Despite drifting apart ideologically, Cuba and Cambodia have remained firm diplomatic allies
In a modest villa on Tito Boulevard is a living relic of a past era. Staffed by just two diplomats, the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba is a remnant of a once vibrant relationship between two Soviet-era allies.
The embassy grounds bring a small slice of Havana to central Phnom Penh, with Cuba’s national palm tree growing near a statue of Jose Marti – the 19th-century freedom fighter adored by the nation’s communists and counter-revolutionaries alike.
The inside of the residence, which is connected to the embassy by a short walkway, is adorned with colourful surrealistic art on white walls.
A collection of Cuban rum sits on an end table, while a small portrait of President Raul Castro unobtrusively greets visitors at the entrance.
With virtually no Cubans in the country, the current Cuban ambassador, Jose Ramon Rodriguez Varona, an experienced diplomat who previously served stints in the Soviet Union, Iran and North Korea before being posted to Phnom Penh in 2011, spends most of his time attending cultural events and promoting Cuban interests where they still exist in the Kingdom.
Next week, for example, he will host a dinner party celebrating the anniversary of the first battle of the revolution at Moncada Barracks, while yesterday he promoted an alternative cancer treatment made from Cuban scorpions at a Phnom Penh Hotel press conference.
Though the island’s role in Cambodia is now minimal, Rodriguez said Cuba and Cambodia still had a close relationship, a legacy from a time when both countries had a shared ideology – and patron.
“We have a lot of cooperation with Cambodia as two non-alignment countries,” said Rodriguez.
“It’s a small embassy, a modest embassy. But we have direct relations with the government.”
Cuba’s revolutionary government first established diplomatic relations with Cambodia during Norodom Sihanouk’s reign in 1960 – a year after Fidel Castro seized power from US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The mission was withdrawn during the years of Democratic Kampuchea but re-established in one of Sihanouk’s villas in the 1980s after the formation of a Soviet-friendly regime in Phnom Penh.
With Cambodia in ruins, Cuba – also a Soviet client state – dispatched extensive humanitarian aid to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea at a time when Cold War realpolitik prevented the West from helping civilians within the new Vietnamese-backed state.
Among the principle projects in the 1980s, said Rodriguez, was the running of a hospital in Phnom Penh on land now occupied by the uncompleted Gold 42 tower and Kids City near the corner of Sihanouk and Monivong boulevards.
About 20 doctors staffed the hospital, while another 80 were sent to government-controlled areas in the provinces. About 130 Cambodian students were invited to Havana to attend university.
Medical aid is still Cuba’s most prominent diplomatic gesture in the developing world, with hundreds of doctors dispatched to West Africa last year to fight Ebola.
“We don’t have a lot of resources to help the world, but we have some resources to help humanity, out of principle,” he said, adding that it was part of Cuba’s “revolutionary politics”.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, created an economic crisis in Cuba euphemistically known as the “Special Period”.
Cuba’s outbound foreign aid was drastically cut and, with the exception of a short-lived leprosy clinic in the late 1990s, never returned to Cambodia in force, although some 30 Cambodians are still attending medical school in Havana.
While Cuba struggled economically, a new revolution was taking place in Cambodia.
Though the changes were partially cosmetic – the old Communist Party elite remains in power to this day – capitalism was embraced, while opposition parties, though repressed, were allowed to operate on a level unheard of under communist rule.
Rodriguez said Cambodia’s stability and growth in the decades following the 1993 election were causes for celebration.
Having himself visited Cambodia in the 1980s – he personally witnessed the 1989 withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Phnom Penh – he said it would have been impossible to envision the much-improved state of the country today when he first visited.
More success would follow, he predicted, with the planned formation of the ASEAN Economic Community.
“It could make Cambodia a developed country in 2020, as the government has said,” said Rodriguez.
With such optimism for ASEAN’s free-market approach to economics, might Cuba, where the economy is virtually entirely state-controlled, be better off abandoning Soviet-style communism?
“No, we have other conditions for development,” Rodriguez said, adding that the US embargo, which the Republican-controlled US Congress has vowed to keep in place despite Obama’s attempts to end it, necessitated the Cuban government’s control of the economy.
The Cuban government, which is consistently ranked as among the world’s least free by global freedom indexes, has long used US hostility as justification for its political and economic authoritarianism.
Juan Carlos Hidalgo, policy analyst on Latin America at the Washington-based Cato libertarian think tank, which opposes the US embargo, said the Castros would remain reluctant to change.
“The Cubans are willing to tweak their economic system, but they know that free market reforms would empower Cubans and ultimately lead to the downfall of the regime,” Hidalgo said.
As Cuba prepares to reopen its US embassy on Monday – a historic moment marking the end of a half century of hostility between Washington and Havana – the Caribbean republic hopes to enter a new age of engagement with the wider world.
However, Rodriguez said he doesn’t envision Cuba returning to the relevance it had in Cambodia during the dark years of the 1980s civil war.
“At this moment, Cambodia receives help mostly from Asean, China, the EU, and Australia. And in this moment, we are not in the position to offer this help,” he said.