On 26 July 1953, approximately 160 young men stormed the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba in a revolt against then dictator Fulgencio Batista. The revolt, spearheaded by a 26-year-old lawyer, Fidel Castro, did not succeed at first. However, it marked the beginning of almost six years of revolution that eventually re-shaped the political structure of Cuba and also affected the greater Caribbean region. Alongside key figures such as Che Guevara, Raúl Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos, Castro and his revolution succeeded in ousting Batista.
After the Cuban Revolution, a new era dawned in Cuba. It saw the rise of Castro, becoming both a revered and reviled leader who stood firmly against the western capitalist system, principally embodied by the United States at the time. During the height of the Cold War, Castro also opted to form close ties with the Soviet Union.
Cuba loses its revolutionary leader
Cuba and the world’s reactions to the passing of Fidel Castro at age 90 on 25 November 2016 were expectedly varied. Yet, there was a clear and unified sentiment on the passing of the legendary leader from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). CARICOM has had a historically enduring relationship with Castro and Cuba. In the words of CARICOM Chairman and Prime Minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, the Caribbean region “will celebrate the life of Fidel Castro” and “the Caribbean will continue to show and express great solidarity with the Cuban people.”
Whether one may admire and respect Fidel Castro for being a revolutionary leader who resisted the infiltration of capitalism, or share the anti-Castro sentiment among exiled Cuban communities in the United States that celebrated his passing, there is little doubt that the late Cuban leader’s ideologies and actions since the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959) had major impacts on the development of the Caribbean region and its relationship with other countries in the western hemisphere.
Cuba-Caribbean diplomatic and trade relations
During Castro’s leadership, Caribbean countries benefitted from various forms of aid, including medical assistance as a vanguard for public health. In response to Castro’s passing, President of Trinidad and Tobago, Anthony Carmona, stated that “[Castro’s] internationalism has resulted in thousands of Cuban trained Doctors, Health Care Specialists, Educationists, Agronomists, Scientists and Athletic Coaches being sent to the far reaches of the world, to assist countries and citizens that needed assistance.”
Indeed, as a result of Castro’s international medical mission, Cuban doctors and nurses were able to assist in the fight against diseases such as HIV/AIDS and cholera in Haiti. Following the earthquake disaster in Haiti in January 2010, Cuba sent a medical team to accompany its over 300 health professionals who were already positioned throughout the country. Additionally, since 1996, Cuba has deployed over 3,500 doctors to Haiti and offered scholarships for medical training.
Caribbean countries such as Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Jamaica, Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago have also benefitted. As a result of bilateral agreements between Cuba and other Latin American countries, Cuban health professionals have provided free health care services to underprivileged populations in Venezuela and other member countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which aims to further integrate the Caribbean and Latin America and contribute to the development of the region.
Caribbean leaders honour Castro
In comparison to the curt response by the United States’ President-elect Donald Trump to Castro’s passing, CARICOM leaders bestowed the honorary Order of the Caribbean on Castro. This demonstrates that the general Caribbean opinion is that Castro and his regime bore significant meaning for CARICOM leaders. This is evident in the recent history of relations between Cuba and the Caribbean countries. Following Castro’s rise to leadership in Cuba, some diplomatic isolation emerged among countries of the region as the United States placed and enforced an embargo against Cuba. Placed in a precarious position, Caribbean countries felt pressured to choose between the powerful United States and a fellow island nation. In spite of this, by the 1970s, the Caribbean region and Cuba managed to develop a synergic relationship. In 1972, the four Prime Ministers of CARICOM countries at the time, Shridath Ramphal (Guyana), Michael Manley (Jamaica), Eric Williams (Trinidad and Tobago), and Errol Barrow (Barbados) united, breaking the United States-imposed embargo on Cuba. Such defined acts of unity contributed greatly to the normalisation and strengthening of the relationship between Cuba and the Caribbean region, Cuba and Latin America, and Latin America and the Caribbean region.
Cuba has cultivated strong links with CARICOM countries based on similar foreign policies rooted in cooperation, solidarity, decolonisation, and non-intervention. Moreover, Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean region share common interests in terms of their desire to improve access to education, fight drug trafficking, strengthen national and public security, and protect cultural industries (such as architectural heritage, music, and dance) and the environment, and better managing disaster risk. The Caribbean has also benefitted from Cuba’s open doors, which have enabled better trade relations with Cuba. For example, in September 2014, Cuba agreed to allow 297 products from CARICOM countries into its market duty-free. This opportunity has generated higher levels of revenue for Caribbean countries and facilitated further cooperation between Cuba and CARICOM countries in business and industry. Cuba has also agreed on duty-free access to CARICOM countries for some of its own products. Increased trade mobilisation has also encouraged Cuba to work to improve air and marine transport within the Caribbean, which is currently a major barrier to trade in the region. By continuing its efforts to improve connectivity between itself and the Caribbean region, Cuba is demonstrating its clear interest in fortifying relations with the region. Done successfully, these efforts can create more employment and help increase overall gross domestic product (GDP) in the Caribbean region.
Castro’s Cuban Revolution was a clear cry for freedom, social justice, and autonomous leadership, and it is one that continues to resonate with developing countries throughout the Caribbean region. While it may be easier to swim along with the popular perception of the late Castro as a brute and radical leader, Castro lived during a time period, and under circumstances, that proved to be immensely complex. Having dedicated his life to revolution in order to reform and improve the conditions and future of Cuba, it is clear that Castro was a Caribbean leader who dared to think differently and challenge the status quo. As stated by President Carmona, “…the Community of Nations in the Caribbean are truly grateful for all assistance and support that Cuba under Fidel Castro’s stewardship has rendered to our burgeoning democracies in the Region. Fidel Castro’s investment in the human capital of his country and CARICOM is undeniable.”