I attended the first Cuba-Caricom Summit in Havana in December 2002.
As part of the Saint Lucia delegation led by then Prime Minister Dr Kenny D. Anthony, I therefore contributed to the to establishment of the historic mechanism that led to the several gatherings of Cuban and Caricom leaders since then.
Much has changed in the 15 years since, including each country, Cuba included, having had at least three national elections resulting in either changes or continuity of government.
As fate would have it, none of the leaders attending this year’s summit in Antigua and Barbuda will have been present at that initial Havana meeting — with the sole exception of Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the longest-serving Caricom leader today.
Not even (now President) Raul Castro attended that historic inaugural meeting in Havana, back in those days when, due to security considerations, it would have taken a man-made miracle to find both Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, in the same room or building at a public event.
President Fidel Castro made it clear at that memorable first summit that Cuba was more than just honored to have hosted the meeting establishing that permanent mechanism for continuous governmental exchanges with its mainly English-speaking Caribbean neighbors.
By then, Cuba did have diplomatic relations with every Caricom member-state; and most (if not all) had also been annually dispatching students to the University of Havana on free scholarships to study everything from medicine and engineering to architecture and agricultural sciences.
Each Caricom leader who spoke at that inaugural summit not only thanked Cuba for its continued voluminous contributions to education and health in their respective nations, never mind the "Special Period" that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union had resulted in serious economic hardships that resulted in new special problems for the Cuban Revolution, state and people.
Fidel humbly accepted the profound expressions of thanks, but told the gathering what he’d said to every single one of their predecessors during the preceding three decades: that Cuba also wanted to express its own profound and eternal gratitude to the Caribbean’s former British colonies for standing by and with the Cuban Revolution at a time when it most needed support.
President Castro recalled that on December 8, 1972 – even before the formal establishment of Caricom — four English-speaking Caribbean leaders had demonstrated the testicular fortitude to do what no other had.
The Cold War was still very much alive and the US government, after imposing the infamous trade, economic and financial blockade and the military embargo, had basically dictated and ensured that Latin American governments not recognize Cuba. Ten years earlier in 1962 – a year after Cuban troops under his command had roundly defeated the US-backed counter-revolutionary invasion at Playa Giron — Castro had declared the Revolution was building "Socialism."
Chile, under Socialist President Salvador Allende, was the only South American government to stick up its middle finger to Washington.
Mexico and a few other Latin American states did have political ties with Cuba, but due to enormous pressure from Washington, were severely restricted in their ability to identify with or openly support Cuba.
By 1972, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had tried and failed, scores of times, to assassinate Fidel Castro; and the war hawks in Washington made no secret of their support for and funding of counter-revolutionary activities by Miami-based Cuban exiles that Washington openly armed and financed.
Biological warfare was also being carried out against Cuba’s sugar industry and everything else possible was being done by the US government to hurt and harm Cuba, its government and people.
Cuba, an island 90 miles from Florida, was therefore very isolated within Latin America, thanks to Washington’s application of its "Big Stick" policy in a region it considered "America’s backyard."
No English-speaking Caribbean country had ties with Havana in 1972 as the vast majority were still British colonies with limited "statehood" that kept responsibility for foreign affairs (and defense) with London.
It was therefore a very brave decision when the only four independent English-speaking nations announced, out of the blue, that they had jointly decided to recognize Cuba.
The governments of Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, under the leadership of Prime Ministers Errol Barrow, Forbes Burnham, Michael Manley and Dr Eric Williams, respectively, defied Washington’s diktat and jointly established diplomatic ties with Havana.
That historic show of courage, bravery and defiant expression of Caribbean independence was not as appreciated across the Caribbean back then as it was 30 years later when the first Cuba-Caricom summit took place in Havana.
Cuba’s support to Jamaica and Guyana in the years that followed set the stage for Caricom people to better understand and appreciate that the Cuban Revolution was not the evil political force that Washington had made it out to be.
Students were returning home with degrees in disciplines that contributed to their national development and Cuban professionals were providing free valuable services in each newly-independent country they were invited to.
Then there was the utterly brave decision by Guyana, again under Burnham, to allow Cuban military aircraft to refuel for their long flights with thousands of Cuban troops to help beat back the racist Apartheid Southern African Defense Force that was threatening to reverse the 1975 Angolan revolution.
Revelations since the 1976 bombing of a Cubana airline in Barbados by CIA-backed anti-Cuba Miami-based exiles (which killed all 73 innocent Cubans, North Koreans and Guyanese citizens on board) do allow for interpretation of that deadly first major act of international terrorism in the English-speaking Caribbean as punishment of the radical government quartet that recognized Cuba in 1972.
Three years later, the 1979 Grenada Revolution allowed Cuba to offer assistance in full volumes to yet another Caribbean country in areas such as health, education, literacy teaching, agriculture and national security. And most of all, construction of the international airport that would have taken the three-island state (including the Grenadine islands of Carriacou and Petit Martinique) out of its international isolation as a tourist destination.
The internal combustion that eventually led to the suicide of the Grenada Revolution and facilitated the US invasion in 1983 was indeed the most bitter of Cuba’s experiences in its ties with the English-speaking Caribbean. But in the 34 years since, Cuba has diligently and steadily maintained its ties with Caricom, every three years reiterating its support for the region at the Cuba-CARICOM summits.
Forty five years after the first Cuba-Caricom Summit, this year’s — being held in Antigua and Barbuda — will be the first since Fidel Castro died in November 2016.
The elder Castro had given-up the Presidency in 2006, but for all of the ten years thereafter, he never missed any opportunity to let every Caricom leader he met in private know just how much that joint defiant move by the four Caribbean states in 1972 meant, not just to him or the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), or the Cuban state, but to the entire Cuban people and their Revolution.
Some Caricom leaders attended Fidel’s funeral in Havana last year, again demonstrating the region’s appreciation of its historical ties with and thanks for all that Cuba has done in the past four-and-a-half decades to assist the region.
Today, over 5,000 Caribbean professionals have graduated from the University of Havana, not one having had to pay one cent, a penny or a single peso for that education.
Hundreds of Caribbean doctors, dentists and nurses trained in Havana are today caring for their people in all the 15 Caricom member-states, alongside scores of Cuban medical doctors and nurses, dentists and other health specialists being sent annually to each Caribbean state by bilateral arrangement.
Trade ties have been developing as well, even though Cuban exports of sugar and other products to the Caribbean continue to be affected by the cruel and criminal US economic, commercial and financial embargo that severely restricts doing business with Cuba using US currency.
However, Cuba places even more political currency value on the fact that it can continue to count on all Caricom member-states to join the rest of the world to annually vote against the criminal US embargo at the General Assemblies of the United Nations in New York.
Today, Cuba’s ties with the Caribbean are also developing institutionally, like between the University of Havana and the University of the West Indies (UWI), with the two leading educational institutions developing growing mutual exchanges.
Tourism ties are also developing, with private sector Caribbean interests organizing everything from holiday and medical travel tours to Cuba and shopping flights taking Cubans to the region.
Cuba’s valuable solidarity with the Caribbean was again proven earlier this year when, despite also being affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Havana dispatched volunteers to affected Caribbean islands, including Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Haiti and Puerto Rico.
Undertaking medical care in Havana, I am unable to join my Caribbean colleagues who will cover the historic summit this weekend. I have no regrets, as putting this article together is enough recompense for my absence.
It is now for today’s Caricom and Cuban leaders to take ties to the next phase(s) when they meet in Antigua and Barbuda this weekend on the 45th anniversary of that historic 1972 decision and the 15th anniversary of the birth of the Cuba-Caricom Summit mechanism.