Algeria and Cuba allied by a shared revolutionary struggle

Algeria and Cuba allied by a shared revolutionary struggle
Comment: For Algerians, Cuba's socialist ambitions were a vital source of comparison and hope in reflecting on the struggle against colonialism and foreign domination, writes Yasmina Allouche.
7 min read
27 Oct, 2016
Algeria's president Abdelaziz Bouteflika making an official visit to Cuba in 2000 [AFP]

"The friendship between Algeria and Cuba remains as indestructible as fifty years ago", current Cuban President Raul Castro commented in 2009 on a state visit to Algeria. With Algeria's Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal returning from a visit to Havana this month, the claim continues to hold true.

Along with medical and educational agreements signed, Algeria has recently agreed to send Cuba crude oil for the first time to offset lower supplies from Venezuela. This may seem a random diplomatic act to those unfamiliar with Algerian history, however looking back to their shared history of the 1960s it is evidence enough of how their foreign policies today are shaped because of it.

An alliance is formed

Algeria's War of Independence that began in November 1954, as the first Indo-Chinese War ended, influenced the history of the Cold War. The Algerian fight bolstered national liberation forces from around the colonial world and their struggle pushed the Afro-Asian bloc to the attention of Soviet and American policymakers through its new Third-Worldism.

Until late I964, Cuba's involvement in the rest of the continent was limited to a few military exercises and providing study scholarships from the Cuban government. That changed as Algeria's revolutionary struggle began its course and the Cubans were inspired by a people whose fight against aggression so mirrored their own.

For Algerians, the Cuban experience was vital in comparing their own gains against the French by mirroring the Cubans' socialist ambitions against colonialism and foreign domination.

Cubans were inspired by a people whose fight against aggression so mirrored their own

In 1961, representative of the Provisional Government of Algeria (GPRA) Lakhdar Brahimi was invited to meet with prime minister of the revolutionary government Fidel Castro and minister of industry, Che Guevara.

The Algerian revolution was discussed extensively and both men reiterated their close interest in the Algerian anti-colonial struggle and a keenness to do everything for the GPRA to gain its international recognition.

Algeria wasted no time in creating diplomatic ties with Cuba after gaining its independence from France on July 3, 1962. By September 26, the Algerian National Assembly had elected Ahmed Ben Bella as its first prime minister and soon after, Ben Bella left for New York to attend Algeria's accession to the United Nations.  

Shortly after, Ben Bella boarded a plane to Cuba on 16 October where "protocol was forgotten and we talked… the two youngest revolutions of the world met, compared notes and together envisioned the future", Ben Bella reflected later.

Ben Bella was greatly influenced by his visit with Fidel Castro and was swift to define Algeria's socialist struggle as Castro-style socialism; a departure from the communist leanings the western world saw in both struggles.

The Kennedy Administration, however, grew uneasy with Algeria's proximity to Cuba. A State Department intelligence report concluded in 1964: "Algeria has literally become a congenial second home for travelling Cubans, and an all-important base for extending Cuban influence in Africa."

Both Castro and Ben Bella were prepared to adopt the risks their partnership evoked in order to advance the cause of both revolutions

Defying interests from the two global superpowers, Algeria's and Cuba's influence in the Afro-Asian bloc was becoming more noticeable for countries keen to follow in Algeria's revolutionary example.

For the Cubans, identifying so passionately with the Algerian struggle resurfaced as they witnessed the Nicaraguan revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Since criticising Batista's regime in the 1950s had brought severe consequences, Cubans instead observed and documented the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, helping them to retain a revolutionary spirit of their own.

Cuban assistance and Algeria

Independence left Algeria vulnerable to forces eager to exert an influence in the region; neighbouring Morocco was now becoming Algeria's next threat.

By the summer of 1963, Morocco's Hassan II had fronted a deeper sense of nationalism through visions of a greater Morocco which included contested areas of the Algeria-Morocco border

Morocco had just signed a three-year contract with Cuba to buy a million tons of sugar for a substantial $184 million at a time when the US was trying to curb Cuba's foreign trade.

This did not, however, influence Cuba's decision to answer Ben Bella's call for military assistance and soon the Cubans were forming the Grupo Especial de Instrucción (GEI) for Algeria.

A Cuban volunteer would later reminisce, "The Algerians really reminded us of ourselves in 1959… it was as if we were back in the days of our own Rebel Army in 1959."

Algeria wasted no time in creating diplomatic ties with Cuba after gaining its independence from France

However, a fight was not to be: On October 30, Ben Bella signed a cease-fire after meeting with Hassan II in Mali. According to the Cubans, Morocco only agreed to negotiate after seeing Algeria's military standing enhanced by the arrival of Cuban troops in Algeria.

Along with military aid, Cuba also provided medical assistance. The first medical aid mission arrived in Algiers in May 1963 with 56 Cuban doctors. Today, around 1,000 Cuban medical practitioners, including 500 ophthalmologists, work in health fields across Algeria as part of its ongoing health agreement.

The benefits of the Algerian-Cuban alliance

Algeria largely served as a bridge for Cuba in Latin America; diplomatically, the Algerian government was able to establish relations with a number of Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela which the Cubans lacked in. Secondly, the guerrilla movements of several Latin American countries were able to send their representatives to work from Algeria in Africa, which the Algerian and Cuban officials coordinated.

This initial contact with Africa undoubtedly influenced Cuban foreign policy in the continent; Cuba would go on to sign a series of agreements in support of the independence movements across the continent.

Military aid to the National Liberation Front was then repeated across Africa and the liberation movements of the Portuguese colonies. Cuba's civilian internationalism with its medical mission in Algeria was followed by others including the Medicos Guerrilleros with Che Guevara in Zaire.

Both Castro and Ben Bella were prepared to adopt the risks their partnership evoked in order to advance the cause of both revolutions and the revolutionary processes in Africa and Latin America, in defiance of the two global superpowers.

Helping Algeria was in Cuba's strategic interests but it was also largely helping victims of colonial aggression

Helping Algeria was in Cuba's strategic interests but it was also largely helping victims of colonial aggression. Risking their relationship with de Gaulle in France or potentially jeopardising a sugar deal with Morocco was a level of idealism that defied realpolitik towards Africa.

However, Algeria and Cuba's prominence in the Afro-Asian bloc was halted after a military coup ousted Ben Bella in 1965. Fidel took Algeria's spiralling events as a personal loss and The New York Times would report how "few events pleased and heartened Mr. Castro so much as the visit Mr. Ben Bella made here in October 1962 in defiance of the United States."

Any planned vestiges of Cuban-Algerian policies for liberating Africa ended as swiftly as Ben Bella's departure. Algeria's next president, Houari Boumediene's focus would redirect Ben Bella's Afro-lens to the Arab world with new pan-Arab interests.

Eventually Cuba's relationship with Algeria would regain its proximity in later years but without any traces of the special brotherhood they initially shared.

Lacking or not, it is undeniable that Cuba and Algeria's example serves developing countries in the global South as evidence of how political partnerships can be developed in spite of global superpowers. But this also raises the question of why both governments have remained politically, and ideologically the same, decades down the line.

Many of the revolutionary leaders who fronted the anti-colonial struggle as heroes are now struggling to keep office, as the socio-political climate overrides them. Providing new examples for developing countries by seeking to accept change is necessary.

The historical leadership that secured power now needs to be seen as stepping down. This should not involve handing power to carefully chosen leaders, but instead implementation of the will of the people, in such a way as to preserve the legacy of their national heroes despite their modern-day inadequacies.

Yasmina holds a Masters in International Conflict Studies and has a particular interest in Algeria and the Maghreb region. She also regularly organises seminars and events on the MENA region.

Follow her on Twitter: @animsche

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.