Fidel Castro and the House of Assad

Fidel Castro and the House of Assad
Castro remained an ally of Bashar al-Assad even after he stepped down from power in 2006. Meanwhile regime ideologues ironically identified the Cuban revolutionary as inspiration for their own battle.
4 min read
26 Nov, 2016
Castro and Hafez al-Assad pictured attending a 1979 Non-Aligned Countries Summit meeting [Getty]

Under the rule of Fidel Castro - the only pro-USSR communist state in the Western Hemisphere - Cuba developed a reputation for internationalism.

Sometimes "exporting the revolution" provided Cuba with great PR, even if at home the economy slumbered and living standards remained stagnant. 

The intervention of Cuban troops in Angola in the 1970s and 1980s - as many as 55,000 Cuban troops are said to have been committed - helped the Angolans inflict a symbolic defeat against South Africa.

It was promoted at the time as a victory over the divisive, racist ideology of apartheid and further strengthened Cuba's reputation as a "bulwark against imperialism" spreading socialist ideals through the Third World. 

Yet other interventions had more negative consequences.

Support for the repressive rule of Haile Mengistu Meriam in Ethiopia during the late 1970s and 80s saw horrific consequences for Ethiopians beyond the starvation caused by the regime's mismanagement of the country's agriculture.

Millions were placed in collective farming units, while mass executions of children accused of being "counter-revolutionary agents" reportedly took place. 

Syria is perhaps another case in point.

An "anti-imperialist" alliance

Although Cuban internationalism was curtailed drastically following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of domestic finical crises in the 1980s, Castro enjoyed a strong relationship with the House of Assad even after stepping down from office in 2006. 

An alliance forged from mutual anti-imperialist credentials and agendas began between Castro and Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez.

It saw Havana and Damascus - two lower-middle income countries - share rhetorical, diplomatic, and military support.

After Hafez al-Assad's seizure of power in 1970, between 1973 and 1975 Castro - in a symbolic gesture - sent a Cuban tank brigade to Syria following Israel's victory in the Yom Kippur War. It was stationed provocatively on an outpost overlooking the Israeli occupied Golan Heights.

Later, following Syria's military intervention in Lebanon from 1976 - and consequent 30 year occupation - Cuba did not express public objection to its ally's actions despite widespread international criticism, and reported dismay within Cuban official circles.

In 1985, Hafez al-Assad described the Cuban-Syrian alliance as productive and beneficial for "two peoples in their joint struggle against world imperialism and its allies".

Cuba's alliance with the Baath regime in Damascus continued following Hafez's death, up to the present day.

After stepping down from office in 2006 due to a life-threatening intestinal ailment, Castro notably met with Bashar al-Assad in Cuba in 2010. Castro also visited the Syrian president in 2001.

Two years after war broke out in Syria, Castro warned against western intervention in Syria writing that Washington's actions would begin "a genocide against the Arab people". 

Arguably, in Syria the Assad regime has presided over a "genocide" of its own making. 

Although the United Nations long ago stopped attempting to calculate the number of people that have been killed in the war, in February the Syrian Center for Policy Studies estimated that 470,000 people had been killed - 11.5 percent of the country's population.

Castro: a source of ideological inspiration in Damascus

Cuba, like Iran, Russia, and China - fellow "anti-imperialist" forces - has maintained at the very least rhetorical support for the Assad regime, and reportedly even sent military officials to Syria to provide logistic support for the regime's war efforts.

Although Castro increasingly retired from public life after 2006, he has been upheld as a source of ideological inspiration by the Assad regime as the war overwhelms the country.

Speaking in July this year during a press conference calling for stronger bilateral ties with Cuba, Bashar al-Assad described Castro as an "icon of independence struggle".

Later, during Castro's 90th birthday in August, Syrian state TV ran shows in celebration of the Cuban leader’s achievements.

Ironically, the Syrian regime's Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun even compared the challenges faced by the regime to those faced by Castro during the revolution in Cuba.

"For six years, Syria has been paying the price [that] Cuba paid 50 years ago when [the US] wanted to bomb it with missiles, invade it, and intimidate its people. But Cuba has remained firm and has resisted," Hassoun said at the time. 

"Cuba is for the whole world and all humanity, an example of freedom, and the world has realised that Syria is going through similar experiences to those of the Latin American nation."

Castro's legacy, like those of most powerful 20th century statesmen, is multi-faceted and will remain contested for years to come, with historians and analysts pinpointing examples of Cuba's foreign intervention. 

But, as evidenced by commemorations of the Cuban leaders 90th birthday in Damascus this summer, it is already being appropriated for particular purposes and to support certain world views.

In the case of ideologues in Damascus, it is being used to justify its role in a conflict in which the regime is guilty of spilling the vast majority of blood, supported by a revived Russia, as the United States and its allies stands aside largely inactive.