Culture History International

Malaysia chose to become besties with a country in war… and here’s what we got from it

Mention the name Cuba (pronounced as ‘COO-ba’, as in the country and not the Malay word for try) and you may think of communism, Fidel Castro or… cigars.

Or something even better; Fidel Castro with a cigar! Image from Eagle Tribune

Or something even better; Fidel Castro with a cigar! Image from Eagle Tribune

But did you know that Malaysia has a relation with this country?! Recently, the Cuban Ambassador, Ibete Fernandez Hernandez, suggested that Malaysia and Cuba should revive their relation like it used to. She mentioned how things had ‘cool off’ when this relation hit its peak nearly two decades ago.

Wait, does this mean Malaysia used to be BFFs with Cuba? How come two very different countries can build a tie??


Malaysia became friends with Cuba even when its in the midst of war

This relationship began a loonggg time ago during the Cold War in 1975.

Just a brief history on the Cold War and how da heck Cuba was involved lah. Basically the Cold War happened after World War II when the United States (US) and Soviet Union (USSR) fought with each other. They didn’t declare war but the world were able to witness a series of arms and space race aka when they showed off their weapons and race against each other to put their satellites in space.

This may be an easier portrayal of the Cold War. Gif from Gifer

The arm race may look like a chess game. Gif from Gifer

Initially Cuba didn’t take sides but it came into the plot when the US tried to invade the country. However, the US failed during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Erm, not the oink oink pig but the US tried to remove Fidel Castro, the President of Cuba back then, from power in this invasion. USSR, on the contrary, supplied nuclear weapons to Cuba and all these almost caused a nuclear war! Thank goodness it was prevented when the US and USSR agreed not to supply nuclear weapons and invade Cuba again.

TBH, no person in their right mind would wanna build a relation with a country involved in any sort of war. But our second Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak (yes, Najib’s dad) did! He was the one who initiated this relation as he believed Malaysia should widen its relation outside the Commonwealth countries and include communist countries like the Soviet Union.

Not only that, Cuba and Malaysia had some similarities such as being members of Group 77 (a group of developing countries helping each other’s economy), Non-Aligned Movement and the United Nations besides being a part of the South-South Cooperation. Despite that, both countries actually share more than just political affiliations and this may be why both can kamching,

“We are united by the shared history of a colonial past, the common condition of underdeveloped countries that have set out to achieve the development of their peoples, the clear perception of the serious dangers that threaten the Third World today, the same decision to resist the sacrifice of our identity and self-determination for the sake of unjust and dangerous globalization” – The Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP)’s President told Granma.

The relation grew stronger thanks to Tun M. This happened when Cuba opened up an embassy here in Malaysia in 1997 and Malaysia opened up an embassy in Havana in 2001 (Malaysia opened up a bit late not cos of our lambat culture but due to the Asian Financial Crisis). But the opening of both embassies were only a part of it lah, the real proof that showed this relation grew stronger was through the high-level visits by Tun M and Fidel Castro in 1997 and 2001 respectively. Tun M even became friends with Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul Castro.

Besties. Image from Getty Images

Yeah, besties! Image from Getty Images

These visits didn’t stop after Tun M’s time. The Prime Minister after him, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi visited Cuba as well in 2004 and 2006. However, we couldn’t find any news or info on whether Najib Razak continued this practice or not but one thing we know is that the Cuban Ambassador was hoping for his visit.


Cuba and Malaysia help each other in bio-technology, education and economy

We managed to get in touch with the Cuban Ambassador, Hernandez, to find out more about this relationship la. When speaking about trade, she actually mentioned how it began a long time ago, way before we built political ties with Cuba:

“Malaysia and Cuba’s trade started in the 60’s. Sugar Tycoon, Robert Kouk, initiated it with the import of sugar. He developed a good relationship with my former president Fidel Castro.” – Hernandez shared.

OMG! This simply means that Malaysia and Cuba are no strangers to each other when it comes to trade. And while we’re at this topic, Malaysia has been exporting furniture, computer products and food (not cos we are famous for it but cos Cuba is trying to overcome the shortage of food in their country) to Cuba. In return, Cuba exports cigar, raw sugar, coffee (yes, we even have it in the office), ice cream, beer and nickel mattes. But it doesn’t end there. Cuba even exports its manpower aka medical students just like how other countries like Indonesia exports maids to Malaysia. What??

This can only happen through the joint explorations between both countries. Cuba can export its medical students because of its education system that, they claimed, produces the best medical students. And since their education system is that power, Malaysia actually sent our students, who received full scholarship, to study medicine in Cuba. Hernandez informed us that 23 Malaysians graduated as doctors in medicine in Cuba.

Malaysians, including students, in Havana, Cuba. Image from Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia

Malaysians, including students, in Havana, Cuba. Image from Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia

In return, Cuban from various professions further their postgraduate studies here. While that may seem usual (since other nationalities also can pursue postgraduate studies here), Cubans are welcomed to join the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme which emphasise the development of human resources through provision training in various areas like diplomatic relations and environment.

And since we’ve mentioned how power Cuba’s medicine industry is, it is hard not to mention how both countries collaborated in the pharmaceutical industry. If ugaiz wanna know, Cuba is known for creating vaccines (this country pioneered the world’s first lung cancer vaccine btw). Cuban scientists engaged with Malaysia to test vaccines for dengue fever, cancer, AIDS and hepatitis B.

As a reciprocal from what Cuba had offered us, Malaysia tried to help through the collaboration between Petronas and Cuba Petroleo to search for oil and natural gas in the Cuban waters together with other oil companies. Sadly, there were only reports on how both companies failed not once but THREE friggin times to find this oil. Wahliao, they failed so badly until other oil companies from other countries also ciao from this exploration. 🙁

Although it may seem like both countries have exchanged a lot of products and services, Cuba has plans to venture into more potential industries such as tourism since Malaysia has more experience in this industry. While this is still in planning stage, Malaysians can actually travel to Cuba WITHOUT visa for up to three months! That’s similar to travelling to South Korea lah.

Wah... so colourful! Image from Hofstra News

Wah… so colourful! Image from Hofstra News

But for those who can’t afford to go to Cuba yet still want to experience its culture, there’s an art gallery in Melaka called Casa Cuba which houses arts by Cuban artists. That’s not all. Ugaiz may want to join an association called Friends of Cuba Association (FOCA) to strengthen fraternal ties and experience cultural exchange with Cubans.

But with all these plans mentioned…


This relationship may not be as good as how it has been portrayed

As we were researching for this article, we noticed a pattern whereby the media always portray the relation between Cuba and Malaysia as ‘excellent’ or ‘strong‘. But how far are these statements true? We are pretty skeptical of it.

The usage of words like excellent and strong when describing the Malaysia-Cuba relation. Screengrab from Google search results

The usage of words like excellent and strong when describing the Malaysia-Cuba relation. Screengrab from Google search results

If the tie is ‘excellent’ and ‘strong’, then how come the Cuban Ambassador, Hernandez, recently raised the issue on bilateral trade that is now conducted through a third country instead of directly? Hernandez also claimed that there had not been much progress in the past 10 years. And apparently, we found out that Malaysia has no direct investment in Cuba. What does that mean??

Although it may have happened due to a blockade imposed by the US on Cuba after Fidel Castro became the President of Cuba, Hernandez, the Cuban Ambassador told us something entirely different.

“… Blockade extraterritoriality can influence. The main issues are promotion and the lack of trade missions going to Cuba and coming to Malaysia in order to explore business opportunities.” – Hernandez told CILISOS via email.

She explained to us how the trade is mainly conducted through third countries but this doesn’t mean that the relationship isn’t good. She mentioned how both countries are close at the political level la and mutual support between these countries always worked.

Actually, this can be seen when Malaysia along with 190 other countries voted against the blockade imposed by the US at the United Nations General Assembly. And the support didn’t end there. We have been supporting against this blockade through campaigns such as #UnblockCuba and media exposure. Heck, Tun M also condemned the US for preaching human rights to other countries.

“You can’t get solution by killing millions” – Tun M at a Public Lecture on Malaysia and Cuba relations.


#UnblockCuba. Image from Diplomatic Representations of Cuba Abroad

Malaysians in support of #UnblockCuba. Image from Diplomatic Representations of Cuba Abroad


But the main question that remains would be…


Are we able to bring back the ‘BFF’ status to these two countries?

From building a relation when Cuba was in deep shiz to exchanging resources, Malaysia and Cuba who started off formally became besties. We actually found out how Cubans look up to Malaysia especially when it comes to helping them lift the blockade. As a matter of fact, Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul Castro looked up to Tun M very much.

Still beties during former PM, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's time. image from Getty Images

Are we able to become besties with Cuba again like this era? Image from Getty Images

We asked the Cuban Ambassador what she hoped for these two countries and the tie built between them and here’s what she has to say:

“The hope is to overcome the period of stagnation in the bilateral relation and going forward with the multiple opportunities that exist in both countries. In today’s world cooperation, complementation and collaboration are crucial.” – Hernandez told CILISOS.

The Cuban Ambassador may seem like she’s trying her best to revive this relationship but the ball may be in our court now. So, Malaysia may want to cuba try to be friends with Cuba again. Who knows what else we can bring out of this relationship? 😉

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