Guyana and Cuba
President Donald Ramotar is on his first official visit to Cuba. Just before he departed, he unveiled a monument to the victims of the Air Cubana disaster of October 6, 1976. Seventy-three persons, including 11 Guyanese, perished when a terrorist bomb blew their plane out of the skies soon after it took off from Barbados. The latter country erected a monument in 1998.
In 1972, in the face of strong US disapproval, the governments of Guyana (and the other members of Caricom) had opened diplomatic relations with Cuba. But a full decade before, a beleaguered PPP administration in charge of internal self-government that had been rebuffed by the US’ JFK administration, had moved to establish close commercial and political relations with Cuba.
A contract for rice to Cuba, for instance, not only saved the Guyanese rice industry but gave it a powerful shot in the arm. The visit of President Ramotar, who remains the General Secretary of the PPP, will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of those contacts.
But the nexus between the two countries predates even those linkages. The humiliation felt by JFK after the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to remove Fidel Castro made him swear that he would not ‘allow another Cuba in the Western Hemisphere.” He imposed an embargo on trade with Cuba that remains in force to the present. At the time, Jagan’s Marxist proclivities made him an anathema to JFK, who resolved to remove him from office to prevent the feared contingency.
After his initial acquiescence, Burnham’s willingness to thumb his nose at the US to recognise Cuba in 1972, owed as much to his desire to outflank Jagan in leftist credentials as to the objective foreign policy interests of Guyana. Guyana did begin to receive doctors, medical supplies and medical training from that time. Castro visited Guyana in 1973 and Burnham reciprocated in 1975 – receiving the José Martí National Order, Cuba’s highest honour, much to Jagan’s chagrin. During this time, Guyana permitted Cuban military aircraft to land on their way to Angola in 1975 to fight against the Portuguese. All of this infuriated the Americans, who it is alleged, sanctioned the bombing of the Cubana plane in retaliation.
Burnham ironically died on the operating table in Georgetown Hospital with Cuban doctors in attendance. His successor Desmond Hoyte downplayed the Cuban connection in his quest for a western bailout of the collapsed economy. Last week, the IMF conceded that its ‘conditionalities’ for loans to third world economies (including Guyana), – criticised by Castro and Jagan – were misguided. When Jagan was returned to office in 1992, after the ‘fall of communism’ in 1989, he however adhered to the terms of the IMF’s SAP – and never visited Cuba.
But since 1993, Guyana has voted in favour of Cuba’s annual resolution demanding an end to Washington´s economic blockade against the island at the UN General Assembly. In October 2001, then President Bharrat Jagdeo carried out his first official visit to Cuba at the invitation of President Fidel Castro. Bilateral cooperation was advanced in the fields of health, agriculture and livestock, forestry, construction, foreign trade, culture, education and sports. While the supply of doctors was continued, the most important agreement was for hundreds of Guyanese to be trained as doctors in Cuba. These are now returning to Guyana in droves.
Paradoxically, the post-1989 era has seen a tightening of the Cuban embargo by the US administration as they react to domestic right-wing concerns. The resignation from the Cuban presidency by Fidel Castro in 2008 has not helped in the face the Helms-Burton law of 1996 which prohibits any recognition of a Cuban transitional Government where Fidel—former President—or his brother Raul Castro are involved.
For Guyana, however, its ties with Cuba are much too strong to be sundered over a sixty-year old humiliation of the US, in which we became a pawn that was sacrificed. We hope that President Ramotar’s visit to Cuba will result in a deepening of our historic cooperation to improve our social conditions.