Caribbean’s best known leader is no more

Bert Wilkinson | 12/1/2016, 9:27 a.m.

In early December 1972, then Guyana’s Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and three of his regional colleagues sprang a monumental political surprise on the world when they officially established diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro’s communist-ruled Cuba, largely ending the island’s American-imposed and policed hemispheric isolation and opening the floodgates to a rash of other nations to follow suit.

Very few political watchers around the world had seen the move by leaders of Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados coming, so they basically had no chance to checkmate it.

Cubans celebrated the move and to this day, successive generations of leaders have made their appreciation of the move very clear and have ensured Cuba remains engaged in regional affairs.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was by far the best known politician and leader ever to have come out of the Caribbean. He died in Havana late Friday at age 90, less than two weeks before Cuba and the Caribbean would have celebrated 44 years of unbroken relations Dec. 8.

Many of the current crop of regional leaders have already indicated plans to fly to Havana for funeral services for Castro. Critics say few could question Cuba’s commitment to the region and its material assistance to the Caribbean during some of the tougher periods.

For example, thousands of Caribbean students including doctors, engineers, pilots and medical technicians read for fully paid-up degrees at Cuban universities, and Cuba has sent thousands of doctors and support staff to work at hospitals and clinics in a slew of Caribbean nations since the mid-1970s.

“He generously shared his country’s expertise with other developing countries, and CARICOM member states have benefited significantly, and continue to do so, from Cuba’s contribution to their development,” bloc chairman and Prime Minister of Dominica Roosevelt Skerrit said in a statement. “In recognition of his role in that regard, the CARICOM heads of government bestowed an honorary Order of the Caribbean Community on President Castro, the only such honor granted to a non-CARICOM citizen. His commitment to social justice and dignity for all people earned him global recognition and a stature as one of the influential world leaders of his time.”

Castro made it a point to visit several of the larger member states from the 1970s to the 90s, including Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, attending international summits and signing bilateral agreements with various governments. He also spent time in Grenada, which the U.S. invaded back in 1983 to shut down growing relations between the island and Cuba and other leftist countries.

But many in the region remember Castro and Cuba for the contribution to the African liberation struggle in the 70s and 80s.

At least 5,000 Cuban troops died on African battlefields, about half of them in Angola. Others beat back white South African troops fighting to maintain the apartheid system, and others have fought alongside troops in Algeria, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone and Libya.

Guyanese in particular remembered the fact that the Burnham government in Guyana had allowed Cuban military planes flying to Africa to refuel at the local airport during months of late-night clandestine operations. No one has apologized for facilitating the Cubans, calling it a just and righteous cause.