CUBA’S new president Miguel Diaz-Canel is in Pyongyang this week, meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and promising to strengthen the longstanding relationship between the two countries.
While the Cuban joins a line of foreign diplomats who have connected with Kim over his last 12 months of uncharacteristic diplomacy, the small Caribbean island is a little different from the others.
Cuba is probably North Korea’s most consistent and loyal ally from the time of its inception back in the 50s, and has remained so despite changing fortunes and political divergence.
The history of the close ties goes back to the Cold War between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union.
There is some obvious glue holding Cuba and North Korea together; namely Communism and a fiery anti-American sentiment.
Both of these had an opportunity to flourish during the Cold War and it was their mutual hatred of American imperialism that forged the strong friendship.
While initiated in the 60s, as recently as 2015, Diaz-Canel was reaffirming this sentiment.
“Cuba and the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) are far away from each other geographically,” he said during a visit to Pyongyang while he was still vice president. “But they are firmly united, thanks to the common idea and friendship, and the two peoples are comrades-in-arms standing together on the forefront for independence against imperialism.”
It’s, perhaps, not surprising given both sides have had their fair share of run-ins with America.
North Korea most notably during the Korean War in which in the US sided with the South.
Since then there has been a fairly constant stream of back and forth provocations on both sides as Pyongyang gradually worked its way towards development of a full nuclear arsenal. Much to America’s chagrin, they achieved this mission just last year.
Cuba’s problems mostly started with the Cuban Revolution and the presidency of Fidel Castro in 1959.
Despite a cordial meeting with then-President Richard Nixon straight after assuming power, Castro started troubling the staunchly anti-communist US almost immediately.
The revolutionary’s socialist reforms prompted Washington to impose a trade embargo in 1960. And a CIA led plan to assassinate Castro fails in 1961.
Things only escalated from there with the Cuban Missile Crisis in ’62, and the tightening of the trade embargo in 1993. Cuba is added to Washington’s list of “axis of evil” countries in 2002.
While Castro’s commitment to communism drove America away, it brought North Korea closer.
In a 1960 visit to Pyongyang, fellow Cuban revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, proclaimed the North Korea system a model for Cuba to follow.
In 1968, Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro, said their views were “completely identical on everything.”
Their once parallel approaches to their ideology did, however, begin to diverge over time, with North Korea taking a militaristic approach and dictator Kim Il Sung cultivating a powerful cult of personality, complete with towering statues and hero worship.
Castro wasn’t comfortable with this, feeling the statues erected in his honour jarred with the central messages of Marxist-Leninist principles he espoused.
Despite this, the pair’s kinship didn’t waver, with Cuban leaders repeatedly reaffirming their solidarity with the Kim regime over the decades.
Even as ties warmed between Cuba and the US – culminating in former-president Barack Obama lifting trade embargo and removing the country from the “State sponsors of terror” list – ties with North Korea remained strong.
If anything, they strengthened under Raul Castro’s presidency between 2008 and April this year. Given the “comradely and friendly atmosphere” of Diaz-Canel’s visit this week, the strategic relationship only looks set to deepen.