Palestine has lost one its oldest and closest friends following the death of Cuba’s former president and leader of the Communist revolution, Fidel Castro. Few leaders, with the exception of the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, gave such vocal and unstinting support to the Palestinian people and their decades-long struggle for justice.
Castro played host to PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1974, making it clear to the rest of the world that his loyalty and support was with the Palestinian people. He greeted and embraced the Palestinian leader like an old friend in Havana and extended the hand of friendship to a people and a cause which was not as popular as it is today. Arafat and Castro would meet and embrace again during the 1994 inauguration of their mutual friend Mandela as President of South Africa.
A year before his historic meeting with Arafat, Cuba’s relations with Tel Aviv had plummeted as a reaction to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, during which Castro broke diplomatic relations with Israel. Supporters of the Zionist state, including Texas senator Ted Cruz, were furious when US President Barack Obama announced the restoration of relations with Cuba last year and the reopening of the US Embassy in Havana. Cruz described it as a “slap in the face” to Israel.
In June 2010, Castro poured scorn on Israel when he said that the swastika had become its national banner following its latest brutal onslaught against the Palestinians living in Gaza. The former Cuban president made a direct comparison to Nazi Germany after saying that it was obvious that Israel “would not hesitate” to send Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians to “crematoriums”.
“The State of Israel’s hatred towards the Palestinians is such that it would not hesitate to send 1.5 million men, women and children to the crematoriums in which millions of Jews of all ages were killed,” Castro told local media. His anger poured out over Israel’s various military offensives against Gaza and the storming of the Marvi Marmama-led aid flotilla bound for Gaza, on which 10 peace activists were killed by Israeli commandos in international waters.
Two years ago, Castro signed an international manifesto “supporting Palestine” which demanded that Israel respect UN resolutions and end its military occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The document, drawn up by a group of intellectuals and politicians, was titled “In Defence of Palestine”. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, Argentinian artist and Nobel Peace Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso and American writer Alice Walker were among the high profile signatories of the manifesto, which was promoted by the Network in Defence of Humanity.They urged governments around the world to demand that Israel respect UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, which said that Israel must withdraw from the territories it occupied during the conflict.
Most obituaries written in the mainstream media will probably gloss over Castro’s criticisms of Israel and his support for the Palestinians – or even airbrush them out altogether – by focusing, instead on the events of 1962, the so-called Cuban missile crisis. That’s when Castro had agreed to a request by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to place mid-range nuclear missiles in Cuba.
The affair was brought to the attention of US intelligence by diplomat-spy Nir Baruch from the Israeli Embassy in Havana, and corroborated through photographs taken by US spy planes. President John F. Kennedy set up a naval blockade of the island and the missiles were removed in exchange for a US promise not invade and occupy Cuba in the future. The agreement didn’t stop Washington from enforcing sanctions on Cuba for the next 50 years.
Castro fell ill in 2006 while undergoing an operation to remove a tumour and he transferred the reins of power to his younger brother Raúl. In 2008, the move was made permanent and he made Raúl president. By 2011 Castro had officially retired from politics although he remained active in his support for the Palestinian people to the end.
Palestine has lost a great friend and Cuba has lost a great revolutionary leader. We are unlikely to see the likes of Fidel Castro again.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.