An Information Service of the
Cuba Transition Project
Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies
University of Miami

This message is sent in compliance with e-mail Bill HR 1910. If you no longer wish to receive emails from the CTP, please click here to unsubscribe.
 
Issue 127
August 16, 2010

 

 



Vanessa Lopez*

 

   

Cuba’s Growing Relations with
Iran and Syria

   

 

    
    Cuba’s relations with Iran and Syria are at all-time highs. Cuba’s ties with Syria are mostly political, with Syria frequently condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba and Cuba condemning Israeli actions. Cuba’s relations with Iran, on the other hand, have been far more lucrative for the Cuban government, as Iran has provided significant economic support for Cuba’s devastated economy.

 

Cuba and Iran

    Of all state leaders sympathetic to the Cuban government, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems the most supportive next to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Cuba's alliance with Iran "dates to 1979 when Fidel Castro became one of the first heads of state to recognize the Islamic Republic's radical clerics. Addressing then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Castro insisted that there was 'no contradiction between revolution and religion,' …. Over the next two decades, Castro fostered a unique relationship between a secular communist Cuba and theocratic Iran united by a common hatred of the United States and the liberal democratic West." (1) The intensity of political ties between Iran and Cuba are not new; Cuba has for many years supported Iran's right to the use of nuclear energy and Iran has repeatedly condemned the U.S. embargo against Cuba. In 2008, Cuba's Foreign Minister met with Ahmadinejad in Tehran and both voiced their pleasure at the closeness of their countries’ relations. (2)


    Ahmadinejad's anti-Americanism has been obvious since his first election as Iran's President. Under this ideological tie, Cuba and Iran developed an economic relationship that would prove to be quite lucrative for Cuba. This economic relationship began growing in 2005 with Iran's development of an investment program to assist Cuba's transportation sector. This was the basis for Iran's $295 million loan to finance imports, including the 750 railway cars that Cuba purchased in January of 2008. (3)

     In February 2008, both countries signed an initial agreement for scientific and technical cooperation in biotechnology and medical and pharmaceutical development; later that year they officially reiterated their commitment to economic cooperation. (4) Shifting Iran's economic benevolence to a higher gear, Iran increased its credit line to Cuba to 500 million euros in November 2009, after their Fourteenth Joint Economic Commission in Havana. (5)

     In June 2010, it was announced that Iran would open its first business office in Cuba, with TAD.CO (a state-owned agricultural company) establishing itself in Havana. (6) This company has already been selling goods to Cuba, having previously sold it 3,000 irrigations systems; the establishment of this office represents a growing Iranian presence in the island. Iran’s ambassador emphasized that this represents a deepening of relations between the countries. (7)

     As previously mentioned, of all the countries from which Cuba receives economic aid, Iran appears to be the one least concerned with having a mutually beneficial economic relationship (aside from Venezuela). Iran, for the time being, is willing to endure economic losses to assist Cuba's financial crisis. Realistically, it is in a better position to do so than Venezuela because it needs to be even less responsive to the needs of its citizens, as the Iranian regime has a more secure grip on power than the Venezuelan. One can also note that Iran is the eighth largest oil exporter, just above Venezuela. For these reasons, Raul seeks to increase Cuba’s bond with Iran.

     Although the relationship is economically unequal, Iran does benefit in various ways from its relationship with Cuba. As the former president and major player of the Non Aligned Movement, Cuba is able to muster significant political support for Iran throughout the international community, most notably in the United Nations General Assembly. Iran’s support of Cuba also plays an important role in its alliance with Venezuela. More broadly, the relationship can also lead to increased trade between Iran and the rest of Latin America, as well as increased influence in the region.

     More worrisome to the United States are reports that “have uncovered covert cooperation between the two countries in the development and testing of electromagnetic weapons that have the capacity to disrupt telecommunication networks, cut power supplies and damage sophisticated computers.” (8) Furthermore, Cuba can easily provide Iran with valuable information from its sophisticated espionage apparatus. Iran is also able to obtain information on biotechnology from Cuba. In the late 1990s, Cuba began “transferring (licensing) both its medical biotechnologies and, along with the technical know-how, implicit capabilities to develop and manufacture industrial quantities of biological weapons,” creating a significant security threat for the United States and Israel. (9)

 

Cuba and Syria

     Cuba-Syrian ties have a significant political history as Syria recognized the Cuban government early on in 1965. Syria’s ties with the Soviet Union placed it in a familial relationship with the Cuban government, as both were among the few countries that favored the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1985, in a letter from Syrian President al-Assad to Fidel Castro, he honored the friendship between both countries as beneficial “for the two peoples in their joint struggle against world imperialism and its allies.” (10) Syria’s foreign minister stated at the same time that “Syria’s admiration for the fraternal Cuban people’s great achievements and their firm stands against imperialist aggression on the Latin American people.” (11) The relationship between both countries has been fueled by antagonism towards the United States, and secondarily, Israel as well as by Syrian gratitude for Cuba’s military support during the Yom Kippur War against Israel.

     Political ties between the countries have been increasing since 2005; that October, Syrian President al-Assad received a delegation of Cuba’s National Assembly which met with him as well as Syria’s Popular Assembly. Cuba’s embassy in Syria reported that these “talks have dealt with ties of friendship and cooperation standing between the two countries and the best means to boost them mainly on the economic field.” (12) In August of the following year, Raul Castro received a delegation from Syria, headed by its Minister of Information, but this meeting echoed previous ones in which they publically condemned U.S. and Israeli aggression.

     With Raul officially at Cuba’s helm, 2008 saw more noticeable developments between Cuba and Syria. In January of that year, Cuba’s ambassador in Syria held a press conference in which “he expressed his country’s desire in boosting economic and trade relations between the two countries,” stating that “the current volume of trade exchange between the two countries doesn’t exceed USD 10 million.” (13) That February, the al-Baath Arab Socialist Party (BASP) met with a delegation of the Cuban-Arab Friendship Association in Damascus where they reviewed ways of increasing cooperation to serve their common interests. Days later, Raul Castro met with Syria’s Minister of Information during his working visit to Cuba and a few months later, during another visit to the island, the Minister stressed the need of “enhancing media cooperation regarding issues of the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean and the common challenges that face the two countries.” (14) (15) There were several other high level delegations sent from Cuba to Syria that deepened their political relationship.

     After a great effort from the Cuban government to increase economic ties between the countries, developments in 2010 indicate that Syria might be inclined to assist Cuba economically. In January 2010, Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Africa, Middle East and Asia met in Syria with several Syrian officials including the First Deputy Foreign Minister, political and social leaders, the Vice President, the Information Minister, and the Syrian Workers and Farmers Association’s Director. (16) Cuba has stressed the need to increase trade in wheat, textiles, and shoes; consequently, the meeting with Syria’s Workers and Farmers Association is particularly important to the island. No tangible economic developments have occurred outside of education and health, however.

     Politically, a significant step was taken when Syria’s President visited Cuba in June 2010. This was part of a Latin American tour that would also take him to Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. Economically, however, Cuba has not had great success in getting significant concessions from Syria. As of mid-2010, Cuba has trained over 200 Syrians in Cuban universities, with 25 currently studying on the island. (17) During President al-Assad’s visit, cooperation accords were signed between the countries to fight drug trafficking and its related crimes; they also signed a memorandum of understanding to develop cooperation on agriculture. (18)

    Cuba has been working diligently over the past five years to obtain a beneficial economic relationship with Syria, similar to what it has with Iran. But as of yet, Syria has not been willing to provide Cuba with the aid it seeks. The talks between the countries have increasingly discussed economic issues, and the above-mentioned recently signed memorandum is a new development, but it remains unclear if Syria is able or willing to give Cuba economic concessions. Currently, the relationship remains purely political.


Future Relations

     Cuba’s relationships with Iran and Syria have proven to be politically lucrative for the island. Syria has shown itself to be a loyal ally and has increased its political relationship with Cuba over the past five years. Cuba is making great efforts to transform this political relationship into an economically beneficial one; Syria has recently indicated it is willing to engage Cuba more significantly, but it remains to be seen if these statements and memorandums between the two countries will translate into dollars for the Cuban regime. On the other hand, Iran has been completely willing to aid Cuba despite suffering economic losses.

     These countries serve to prop up Cuba in the international arena and Iran provides much-needed economic life support. These relationships should be of the utmost concern to the United States, since they place two countries that have been delineated as part of the “axis of evil” closely allied with an anti-American regime only 90 miles off U.S. shores. Cuba’s expertise in espionage and biotechnology can be a significant threat in the hands of these two countries. In its efforts to make Syria an economic supporter, Cuba could be willing to assist it in these areas. Let us not forget also that Cuba was one of the few countries to advocate for the Soviets to use nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its ties with a potentially nuclear capable Iran and a resurgent Syria can lead to an unstable situation by our shores - or perhaps more immediately, in Israel and the rest of the Middle East.

  _________________________________________________


Notes

(1) "Islamic Investment in Cuba." Cuba Focus. Cuba Transition Project. August 11, 2008. http://ctp.iccas.miami.edu/FOCUS_Web/Issue99.htm.

(2) Risquet Bueno, Jesus. "Iranian President Met Cuban Foreign Minister." Trabajadores. July 31, 2008. http://www.trabajadores.cu/news/2008/7/31/iranian-president-met-cuban-foreign-minister/?searchterm=sovereignty.

(3) Farrar-Wellman, Ariel. "Cuba-Iran Foreign Relations." Iran Tracker. http://www.irantracker.org/foreign-relations/cuba-iran-foreign-relations.

(4)Op Cit.

(5) "Iran, Cuba Reinforce Economic Ties." Tehran Times. November 8, 2009. http://www.tehrantimes.com/index_View.asp?code=207415.

(6) Veloz, Marta. “Primera oficina empresarial de Irán en Cuba.” Opciones. June 17, 2010. http://www.opciones.cu/leer.asp?idnuevo=4302.

(7) “First Iranian Company Sets Foot in Cuba.” AFP. June 20, 2010. http://business.maktoob.com/20090000482130/First_Iranian_company_sets_foot_in_Cuba/Article.htm.

(8) Suchlicki, Jaime. “The Cuba-Venezuela Challenge to Hemispheric Security: Implications for the United States.” Challenges to Security in the Hemisphere Task Force. Center for Hemispheric Policy. December 3, 2009.

(9) Op Cit.

(10) Pipes, Daniel. “Syria: The Cuba of the Middle East.” Commentary. July 1986. http://www.danielpipies.org/170/syria-the-cuba-of-the-middle-east.

(11) Op Cit.

(12) Younes, S. “Cuban Parliamentarians Voice Solidarity with Syria.” Cuban Embassy. 2005. http://www.embacubasiria.com/a000061e.html.

(13) “The Cuban Ambassador in Damascus Underscores the Strong Relations with Syria.” January 17, 2008. Cuban Embassy. http://www.embacubasiria.com/relacion170108e.html.

(14) “Cuban President Meets with Syrian Minister of Information.” Granma. February 7, 2008. http://www.embacubasiria.com/relacion020708ehtml.

(15) “Bilal Reviews with Cuban Foreign Minister Information Cooperation.” Cuban Embassy. July 1, 2008. http://www.embacubasiria.com/relacion020708ehtml.

(16) “Syria, Cuba Strengthen Relations.” Prensa Latina. January 20, 2010. http://www.embacubasiria.com/relacion200110e.html.

(17) “Syrian President Visits Cuba.” Prensa Latina. June 28, 2010. http://www.plenglish.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=201429&Itemid=1.

(18) “Cuba-Syria Talk on Middle East Tension” Escambray. July 3, 2010. http://www.escambray.cu/Eng/cuba/cabasiria100630800.

  _________________________________________________


*Vanessa Lopez is a Research Associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami.

_________________________________________________

The CTP can be contacted at P.O. Box 248174, Coral Gables, Florida 33124-3010, Tel: 305-284-CUBA (2822), Fax: 305-284-4875, and by email at ctp.iccas@miami.edu. The CTP Website is accessible at http://ctp.iccas.miami.edu.