by Zafar Bangash (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 53, No. 6, Muharram, 1445)
If Fidel Castro immediately comes to mind when Cuba is mentioned, there is a good reason for it. Fidel and his small band of revolutionaries ousted the US-backed puppet regime of Fulgencio Batista from power on December 31, 1958.
Referred to as the Cuban revolution (in Spanish, Revolución Cubana), it was launched on July 26, 1953 and succeeded some than five years later. Not surprisingly, July 26 is celebrated in Cuba as Día de la Revolución (“Day of the Revolution”).
The revolution also heralded an era of Cuban medical internationalism and Cuban support for liberation movements in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, as well as parts of West Asia. Liberation movements in South Africa, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique all benefited from the support the Cuban revolutionaries provided to them to gain independence.
While there are other figures of the Cuban revolution, such as Che Guevara (born in Argentina in June 1928 and killed in Bolivia on October 9, 1967), Castro remains the iconic figure of the Cuban revolution. Che’s stylized visage has become the ubiquitous countercultural symbol of rebellion and global insignia in popular culture.
There are some anomalies in the way the tiny island State in the Caribbean is run. Its political system is based on socialist principles but tourism—a very bourgeois activity—is the mainstay of its economy. Cuban rum and music round up the picture about Cuba’s cultural life.
Ordinarily, such activities would not be of much interest to Muslims, at least not the observant ones. Yet Muslim tourism to Cuba is increasing. With it, there has emerged the need for a place or places of worship as well as halaal food.
Cuba’s first mosque was opened in 2015. The Abdallah Mosque (Mezquita Abdallah), is a make-shift structure that used to be an antique automobile museum. It was converted into a mosque after the Cuban government gave approval in June 2015.
This is remarkable given Cuba’s tiny Muslim population, some 10,000, from a total population of 11 million. Almost all the Muslims are indigenous with some sprinkling of students, especially in the medical field.
In 2017, the Saudis showed interest in financing a new custom-built mosque. The complex will consist of a mosque as well as dormitories where students will learn about Islam.
While the Saudis are financing the new mosque project in Havana, its construction is managed by the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana (OHCH). With growing numbers of Muslim tourists to Cuba, the need for a proper mosque was felt that could accommodate a larger group of people, especially for Jumuah (Friday) prayers.
Together with prayer facilities, there is also the need for halaal food. The contract for halaal food has been given to an Indian company.
Some hotels of the MGM Muthu group offer a section for halaal food in their buffets. Today this group has five hotels in Cuba and they intend to open a sixth one for the winter season. These hotels are located in Varadero, Cayo Guillermo and the province of Holguin.
Cuba clearly sees a great potential in Muslim tourism. Given the large number of affluent Muslims in the world today and their desire for newer destinations coupled with Cuba’s impressive medical facilities, the tiny island offers good prospects. Several halaal food restaurants exist in Havana and other cities of Cuba (see also here).
This is likely to be further boosted following last June’s visit by President Ebrahim Raiesi of Iran. He arrived in Cuba on June 15 as part of his three-country Latin American visit. The Iranian president had already met the leaders of Venezuela and Nicaragua.
In his meeting with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, President Raiesi emphasized greater cooperation in the energy and biotechnology fields between the two countries.
Then, during a trade forum with local businesspeople in Havana, President Raeisi said Cuba and Iran would seek to work together in biotechnology, mining, electricity generation and other areas. “I hope this meeting will help facilitate integration as well as an exchange of ideas and opinions,” the Iranian president said.
After the forum, the two presidents toured biotechnology production plants in the western part of the capital. They also signed several agreements on customs, justice, telecommunications and diplomatic action.
Despite suffering more than 60 years of US sanctions, Cuba has made some remarkable breakthroughs in the medical field. It is referred to as ‘Cuban medical internationalism’. Cuban doctors and medical personnel provide services in more than 62 countries in Latin America and Africa.
One of their most remarkable forays was into the northern areas of Pakistan following the October 2005 deadly earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people and left millions of people without shelter. Aid agencies arrived from around the world. There was a huge contrast between how the Americans were received and treated and what the Cubans did.
The Pakistan army was deployed to protect American aid workers. People had to come to the American camp to receive treatment. When the Cubans arrived, 680 of them, without speaking a word of the local language (Urdu) or even English—the Cubans mostly spoke Spanish—they filled their backpacks with medicines and headed into the mountains to reach remote villages where nobody had bothered to go.
The Cubans provided help to the villagers trapped in their collapsed houses. They did a fantastic job. After two months of service, when they wanted to leave, the villagers appealed to the Pakistan government to extend the Cubans’ stay. The Cuban government not only extended their medical team’s stay, they did something better.
They informed the Pakistan government that Cuba would provide scholarships to 100 students from the earthquake devastated villages to study medicine in Cuba. The Pakistani students will also be provided free accommodation. The only cost they will incur is travel expenses between Pakistan and Cuba.
Cuba, however, had one condition. Once the students got their medical degree, they must serve for five years in the towns and villages of northern Pakistan. Thereafter, they were free to work wherever they wanted.
During a recent meeting with the Cuban Consul General in Toronto, Jorge Yanier Castellanos Orta revealed that today there are more than 1,000 Pakistani students receiving free medical education in Cuba. Pakistan and Cuba have little in common.
Cuba is a predominantly Catholic country, has a wheeling dealing lifestyle, and is a socialist state. Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim country. The two countries’ culture and languages are very different.
Pakistan’s population is 230 million, Cuba’s is only 11 million and has suffered more than 60 years of US-led sanctions. So, why is Cuba keen to help Pakistani students get free medical education? Would the US, the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis’ favourite destination, provide free education to any Pakistani student, much less in the medical field?
Successive Cuban governments have been motivated by providing humanitarian service without asking for anything in return. This is something that the people and government of Pakistan and indeed Muslims worldwide should reflect upon.