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Fidel Castro's lasting legacy in the Middle East

From Yemen to Algeria to Syria, revolutionary president played a key - and often divisive - role in decades of Middle Eastern history
Castro with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1974 (AFP)

Longtime former president of Cuba and international symbol of hope and derision Fidel Castro died early on Saturday morning. To the surprise of many who watched him over the decades, his death at the age of 90 came of natural causes, rather than through assassination or the famous cigars that he was rarely pictured without.

Foreign dignitaries, most notably his left-wing allies in Latin America, mourned his passing, while Communists and other leftists took to social media to begin fighting for the legacy of one of the 20th century’s most iconic and polarising figures.

In the streets of Miami, members of the city’s “Little Havana” community of Cuban exiles took to the street to celebrate the passing of a man they claimed turned their country into a dictatorship, stripping them of their wealth and status.

As a leader of the 1959 revolution that overthrew the military dictator Fulgio Batista, Castro - along with his ally Che Guevara - became a figurehead for global struggles for independence, particularly in the face of overweening American power.

Fidel Castro with former Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser in New York (AFP)

In the Middle East, the Cuban revolution helped to inspire many anti-imperialist movements to take up arms against British, French and - later - US imperialist ambitions in the region.

Though his atheistic Marxism-Leninism rarely took the reins of power (with the notable exception of South Yemen), figures from secular leftists to conservative Islamists cited Castro as an inspiration.

Among the first political organisations to issue condolences on Saturday was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), perhaps the group in the Middle East that most closely emulated the politics of Castroism.

“PFLP is mourning the death of the great revolutionary leader and former president of the democratic republic of Cuba ... Fidel Castro, who died on Friday evening after spending his life serving the principles and goals of the socialist revolution,” read the statement, issued on the PFLP’s website. “He struggled against worldwide imperialism and the powers of despotism and colonialism, at the forefront of which was Zionism.

“Fidel Castro took a progressive position on the Palestinian issue, always helping the Palestinian revolution in speech and in deed. He always took a position against Zionism, describing the Zionist entity as a creation of worldwide imperialism, constantly criticising its crimes against our Arab and Palestinian peoples.”

In the 1960s the Cuban government sent fighters to aid Arab forces fighting against Israel during the “war of attrition” that followed the Six-Day war and did the same during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, at which point Cuba broke off relations with Israel.

Although Castro’s brother Raul, who took over the presidency following his brother’s resignation, affirmed Israel’s “right to exist” in 2010, the two countries still do not have formal relations.

Fidel Castro jokes with his counterparts Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega during the non-aligned countries summit, in Harare, Zimbabwe (AFP)

Castro’s influence also spread onto the African continent, most famously in aiding South African dissidents against apartheid and also backing the anti-colonial struggles in the north.

Cuba aided Algeria in its struggle to free itself from French colonial rule in the '60s, with ties becoming so close that a 1964 US State Department reported noted that Algeria had “literally become a congenial second home for travelling Cubans, and an all-important base for extending Cuban influence in Africa".

Castro’s government provided military assistance to the National Liberation Front (NLF), which in return aligned itself within the sphere of Cuban-inspired socialism as a key ally in the African continent.

“Castro is my brother, Nasser is my teacher, Tito is my example,” NLF leader Ahmed Ben Balla proudly announced following his country’s declaration of independence in 1962.

The country was also a key recipient of Cuba’s most lauded non-cigar export: health workers. The first medical aid delegation arrived from Cuba in Algeria in May 1963. Today there are thought to be about 1,000 Cuban medical workers, including 500 ophthalmologists, working across Algeria as part of the ongoing agreement.

Castro also maintained good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, despite the former’s enforcement of state atheism and the latter’s crushing of leftists movements in the 1980s.

As a major thorn in the side of the “Great Satan” - the United States of America - Iran’s leaders praised the revolutionary and hailed him as a friend.

"As you have witnessed, the Islamic Revolution has always sided with Cuba in its conflict with the United States, since we believe that your struggle is a just one,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said during a meeting with Castro in 2001. “The secret of the resistance of our revolution against the pressure exerted on us by the global arrogance is the strong belief of our people, who adhere to Islam and its principles and values.

"From an Islamic point of view, your resistance against US bullying and domination is a merit. This is why you received that warm welcome when you visited Tehran University today. If leaders of many countries visit our universities, they will not receive such a warm welcome. This shows that our people are quite aware of the value of your just resistance against the United States."

During the Cold War, Cuba remained a major power player in the region. In the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, the only Arab country to adopt a Soviet-style system along the same lines as Cuba, hundreds of Cuban soldiers served to help bolster the state against threats from its hostile neighbours. Cuba also sent military advisers to the coastal enclave of Dhofar to aid Marxist-Leninist militants in their fight against the Omani sultanate, and armed and trained the Polisario Front in its struggle in Western Sahara against Morocco.

Iraqi vice-president Saddam Hussein stands with Cuban president Fidel Castro and defence minister General Raúl Castro in Havana (AFP)

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and without access to the markets that sustained the satellite countries within its influence, Cuba entered a severe economic crisis from which it has never really recovered, despite attempts to build ties with the newly emerging leftist governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

In recent years, Cuba’s relations in the Middle East have been maintained across the old Cold War lines - the Cuban government’s decision to continue backing post-Soviet Russia and the Assad government in Syria has proved highly controversial among many former supporters, though Cuba has denied reports that it sent reinforcements to bolster the Syrian army in the country’s long civil war.

The country, still one of only two in the world (the other being North Korea) where the majority of the economy is state-owned, has been mired in corruption and mismanagement for years. A highly repressive censorship system has also meant that Cubans have little information about the outside world, with internet and mobile phone access also tightly restricted.

In 2010, Castro declared that the old Soviet model of planning was a failure, and the country set out on a path of reforms that have seen the growth of small businesses, greater autonomy for state enterprises and the rise of a private sector.

In 2014, the US and Cuba began negotiations to end a decades-long blockade and frozen relations, and in 2016 Barack Obama became the first US president to visit the island since the revolution.

Though Fidel admonished Obama’s visit to the US (“we don’t need the empire to give us anything”), the warming relations between the two countries and the former president’s decreasing presence on the political landscape came as an indication that the world had, in some ways, moved on.

Discussions will continue over how to maintain Cuba’s independence and its high education and healthcare standards (which still in many indicators outstrip the US), while also loosening restrictions on freedom of expression and democratising Cuban society.

Similar discussions are going on in the Middle East, another region mired by corruption and mismanagement, where the old Cold War battles are arguably still being fought, and where imperial interests often trump those of ordinary people.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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