Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fidel Castro: The Palestinian connection

Dear friends,
as no doubt many of you will have heard, Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro died on late on Friday night (25 November 2016) at the age of 90 years.

While no doubt many of his enemies will celebrate his passing, millions in Cuba, as well as around the world  - particularly from the Global South - will mourn his passing, due to the revolutionary solidarity the Castro and Cuba enacted for more than 50 years since the revolution.  In South Africa and Palestine, in particular, he will be remembered fondly and with much affection for the support that both he, the Cuban people and the Cuban revolution gave to struggle against South African and Israeli apartheid.

Already in Palestine, Palestinian political prisoners have announced that they will be holding memorials in remembers of Fidel, while others have taken to the streets of Ramallah to remember him. 

Over the next few days, I will post a number of articles about Castro's legacy in relation to Palestine but other struggles around the world.  Here's is Al Jazeera's article which discusses Castro's Palestine connection. 

I have also posted below it an article written by my comrade, James Crafti, back in 2009 discussing
Cuba and Venezuela's revolutionary support for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian struggle.

In solidarity, Kim

Fidel Castro: The Palestinian connection

The deceased Cuban leader and PLO chief Yasser Arafat enjoyed close relations and shared anti-imperialist ideology.

Al Jazeera, 27 November 2016

Ramallah, West Bank - It's November 1974, and Yasser Arafat, sporting his signature Ray-Ban sunglasses and checkered black-and-white headscarf, is waving to a cheering crowd on the tarmac of Jose Marti International Airport outside Havana.

He descended from the Algerian Airlines plane that took him from New York City to the Cuban capital, where he was greeted and embraced by Fidel Castro, who was at that time prime minister and had been in power for 15 years.

Castro died late on Friday at the age of 90, according to the Cuban government.
The moment in Havana wasn't the first time the two men had met - their initial encounter happened just over a year earlier at the 4th Summit of Non-Aligned Countries in Algeria. However, it was the first time they met on Cuban soil.

Despite not being a head of state, Arafat was given a presidential welcome in Havana: Cuban Communist Party officials, ministers and others warmly welcomed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader that day.

Later on, he was awarded one of the country's highest decorations, the Orden Nacional Playa Giron, or Bay of Pigs Medal, which, according to Cuba's government radio, is "awarded to Cuban citizens or foreigners who have excelled in the struggle against imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism, or who have done great deeds for peace and progress of mankind".

The iconic picture of Arafat and Castro walking on the tarmac - housed at the Yasser Arafat Foundation in Ramallah - tells the tale of how an unlikely relationship between the two men, and the PLO and Cuba, were forged.

And while Cuban-Palestinian relations can be traced as far back as the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, it was Arafat's November 1974 trip that "cemented the official Palestinian relationship with Cuba", said Hosni Abdel Wahad, the Palestinian Authority's assistant foreign minister for the Americas.

"It was during that visit that the official PLO-Cuban ties were forged and the first [PLO] representative office was opened in Havana thereafter."

Cuba recognises the PLO

It is believed that unofficial ties were made between Cuba and the Palestinians during a first-of-its-kind trip by Fidel's brother, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara to the Gaza Strip in late 1959.
Events in the 1950s set the stage for this trip: during that time, all Latin American countries, with the exception of Cuba, consistently supported the Israeli position over that of the Palestinians in international forums. 

Che Guevara, who was not Cuban but was an instrumental figure in the country's revolution, spoke in support of the Palestinians in the coastal enclave and elsewhere.
This culminated in Cuba's recognition of the PLO when it was founded in 1964, making it one of the first countries to do so.

Many of Arafat's pictures at the Yasser Arafat Foundation, which traces and commemorates the life of the late Palestinian leader, attest to a close relationship with Fidel Castro and Cuba. 

The mostly black-and-white images document a series of visits by Arafat to the Latin American country - by some accounts, as many as eight; and these are just the official ones, said Mohammad Odeh, who heads Fatah's Latin America department.

"That's a significant number considering Cuba is such a geographically distant country.
"It was, at best, a 12-hour plane ride from any European country, yet Arafat made the trip on numerous occasions. Castro always welcomed him like he was a head of state."

Mansour Tahboub, former acting director of the Arafat Foundation, said such visits were also a testament to the close historical ties.

"Cuba has always been a strong supporter of Palestinians in all realms: political, military, vocational training," Tahboub said.

"The Cubans trained Palestinian cadres, and Fidel himself was a staunch advocate of the Palestinian quest for freedom and independence."

The rare archival footage at the foundation provides a window into many milestones of Cuban-Palestinian relations, such as Arafat pictured on stage - with former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, in the background - condemning Egypt for signing the 1978 Camp David Accords with Israel, during the 6th Non-Aligned Summit in Havana in September 1979. 

During that time, Egypt was suspended as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement after its agreement with Israel was criticised as "an act of complicity with the continued occupation of Arab territories".

But these pictures show only a portion of the decades-long relationship between the two men. The PLO and Cuba were natural allies, as both championed what their leaders saw as a struggle against imperial and colonial powers.

Quest for independence

Indeed, Castro conflated Cuba's "strife to fight imperialism" with the Palestinian quest for independence from Israel's occupation.

"Cuba's backing of the Palestinians wasn't exceptional," explained Abdel Wahad, who studied journalism in Cuba. 

"It was part of the Cuban support system to all people struggling for freedom and fighting against colonialism."

Castro reaffirmed this belief on numerous occasions, including during an interview with the French weekly Afrique-Asie in 1977.

"The Palestinian movements have shown their ability to resist imperialist ... aggression ... [The Palestinian cause] will prevail sooner or later in spite of the betrayal by Arab reactionaries, imperialist manoeuvres and Israeli aggression." 

In almost every one of Castro's many speeches, he voiced support for the Palestinians alongside condemnations of US "imperialist plots".

Following the end of the Six-Day War, Cuba condemned Israel for the first time at the UN. And of all the Latin American countries that had PLO representative offices at the time, only Cuba and Nicaragua granted the PLO full diplomatic status.

Yet despite its close relationship with the PLO, Cuba continued to maintain relations with Israel until 1973. It was during the Non-Aligned Movement summit of that year in Algeria that Cuba announced it would break off relations with Tel Aviv. 

Several historical accounts refer to a dramatic scene unfolding at the event after Castro was reportedly convinced to cut ties with Israel.

Tales were told of an embrace between Castro and former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, and some claimed that "Arafat ran across [the hall] to embrace Fidel, and the applause lasted for minutes".

During the Non-Aligned Movement's heyday, before the end of the Cold War, Cuba also gave much-needed political support to the Palestinians in international fora, such as the UN.
Around that time, Cuba co-sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution that equated Zionism with racism. 

Even when the UN later repealed the resolution in 1991, Cuba stood in opposition.

Quid pro quo?

Some argued that the prominence Cubans gave to the Palestinian cause was a quid pro quo for helping the Castro government secure influence among "Third World nations".

"The symbiotic relationship between the two ... enabled Castro, despite his role in Latin America and Africa as a Soviet client and surrogate, to assume a leadership position in the Third World and within the Non-Aligned Movement," wrote David J Kopilow, a former consultant for the Hudson Institute in Washington specialising in Central America.

Cuba assisted the PLO - especially left-leaning factions like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) - in forging ties with neighbouring states.

"The Cubans played a vital role in facilitating our interactions on the Latin American scene," said Hisham Abu Ghosh, a member of the DFLP's political bureau.

The DFLP had an especially close relationship with the Cuban regime; the party's leader Nayef Hawatmeh made dozens of trips to the island, the most recent of which was made in November 2013.

The PLO also found fertile ground in Cuba for political training and support, giving "logistical and professional guidance for Palestinian factions", according to Abdel Majeed Sweilim, professor of political science at Al Quds University.

The Latin American state also took a special interest in providing educational support to Palestinians.

"Despite Cuba's economic woes, the government would give more than 150 Palestinians annually opportunities to study medicine, engineering and other disciplines," said Odeh, who studied dentistry on the island in 1970 under a full scholarship granted by the Cuban government.

Close relations have been maintained between the Palestinians and Cuba, but "the nature of the relationship has differed", explained the PA's Abdel Wahad. "There is an official relationship with the state of Palestine."

Cuba was even consulted in the lead-up to the UN's recognition of Palestine as a "non-member observer state".

"I was in Cuba two years ago to consult with officials about the UN bid," Fatah's Odeh said.
"Not many people know this, but the Cubans had a huge role in us seeking the status of non-member observer state, and we still liaise with them on all high-level international matters."


Latin America's revolutionary governments support Gaza against Zionism

By James Crafti
Direct Action, Issue 8: February 2009

Bolivian President Evo Morales delivered a blow to Israel on January 16 by cutting off diplomatic ties with the Zionist state. Roberto Nelkenbaum, the Israeli consul to Bolivia, said he was “surprised and sad” that Bolivia had taken this action after the two countries shared “good diplomatic relations for more than 50 years”. Morales said he was seeking to have Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert charged with war crimes over the invasion of Gaza, although he didn’t have much faith in the UN Security Council, which he described as an “Insecurity Council”, to do anything to help the Palestinians.

Bolivia’s condemnation of Israel’s attacks on Gaza is a further strengthening of the “axis of good” that has formed in Latin America against US imperialism. Only days before Bolivia cut ties with Israel, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s revolutionary socialist government terminated its diplomatic relations with Israel. In 2006, the Chavez government expelled the Israeli ambassador and recalled its own from Tel Aviv in response to Israel’s war against Lebanon. Socialist Cuba, a longstanding opponent of Zionism, has not had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1973.

Middle East Online reported on January 12 that “Venezuelan flags and portraits of President Hugo Chavez have been flying high during protests in the West Bank against Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip … Chavez on Saturday accused Israel of being the ‘murder arm’ of the United States … Mohammed al-Lahham, an MP for the Fatah party of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, said Chavez was ‘a symbol of the struggle for liberty, like Che Guevara. This distinguishes him from the world’s other presidents’. His opposition to Washington, Israel’s loyal ally, over the invasion of Iraq and to the Israeli offensive against Lebanon in 2006 have made Chavez a symbol for all peoples who ‘are resisting and fighting against occupation’, he said. Venezuelan flags and portraits of Chavez could be seen lofted by demonstrators in the West Bank towns of Bethlehem, Ramallah and Hebron during rallies last week.

“Al-Jazeera television ran an interview with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro in which he slammed ‘the criminals who govern Israel’ and who have ‘carried out a holocaust against Palestinians for 60 years’.”

The mayor of Al-Masar, a village near Bethlehem told Middle East Online: “I would like to be able to give Chavez a Palestinian passport so he could become a Palestinian citizen. Then we would elect him and he would become our president.” This statement reflects both Palestinian support for Venezuela’s actions and dissatisfaction with the current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has collaborated with Israel in its war against Gaza.

Non-Aligned Movement

In addition to its own example of diplomatically isolating apartheid Israel, Cuba has also been organising against the Zionist state through the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which represents 118 countries. Abelardo Moreno, Cuba’s representative to the UN and current chairperson of the NAM, addressed the UN Security Council on November 7, saying: “NAM strongly condemns the escalation of the military aggression being carried out by Israel, the occupying power, in the Gaza Strip. NAM is gravely concerned by and condemns in particular the launching of the Israeli ground invasion in Gaza in flagrant defiance of the calls by the international community for a cessation of military activities and of the regional and international diplomatic efforts under way to resolve the current crisis.”

Cuba and Venezuela have also been strong in their provision of aid to Gaza. Venezuela committed at least 92.5 tonnes of aid to Gaza as immediate assistance. Cuba’s aid has also been noted, the Palestinian ambassador to Cuba, Mohammed Samhan, commenting: “International support of Palestine is growing, particularly in relation to humanitarian assistance. Cuba, which has historically offered its solidarity, has purchased medications for our people, despite the fact that the Caribbean nation is still recovering from the damage inflicted by three hurricanes.”

It is this internationalist solidarity that has truly set Cuba and, more recently, Venezuela apart from other countries. Venezuela’s relationship with Israel has been icy since 2005, when, due to pressure from Washington, Israel refused to conduct maintenance on Venezuela’s F-16 jet fighters, something it was contracted to do by the previous Venezuelan government. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, Venezuela provided 20,000 tonnes of aid to Lebanon. Further, Venezuela stopped issuing tourist visas to Israelis.

Since then, Chavez has been an outspoken opponent of the Zionist state. He has frequently compared Israel to Colombia, describing the Colombian regime as having “turned into the Israel of Latin America”. Chavez has made the link between these two regimes, both heavily funded by the US government. Both Israel and Colombia’s right-wing government have frequently carried out military attacks on their neighbours under the pretext of combating “terrorism”. 

After a February-March 2008 Israeli military assault on Gaza, which killed 90 people in four days, Chavez slammed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon for saying that Israel was acting on its “legitimate right to defence”. Chavez pointed out that the same excuse was used by Colombia to invade Ecuadorian territory: “Colombia did not violate sovereignty; rather it acted on the principle of ‘legitimate defence’. This is the same as what Israel says. Israel and Colombia say this because this is the order of Washington. What is more serious is when the secretary-general of the United Nations says he ‘recognises the right of Israel to defend itself’ but only condemns as ‘disproportionate and excessive use of force’ that which has killed and injured so many civilians, including children. Isn’t this terrorism, Mr Ki-moon? You see how cynicism prevails in the world!”

Four decades of Cuban solidarity

In the early 1960s both Che Guevara and Fidel Castro visited Gaza (then ruled over by Egypt) and expressed their support for the Palestinians’ right to national self-determination. Cuba welcomed the founding of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, making official contact with it in 1965.
Addressing the first congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1975, Castro declared that PLO leader “Yasser Arafat is a man we deeply love and admire and to whom we have always shown our solidarity”. Castro also declared that “the starting point of Cuba’s foreign policy ... is the subordination of Cuban positions to the needs of the struggle for socialism and for the national liberation of peoples.”

In 1975 Cuba was one of 25 countries that sponsored UN General Assembly resolution 3379 which condemned Zionism as a form of racism. Cuba was the only Latin American country to sponsor the resolution, which was passed 72-35 with 32 abstentions, but was overturned in 1991 with 111 in favour, 25 against and 13 abstentions. While many of the countries that supported the 1975 motion abandoned the Palestinian cause and changed their vote in 1991, Cuba remained committed to supporting the Palestinian national liberation struggle. 

By 1978, Cuban military advisers were providing instruction to Palestinian resistance fighters at PLO camps in southern Lebanon. In the 1980s the Cuban embassy in Beirut served as the operational headquarters for the exiled Arafat and the PLO.

While Cuba has been limited in the material assistance it can provide to Palestine since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it continues to publicly support the Palestinian cause, having spoken out repeatedly against Zionist actions like the construction of the apartheid wall. At a 2005 international women’s conference in Venezuela, Liia Ishehai from the International Democratic Federation of Women of Palestine said: “Cuba is one of the few nations in the world that offers itself up in solidarity with Palestine. Every year, thousands of Palestinian students receive scholarships to study in Cuba … A better world is possible if we all work together in solidarity. One of the heart-warming gestures of solidarity that Palestine has received took place here in Venezuela, in the Teresa Careno Theatre, on April 13, when everyone rose and in one voice affirmed that Palestine will prevail.”

No comments: