December 27, 2002
Guyana-Cuba relations had their origins not 30 years ago in the celebrated démarche by Forbes Burnham's PNC Administration in 1972, which was commemorated earlier this month, but 10 years earlier. In 1962, Cheddi Jagan's PPP Administration - in the throes of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fierce geopolitical rivalry which made the Caribbean a zone of conflict in the second half of the 20th century - embarked on ambitious commercial and political relations with Communist Cuba.
Cheddi Jagan entered office in 1957, two years before the triumph of Fidel Castro's Revolution in 1959, and proceeded to forge a friendship between Guyana and Cuba that alarmed Brazil and Venezuela, aggravating Guyana's frontier and territorial problems and angering the UK and the USA. All of these countries saw Guyana as a Cuban surrogate and this perception contributed to Guyana's problems in the region. The Guyana-Cuba connection also disrupted internal politics leading, eventually, to Jagan's fall from office in 1964.
There is credible evidence that the relations between the PPP and Cuba in the first half of the 1960s was a factor in Venezuela's decision to reopen the territorial controversy, placing it before the UN in 1962, partly out of its fears that Cuba would use Guyanese territory to support communist insurgency there. Internally, the PPP newspaper, the Mirror, was started in 1962 with a press acquired from Cuba and scores of PYO members were sent to Cuba where, among other things, they received military training with discarded Batista-era weapons. Even after leaving office, Dr Jagan's attendance at the January 1966 Tri-Continental Conference, and his endorsement of the 'Declaration of Havana', considered at that time the manifesto for communist revolution in Latin America and the Caribbean, raised hackles at home and abroad.
The PNC-UF coalition which took office in 1964 dismantled the PPP's commercial and quasi-diplomatic links (there was a Cuban commercial office in Georgetown) and tried to court the Western States in an attempt to resolve the territorial controversy. These efforts failed and, soon after becoming a Co-operative Republic in 1970, there was a strategic swing in Guyana's foreign policy towards third- world and communist States with the aim of winning support for territorial integrity and what was then perceived as economic independence.
Relations with Cuba became central to Guyana's new strategy to preserve its territorial sovereignty in the wake of a series of provocative incidents perpetrated by Venezuela. Particularly, the seizure of Ankoko Island in 1966, the promulgation of Decree No. 1152 (Leoni Decree) in 1968 annexing Essequibo's territorial waters, and the instigation of the Rupununi rebellion in 1969 all occurred while friendly western powers stood by.
From the time of the outbreak of Cuban-supported communist insurgency in Venezuela, the Caribbean basin had become the scene of a strategic stand-off between the two regional powers - Venezuela and Cuba - perceived as proxies for the USA and USSR, respectively. By embracing Cuba in 1972, therefore, Guyana was seen to be aligned with Communism and Castroism. This was confirmed by Fidel Castro's visit to Guyana and Forbes Burnham's visit to Cuba where he was presented with the Jose Marti National award. When it provided landing rights to Cuban military aircraft ferrying troops to Angola in 1975, Guyana aligned itself with a geostrategic posture which was to have dire consequences.
Cuban intervention in Angola, arguably, saved the MPLA Government from being overrun by the South African army and Western-supported FNLA and UNITA guerillas. But Guyana's neighbours - Brazil and Venezuela - were astonished at Cuba's awesome military power and logistical capability and were appalled at the prospect of a new Guyana-Cuba military connection.
The bombing of the Cubana airliner in October 1976 in which 11 Guyanese were killed, an act of international terrorism, was part of the penalty for this new strategic connection. Later, with the triumph of Grenada's New Jewel Revolution and Nicaragua's Sandinista Revolution in 1979, Cuba, Grenada, Guyana and Nicaragua along with Jamaica and Suriname, were seen by the USA as a widening circle of socialist states that had to be broken. Guyana's complaints of 'de-stabilisation' during the decade of the 1980s were attributed to the attempts by western states to undermine this assumed socialist solidarity.
The collapse of the USSR, the ending of the Cold War and the faltering of Cuba's economy drained the strategic vitality from Guyana-Cuba relations. Although Cuban medical and technical assistance continued, President Cheddi Jagan, Castro's old friend who entered office in 1992, paid no official visit to Cuba and appointed no Ambassador to Havana. It was only after Dr Jagan's death in 1997, that the Administration made the appointment.
In geostrategic terms, Guyana was drawn under the wing of the US Southern Command , contributing troops to US-backed operations in Haiti in 1994, participating in US-backed military manoeuvres such as Exercise Tradewinds and signing US law-enforcement agreements such as the 'Shiprider' agreement.
Meanwhile, Guyana's territorial problems, which threw it into Cuba's embrace 30 years ago, are just where they were then.