South Africa’s cabinet will be proposing the Contingente Internacional de médicos especializados en situaciones de desastre y graves epidemias ‘Henry Reeve’ – the Cuban ‘medical brigade’ deployed to assist other countries facing medical disaster situations – for the Nobel Peace Prize. While largely symbolic, this is a very visible and audible gesture from South Africa’s government towards not only Cuba’s medics, but towards the Cuban state as a whole. And, like practically all things Cuban in South Africa, this has received an outsized reaction.

‘My heart is in Havana’, goes the refrain in the popular 2017 song by Camila Cabello. This is a line that could easily be appropriated to reflect the emotional hold that Cuba has on millions of people around the world, more than a few in South Africa, particularly in the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Nelson Mandela visited the island nation in 1991, declaring: ‘The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character. From its earliest day, the Cuban revolution has itself been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving peoples … We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.  We also know that this was a popular action in Cuba. We are aware that those who fought and died in Angola were only a small proportion of those who volunteered. For the Cuban people, internationalism is not merely a word but something that we have seen practised to the benefit of large sections of humankind!’

It would be hard to find a better encapsulation of the sentiment underlying the attachment that much of the country’s political and intellectual elite has to Cuba. ‘Cuba’ represents as much an idea as a country. It is avatar to many on the left of a Communist society that not only rose from backwardness, and from the shadow of a superpower, but endured even as its larger brethren collapsed or reformed. There is a quasi-mystical quality to all this. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara formulated the idea of a ‘New Man’, a whole new idea of being human, with a consciousness motivated by altruism and ideology. Perhaps that has meaning for the constant invocation of the ‘Cuban people’ as coterminous with the Cuban state.

For the more muscular among its admirers, Cuba embodies political machismo. Not only was its regime the product of a successful armed uprising – and defended it against an invasion – but since the 1960s it has deployed its military directly in conflicts in Angola, the Horn of Africa, Algeria and Syria, as well as Latin America. It has provided extensive military and intelligence support to friendly regimes, and was a vigorous (sometimes active) supporter of leftist insurgencies. For the ANC, the influence of Cuba’s military record cannot be overestimated. Cuban troops fought the old South African Defence Force in Angola on equal terms; its professionalism and willingness to take casualties were beyond doubt. The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, fought over 1987 and 1988, has entered liberation mythology as the military ‘defeat’ of the SADF. For the ANC, which waged its own largely ineffectual armed struggle for three decades, there is some reflected glory in this. (Incidentally, the outcome of Cuito Cuanavale is disputed, and claimed as a victory by all sides. A senior Russian academic, well experienced in Africa during the Cold War, once told me of his attempts to organise a conference to discuss it in the 1990s. There was very little interest, all parties apparently being quite satisfied with their own mythologies and not wanting to see them challenged. He added that the ANC had no real presence at the battle.)

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, director of the SA Institute of International Affairs, says that the relationship between Cuba and South Africa can be understood as the nexus between ideology and solidarity. On the one side, there are the ties of history and politics. Many in the ANC’s leadership spent time or studied in Cuba, or have been steeped in its mystique. On the other, there is a sense of a special, reciprocal relationship. Just as Cuban arms were held to have propelled South Africa towards liberation, so a duty is owed by South Africa to support that country. This is bolstered by the commitment of South African foreign policy since the 1990s to the ‘Global South’, the heterodox collection of ‘developing’ nations seeking their place in the sun, and often defined in contradistinction to the advanced capitalist democracies.

There are some interesting twists to this. While Cuba as an idea looms large in South Africa’s consciousness, Cuba as a country sits uncomfortably with South Africa’s realities. There has, for example, been very little serious analysis published on the relationship. Certainly, South Africa (and the ANC) has supported Cuba diplomatically at international fora. It has provided the island with some symbolic accolades, as when Fidel Castro was invited to address Parliament in 1998, and when his successor, Raul Castro spoke at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. At the latter event, a handshake between Castro and US president Barack Obama marked the first fleeting contact between the heads of state of the respective countries in decades. Cuba provides a focal point of sorts for left-wing activists in South Africa, Havana as the socialist Nirvana.

South Africa’s economic relationship with Cuba is marginal. In 2018, South African exports to Cuba stood at some $1.65 million. This was exceeded even by exports to Curaçao and Belize, of whose very existence most South Africans are probably only dimly aware. (These numbers are sourced from the excellent Observatory of Economic Complexity.) Imports from Cuba in that year amounted to some $4.45 million, 92% of which consisted of rolled tobacco and hard liquor – raising the interesting factoid that while Cuban medics were arriving in South Africa to fight COVID-19, its exports were rendered contraband. 

Seen thus, the relationship between the two countries is not matched in substance by its emotive intensity. But Cuba has achieved – no mean feat – important strides in its human development. Attainment in education and healthcare is generally well-regarded worldwide. It has a skilled population which the Cuban state has turned into a formidable asset.

Hence its ‘medical diplomacy’. Cuba’s provision of medical services has been a key part of its brand since the 1960s. It has been presented as a selfless act by a poor, developing country for the greater good of humanity. No doubt, people who have been successfully treated by a Cuban doctor would not quibble about that. Nor should one impugn the motivations (which are probably complex) of the individual doctors participating. But for the Cuban state, the issue is more complicated.

As one sympathetic account – by American scholar Julie Feinsilver, in 2010 – put it, its medical diplomacy had a pragmatic as well as an idealistic driver. In the 1970s, Fidel Castro argued that in much of the developing world, doctors could not be found, even where hard money was available to pay for them. Cuba charged less than other suppliers (note though, this was not always free), and this had a competitive advantage. This effectively became a niche for Cuba, both bilaterally and multilaterally.

The programme tapered off somewhat as Cuba lost its Soviet sponsors in the late 1980s, although never ceasing. Agreements with South Africa were concluded in the 1990s. But the rise to power of an ideological soulmate, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, demonstrated its possibilities.

As Feinsilver commented:

‘Medical diplomacy has helped Cuba garner symbolic capital (goodwill, influence, and prestige) well beyond what would have been possible for a small, developing country, and it has contributed to making Cuba a player on the world stage. In recent years, medical diplomacy has been instrumental in providing considerable material capital (aid, credit, and trade), as the oil-for-doctors deals with Venezuela demonstrates. This has helped keep the revolution afloat in trying economic times.’

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Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank promoting individual and societal freedom. Readers are invited to join the IRR by sending an...

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