By Ronald Austin
Last year the governments of Guyana and Cuba celebrated 40 years of diplomatic relations.
It was a mutually satisfying occasion. But the road to this situation was difficult and occasionally fraught with challenges for both nations.
To be sure, one is not speaking of misunderstanding or differences between Guyana and Cuba but rather about the circumstances in which the relations between the two countries were born and the environment in which they are sustained.
One remarkable fact has emerged from all this: there is a political consensus in Guyana, as there is in Cuba, that the relations between the two countries are important to their overall diplomatic relations.
The main political parties were conceived and constructed to meet the criteria of leftist politics of the time. It was no accident therefore that when the Cuban revolution occurred in 1959 it had a huge impact on the politics of British Guiana, as it was then called, and the intellectual class of the colony.
Cuba was seen as leader in the Caribbean and the revolution was seen as a West Indian revolution as that doyen of Caribbean writers, C. L. R. James, has argued.
The government of British Guiana at the time, led by Dr. Cheddi Jagan, showed great courage in embracing the Cuban revolution and its leaders, even though the Cold War was at its height and Havana was subject to a diplomatic quarantine.
In fact, this position by Jagan and his government brought him into sharp conflict with the colonial power Great Britain and the emerging dominant power, the U.S.
After Jagan visited Cuba in 1961 and visited the White House, great pressure was brought to bear on his government and a regime of economic strangulation was instituted. More than this, the U.S., fearing Guyana would become another Cuba, placed great pressure on the British government to effect regime change in British Guiana. This happened in 1964.
The Americans and the British had reason to believe that the new PNC government, led by Forbes Burnham, would reinforce the policy of isolating Cuba.
They were wrong. Burnham established Relations with Cuba on Dec. 8,1972, along with the main CARICOM states.
There is now a regular meeting between Cuba and Caribbean leaders to mark the anniversary of the establishment of relations between Cuba and the main Caribbean states (Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica) on Dec. 8. Four meetings have been held so far.
The recognition of Cuba by Guyana in 1972 facilitated the strengthening, expansion and improvement in relations between the two states, especially in the political and diplomatic sphere. Co-ordination of positions between Guyana and Cuba in all the main diplomatic forums is now customary.
The leaders of both countries have remained close. This was so up to the time of Burnham’s death in 1985 and the new PPP, which has been in office since 1992, has continued this policy.
Facilitated by a Mixed Commission, trade, educational and cultural relations between the countries expanded. A major scholarship program came into being and at this writing Cuba continues to make a significant contribution to the health sector in Guyana in terms of training medical personnel and the staffing of medical facilities.
A National Ophthalmological Hospital, financed by Cuba and established in Region 9 (Guyana is divided into 10 regions), is a monument to the good relations between Guyana and Cuba.
Guyanese see a lot of themselves in the people of Cuba: the same love of music, especially jazz, indigenous foods, dance and literature. Cuba attended the first Caribbean Festival of Creative Arts (CRIFESTA) and played a role in the creation of the Guyana School of Dance.
The close relations between the two peoples have given rise to enduring personal friendships and a deepening of the understanding between the two countries.
Ronald Austin is a retired Guyanese diplomat and former ambassador to China.