A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fidel Castro and the Middle East

With Nasser
Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, a critical juncture in the decolonization of the Third World, and had considerable success in portraying himself as a champion of decolonization efforts worldwide.

Castro was no romantic hero, but indeed a brutal dictator despite some beneficial reforms on the domestic front, and a man who committed Cuban troops to various adventures in Latin America and a bloody war in Angola. But he cultivated many admirers, and some emulators, in the Middle East.

Since 1959 is now nearly 60 years ago, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to recall the context. In 1955-56, Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal, accepted the Soviet offer to build the Aswan High Dam, and resisted the British-French-Israeli intervention in the Suez War.

Four years before the Cuban Revolution, in 1955, the Afro-Asiatic Conference at Bandung had laid the groundwork for what would come to be called the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). When the NAM was formed at Belgrade in 1961 Cuba, though increasingly aligned with the Soviet Bloc, was a charter member, as was Egypt.

In 1958, following US and British interventions in Lebanon and Jordan (to block unrestblamed by the West on Nasserist propaganda), Egypt and Syria united in the United Arab Republic, creating the alignments Malcolm Kerr branded "The Arab Cold War."

Also in 1958, four years into the Algerian War of Independence against France, French nationalist generals rebelled against the Fourth Republic; out of the crisis came the creation of the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle.

It was in this context that Castro entered Havana on January 1, 1959. After he defeated the US-backed exile landings at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, he came to be seen as a Third World hero who had defied the United States, as Nasser had defied Britain and France.

With the rapid decolonization and independence of British, French, and Belgian colonies in Africa, in 1960-62, Castro and Che Guevara, like Nasser, saw Africa as a fertile ground for asserting influence, beginning with the Congo.

With Algeria's Bouteflika
With Algerian independence in 1962, Cuba offered training to the new Algerian Army, after supporting it in the independence struggle. Cuba also supported, via Egypt, the fight for independence for South Yemen, which would lead to the only Marxist-Leninist state in the Arab world. With the formation of the PLO, Cuba became an early supporter, providing training to Palestinian guerrillas.

With Qadhafi
With the Libyan Revolution in 1969, Cuba found a fellow apostle of Third World Revolution in Mu‘ammar Qadhafi, and he, like the Cubans, had a preoccupation with Sub-Saharan African movements.

Castro, with his long ties to Algeria, joined the Algerians in supporting the POLISARIO Front against Morocco in the Western Sahara.

With Saddam
With the death of Nasser, Egypt's tilt to the West, and the decline of leftist liberation movements and the rise of Islamist ones, not to mention Cuban military over-commitments in Central America and Angola, Cuban influence in the Middle East  was much reduced. Castro even criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's foreign adventures were much reduced, and limited to supporting Latin American leftists like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Castro opposed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

In the Middle East of today, with ISIS and similar movements long having replaced revolutionaries of the left, the 1960s seem a long time ago. But Algeria, one of Cuba's early allies and one still led by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had known Castro since the early sixties, has declared eight days of mourning for the Cuban leader.

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