The government of Iraq confronted Cuban non-resident ambassador to Baghdad, Alexis Bandrich Vega, this week about the island nation’s significant debt to the country, urging Havana to cooperate with finding a way for Iraq to regain its funds.
Iraq is currently embroiled in a widespread military operation against the Islamic State (ISIS), which it largely failed to defeat when only using its army. Baghdad has since cooperated with the more formidable Kurdish Peshmerga to fight the terrorist threat and has formalized the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU/PMF), Iran-backed militias that have threatened American soldiers, as an official wing of the Iraqi military.
As Iraq prepares to deliver the final blow to ISIS and finds itself pressured by Turkey to eliminate the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Sinjar, officials are urging Cuba to pay its debt.
Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari met with Bandrich this week to discuss the debt, seeking cooperation “to liquidate the debt with Baghdad especially because his country is experiencing exceptional circumstances due to low oil prices and the cost of the war on terrorism,” the Cuban-American news outlet Martí Noticias reports. Al-Jaafari also brought up the possibility of Cuban investment in the Iraqi economy, which would require a significantly more robust economic state than the one the Castro regime has plunged the island into for more than half a century.
Martí Noticias reports that the most recent estimate of the Cuban debt to Iraq was published in 2014 and places the amount at over $18 million. Diario de Cuba, a Spain-based newspaper, notes that the release announcing talks between the two countries did clarify how much money Cuba owes Iraq.
The CIA World Factbook estimates Cuba’s foreign debt globally at an excess of $20 billion. During the Soviet era, Cuba relied heavily on money flows from Moscow to overcome the effects of the American embargo while also not investing any public money in the nation’s citizens. Cuba’s economic status declined during the “special period” following the collapse of the USSR, but the value of the Castro family never declined; Fidel Castro himself was estimated to be worth $900 million in 2006, one of the most recent estimates available.
Cuba grew closer to Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein, whose socialist Ba’ath Party remains in power in Syria. (Current dictators Raúl Castro and Bashar al-Assad retain a close diplomatic bond.) Hussein and Fidel Castro shared an ardently anti-American political philosophy that drew them together, and it is estimated that most of Cuba’s debts to Iraq were incurred under Hussein. Hussein promoted the Castro regime, only 90 miles away from the United States, as an example to follow in anti-American rule. In exchange, Castro largely supported Hussein’s policies and sent Iraq deployments of its trademark slave doctors, though notably opposing the invasion of Kuwait. Cuba also offered its doctors to Hussein himself, who traveled to Cuba for a medical procedure.
Cuba condemned the execution of Saddam Hussein as “an illegal act in a country that has been driven to an internal conflict in which millions of citizens have been exiled or lost their lives.” Cuba itself is responsible for at least 3,615 firing squad executions against political dissidents and likely many more that the regime failed to document.
In addition to supporting Iraq’s socialists, Cuba maintains close ties to Syria and its patron regime, Iran. Iran sent its foreign minister to tour Latin America as recently as 2016 after improving relations with countries like Argentina, Ecuador, and Venezuela, thanks to Cuban communist diplomacy. Tehran’s grip on Latin America has loosened since a wave of conservative victories, triggered in part by fears of Islamist violence on the continent, began placing anti-Iranian dictatorship leaders in power beginning in early 2015.
Iraqi officials insist that the Islamic State, as it once existed, is gone. “ISIS’s proto-state no longer exists. Their flag doesn’t fly over Iraqi territory … [but] they are reverting to old tactics used by al Qaeda before 2014,” Iraqi Ambassador to Washington Fareed Yasseen said in an interview this week. Iraqi officials publicly discussed the possibility of sending troops into Syria to fight ISIS remnants and have agreed to allow the Peshmerga to re-establish itself in parts of Iraq from which Baghdad had expelled it, replacing the pro-U.S. Kurdish troops with the PMU. The result has been an Islamic State renaissance in those areas.