governments and the state of Israel, Algeria remains one of the few countries in the region to not establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The legacies of both the Cuban revolution and the Algerian revolution are embodied by this practice of anti-colonial solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. As Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani puts it, “the Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary… as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.”9

Indeed, Cuba’s solidarity with Palestine contributed to turning the Palestinian struggle into a global revolutionary struggle against colonialism. As the United States and Israel continue supporting the blockade of both Cuba and Gaza, the historical anti-colonial solidarity between Cuba and revolutionary struggles in the Middle East and North Africa remains alive to this very day.