Ramallah, West Bank – It’s November 1974, and Yasser Arafat, sporting his signature Ray-Ban sunglasses and checkered black-and-white headscarf, is waving to a cheering crowd on the tarmac of Jose Marti International Airport outside Havana.
He descended from the Algerian Airlines plane that took him from New York City to the Cuban capital, where he was greeted and embraced by Fidel Castro, who was at that time prime minister and had been in power for 15 years.
Castro died late on Friday at the age of 90, according to the Cuban government.
The moment in Havana wasn’t the first time the two men had met – their initial encounter happened just over a year earlier at the 4th Summit of Non-Aligned Countries in Algeria. However, it was the first time they met on Cuban soil.
Despite not being a head of state, Arafat was given a presidential welcome in Havana: Cuban Communist Party officials, ministers and others warmly welcomed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader that day.
Later on, he was awarded one of the country’s highest decorations, the Orden Nacional Playa Giron, or Bay of Pigs Medal, which, according to Cuba’s government radio, is “awarded to Cuban citizens or foreigners who have excelled in the struggle against imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism, or who have done great deeds for peace and progress of mankind”.
The iconic picture of Arafat and Castro walking on the tarmac – housed at the Yasser Arafat Foundation in Ramallah – tells the tale of how an unlikely relationship between the two men, and the PLO and Cuba, were forged.
And while Cuban-Palestinian relations can be traced as far back as the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, it was Arafat’s November 1974 trip that “cemented the official Palestinian relationship with Cuba”, said Hosni Abdel Wahad, the Palestinian Authority’s assistant foreign minister for the Americas.
“It was during that visit that the official PLO-Cuban ties were forged and the first [PLO] representative office was opened in Havana thereafter.”
Cuba recognises the PLO
It is believed that unofficial ties were made between Cuba and the Palestinians during a first-of-its-kind trip by Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara to the Gaza Strip in late 1959.
Events in the 1950s set the stage for this trip: during that time, all Latin American countries , with the exception of Cuba, consistently supported the Israeli position over that of the Palestinians in international forums.
Che Guevara, who was not Cuban but was an instrumental figure in the country’s revolution, spoke in support of the Palestinians in the coastal enclave and elsewhere.
This culminated in Cuba’s recognition of the PLO when it was founded in 1964, making it one of the first countries to do so.
The Cubans trained Palestinian cadres, and Fidel himself was a staunch advocate of the Palestinian quest for freedom and independence.
Many of Arafat’s pictures at the Yasser Arafat Foundation, which traces and commemorates the life of the late Palestinian leader, attest to a close relationship with Fidel Castro and Cuba.
The mostly black-and-white images document a series of visits by Arafat to the Latin American country – by some accounts, as many as eight; and these are just the official ones, said Mohammad Odeh, who heads Fatah’s Latin America department.
“That’s a significant number considering Cuba is such a geographically distant country.
“It was, at best, a 12-hour plane ride from any European country, yet Arafat made the trip on numerous occasions. Castro always welcomed him like he was a head of state.”
Mansour Tahboub, former acting director of the Arafat Foundation, said such visits were also a testament to the close historical ties.
“Cuba has always been a strong supporter of Palestinians in all realms: political, military, vocational training,” Tahboub said.
“The Cubans trained Palestinian cadres, and Fidel himself was a staunch advocate of the Palestinian quest for freedom and independence.”
The rare archival footage at the foundation provides a window into many milestones of Cuban-Palestinian relations, such as Arafat pictured on stage – with former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, in the background – condemning Egypt for signing the 1978 Camp David Accords with Israel, during the 6th Non-Aligned Summit in Havana in September 1979.
During that time, Egypt was suspended as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement after its agreement with Israel was criticised as “an act of complicity with the continued occupation of Arab territories”.
But these pictures show only a portion of the decades-long relationship between the two men. The PLO and Cuba were natural allies, as both championed what their leaders saw as a struggle against imperial and colonial powers.
Quest for independence
Indeed, Castro conflated Cuba’s “strife to fight imperialism” with the Palestinian quest for independence from Israel’s occupation.
“Cuba’s backing of the Palestinians wasn’t exceptional,” explained Abdel Wahad, who studied journalism in Cuba.
“It was part of the Cuban support system to all people struggling for freedom and fighting against colonialism.”
Castro reaffirmed this belief on numerous occasions, including during an interview with the French weekly Afrique-Asie in 1977.
“The Palestinian movements have shown their ability to resist imperialist … aggression … [The Palestinian cause] will prevail sooner or later in spite of the betrayal by Arab reactionaries, imperialist manoeuvres and Israeli aggression.”
In almost every one of Castro’s many speeches, he voiced support for the Palestinians alongside condemnations of US “imperialist plots”.
Following the end of the Six-Day War, Cuba condemned Israel for the first time at the UN. And of all the Latin American countries that had PLO representative offices at the time, only Cuba and Nicaragua granted the PLO full diplomatic status.
Yet despite its close relationship with the PLO, Cuba continued to maintain relations with Israel until 1973. It was during the Non-Aligned Movement summit of that year in Algeria that Cuba announced it would break off relations with Tel Aviv.
Several historical accounts refer to a dramatic scene unfolding at the event after Castro was reportedly convinced to cut ties with Israel.
Tales were told of an embrace between Castro and former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, and some claimed that “Arafat ran across [the hall] to embrace Fidel, and the applause lasted for minutes”.
During the Non-Aligned Movement’s heyday, before the end of the Cold War, Cuba also gave much-needed political support to the Palestinians in international fora, such as the UN.
Around that time, Cuba co-sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution that equated Zionism with racism.
Even when the UN later repealed the resolution in 1991, Cuba stood in opposition.
Quid pro quo?
Some argued that the prominence Cubans gave to the Palestinian cause was a quid pro quo for helping the Castro government secure influence among “Third World nations”.
“The symbiotic relationship between the two … enabled Castro, despite his role in Latin America and Africa as a Soviet client and surrogate, to assume a leadership position in the Third World and within the Non-Aligned Movement,” wrote David J Kopilow, a former consultant for the Hudson Institute in Washington specialising in Central America.
Cuba assisted the PLO – especially left-leaning factions like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) – in forging ties with neighbouring states.
The Cubans had a huge role in us seeking the status of non-member observer state, and we still liaise with them on all high-level international matters.
“The Cubans played a vital role in facilitating our interactions on the Latin American scene,” said Hisham Abu Ghosh, a member of the DFLP’s political bureau.
The DFLP had an especially close relationship with the Cuban regime; the party’s leader Nayef Hawatmeh made dozens of trips to the island, the most recent of which was made in November 2013.
The PLO also found fertile ground in Cuba for political training and support, giving “logistical and professional guidance for Palestinian factions”, according to Abdel Majeed Sweilim, professor of political science at Al Quds University.
The Latin American state also took a special interest in providing educational support to Palestinians.
“Despite Cuba’s economic woes, the government would give more than 150 Palestinians annually opportunities to study medicine, engineering and other disciplines,” said Odeh, who studied dentistry on the island in 1970 under a full scholarship granted by the Cuban government.
Close relations have been maintained between the Palestinians and Cuba, but “the nature of the relationship has differed”, explained the PA’s Abdel Wahad. “There is an official relationship with the state of Palestine.”
Cuba was even consulted in the lead-up to the UN’s recognition of Palestine as a “non-member observer state”.
“I was in Cuba two years ago to consult with officials about the UN bid,” Fatah’s Odeh said.
“Not many people know this, but the Cubans had a huge role in us seeking the status of non-member observer state, and we still liaise with them on all high-level international matters.”
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa