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Paul McLoughlin

Cuba and the axis of 'anti'

Even in retirement Castro kept a public profile [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 November, 2016

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Although he was a revolutionary communist, Castro's anti-US sentiments took him on a pragmatic course to ally with religious and cruel regimes in the Middle East.
While it is unlikely that Cuban revolutionary icon Che Guevara would sympathise with Iran's theocratic regime, for a pragmatist such as Fidel Castro there was always common ground and opportunities for alliance.

Castro, who died aged 90 on Friday, was one of the world's most vehement anti-imperialists. He spent a lifetime keeping Cuba on the road to socialism, and other countries in the developing world out of the US orbit.

This relationship continued despite Tehran's uneasy relationship with other "godless" communist governments and parties.

Following the overthrow of Iran's Shah by popular protests in 1979, the Ayatalloh Ruhollah Khomeini turned on the left and threw thousands of communists into jail - or worse - during the 1980s.

It cemented Iran as an "Islamic Republic" rather than being a democracy or socialist state.

Yet despite this, Castro kept on cordial terms with Iran, even if the USSR had a frosty relationship with Tehran during this time due Iran's suppression of pro-Moscow communists.

It made Cuba an approachable, pragmatic, non-alligned power, far less of a threat to the status-quo in places like Iran than Moscow was.

Convergance or convenience?

Castro attached itself to European leftist and Palestinian causes, while it converged with Tehran-aligned Islamist groups at times. On some issues these groups fell into one, broad anti-US camp.

Castro met with a number of Iranian leading political figures during his time in office and in public retirement including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the current centrist head Hassan Rouhani.

In 2001, he met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran who he reportedly urged to "crush" the US as Iran did the Shah.

Castro's lax attitude towards who he called "friend" allowed him to appeal to leftists in the West, the cult-like Derg
 in Ethiopia, and ultra-conservatives in the Middle East at the flick of a switch.

The unwavering, anti-US course Cuba took with Castro behind the wheel made him a respected figure in Iran despite the theocratic regime being constantly alert to leftist threats at home.

"Receiving the news of the death of Cuba's untiring fighter and revolutionary leader, your dear brother Mr. Fidel Castro, caused deep sorrow and grief," President Rouhani wrote.

"[Our condolences to] the government and resistant people of Cuba and the Latin American region over the death of Cuba's revolutionary leader and wish glory for the people of your country."

Making enemies

Castro was always keen to highlight the threat the US posed Middle East states - at times, understandable fears.

When the USSR fell, he and his allies amplified gossip of US plans for invasions for Arab states or Israeli airstrikes on its enemies. This appeared within reason when former President George Bush invaded Iraq in 2003.

Even after the fall of the USSR led Moscow to embark on a brief honeymoon period with Washington, Cuba's resolve did not falter.

With Russia weakened internationally, Havana was keen to carve out an anti-imperialist niche in the Middle East and elsewhere.

It saw the creation of a loose, casual, patchwork coalition of anti-West groups, opposed to globalisation and US dominance.
The unwavering anti-US course Cuba took with Castro behind the wheel made him a respected figure in Iran despite the theocratic regime being constantly alert to leftist threats at home.
Castro had credentials for being a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause and backer of "the Resistance" camp.

He sent tanks and men to Syria following the 1973 war with Israel, showing that he was willing to go further than offer token rhetorical support to Palestinians.

While the West funded and armed the Israeli regime and dictators of all stripes in Africa, Cuba sent out its best doctors and teachers to the continent.

It provided a romantic and nostaglic vision of Cuba helping the Third World out of poverty. Many in Africa found the communist missionaries patronising, racist, and insensitive to local cultures and beliefs.

When Moscow's financial support dried up - and cruel, archaic and bankrupt regimes looked condemned to history - Cuba did what it could to provide support for anti-West dictatorships. This meant working with increasingly Tehran-backed groups and nations.

Cuba and many on the hard-left viewed friendship with conservative or reactionary regimes as a pragmatic course of action the left must take on the way to global socialism.

The left could ignore Ahmadinejad's execution of gay men, purge of secularists, and clampdown on women's rights - for "crimes" such as showing "too much hair" - provided he remained a visual and vocal opponent of Washington.

New camp

Yet in many ways Castro's approach survived with a revival of the anti-US camp's power since the Arab Spring.

The Syria war might have weakened the Syrian regime but Bashar al-Assad is still in power, thanks in part to Cuban military support.

It also strengthened Iran, Hizballah, Iraqi-Shia militias, the Kurds, and allowed Russia to reassert itself as a major player in the Middle East.

It has effectively created a pro-Tehran axis able to mobilise expeditionary forcses to huge swathes of the Middle East, now in Syria and Iraq, and possibly Yemen, Lebanon and other areas in the future.
Cuba and many on the hard-left viewed friendship with conservative or reactionary regimes as a pragmatic course of action the left must take on the way to global socialism.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia finds itself increasingly isolated in the region, and internationally.

Riyadh is locked in a stalemate war in Yemen, it has lost the support of client President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt to Russia, while there is a revival in the pro-Hibzallah camp in Lebanon.

Syrian rebels are meanwhile on the ropes, and pro-government forces in Yemen look unable to beat Houthi rebels.

Tributes to the Cuban leader
on the weekend came from the Syrian regime, Iran, Hizballah and other opponents of the US.

Saudi Arabia and other countries remained quiet or stuck to coldly-worded protocol when offering their condolences.

Hizballah meanwhile bestowed Castro with almost messiah-like qualities, describing him as "always the minaret of the rebels across the world".

These words captured the unique appeal of Castro to right-wing Islamist strands in the Middle East, even if he shared few of their beliefs.

But he was a man who could articulate anti-US rhetoric in poetic form, which inspired people of all religions and political persuasions to his pulpit.

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