Ukraine: Cuba caught in crossfire between US and Russia

Issue 
Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel
Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel (right) on a visit to Guantanamo region in Cuba. Photo: presidencia.gob.cu

The 193-member United Nations General Assembly voted 141 to 5, on March 2, to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Walking a diplomatic tightrope, due to its close relations with Russia, Cuba abstained from voting. Thirty-four other nations did the same.

Cuba also rejected Russia's suspension from the UN Human Rights Council, on April 7, voting against the resolution in the General Assembly.

Ninety-three nations voted in favour of the suspension, with 24 against. Russia was elected to the Human Rights Council in 2020 with 158 votes.

China was among the countries that voted against the suspension, arguing that any hasty move in the General Assembly would be like “adding fuel to the fire”, thereby aggravate divisions, intensifying the conflict, and jeopardising peace efforts.

Pedro Luis Pedroso, Cuba’s permanent representative to the UN, explained to the General Assembly why his country voted against the resolution, questioning the power of suspension, which, he said, has no parallel in any other UN body. He also pointed out that the power to suspend a nation can be selectively and arbitrarily used.

“It was no coincidence,” Pedroso said, “that the most enthusiastic promoters of the membership suspension clause, when the construction of the new Human Rights Council was being negotiated, were developed nations with a demonstrated trend to accuse countries of the South that do not conform to their supposed models of democracy.”

Those same developed nations remained complicit in silence in the face of human rights violations in Western countries, he added.

In the face of a cruel and illegal 60-year US economic blockade, Cuba cannot afford to alienate nations such as China and Russia — nations that have supported it in its fight against US imperial aggression.

Cuba’s position is that the US and NATO helped set the stage for the conflict in Ukraine by expanding NATO right up to Russia’s borders, ignoring its legitimate security concerns.

“The conflict could have been avoided,” tweeted Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel on March 8, “if Russia’s security guarantee claims had been seriously and respectfully addressed. To think that it would remain defenceless in the face of NATO’s offensive military siege is, to say the least, irresponsible. They have taken [Russia] to an extreme situation.”

That is the realpolitik. As a matter of deeply held principle, Cuba has for decades advocated non-intervention, opposed imperial aggressiveness, and supported the right of small states to sovereignty, in this case, Ukraine. Thus, in the UN General Assembly debate, Pedroso chose not to endorse Russia’s actions in Ukraine and spoke of Russia’s “non-observance of legal principles and international norms”.

True to form, the US is now accusing Cuba of endorsing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and acts of aggression.

Cuba remained close to Ukraine even during the so-called “Special Period” when Cuba experienced great hardships following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Cuba has had a three-decade-old program of taking in children and mothers affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, for oncological haematologist pathology treatment at the Tarará beachside resort near Havana, at no cost.

US criticism of Cuba also ignores the fact that Cuba has been vocal in deeply regretting the loss of innocent lives and advocating the need for a negotiated peaceful settlement of the conflict in Ukraine.

In a series of tweets published on February 27, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez referred to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and stated that he “deeply regretted the loss of innocent civilian lives in Ukraine”. However, he went on to say that it would be wrong to ignore Russia’s well-founded claims for security guarantees.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session on Ukraine on March 1, Pedroso said: “Cuba is also committed to International Humanitarian Law and calls on all parties to protect the civilian population, their possessions and infrastructure.

“We deeply regret the loss of innocent civilian lives in Ukraine. The Cuban people have had and continue to have a very close relationship with the Ukrainian people.”

Cuba’s relations with Russia are by no means straightforward. Ideologically, Cuba has little in common with Russia. In terms of commerce and trade, Cuba is nowhere near as dependent on Russia today as it was on the Soviet Union.

Cuba is right to resist US demands for regime change. Russia and China, in their respective dealings with Cuba, make no such demands on Cuba.

It is therefore not surprising that Cuba finds itself walking a difficult diplomatic tightrope.