North Korea has declared its support for Cuba, joining the likes of Russia, China and Iran as the United States backed mass demonstrations accusing the island nation’s ruling Communists of shortcomings in addressing humanitarian needs exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a press statement published Friday, a spokesperson for the North Korean Foreign Ministry argued that “the anti-government protests that occurred in Cuba are an outcome of behind-the-scene manipulation by the outside forces coupled with their persistent anti-Cuba blockade scheming to obliterate socialism and the revolution.”
Though the statement did not mention the U.S. by name, a possible sign that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was still interested in potential diplomacy with Washington, the reference to Washington’s long-standing embargo against Havana was clear.
The official said that North Korea “condemns and rejects the attempt at interfering in the internal affairs by the outside forces scheming to overthrow the socialist system of Cuba by taking advantage of the recent anti-government protests.”
“We express our full support to and solidarity with all efforts and measures taken by the government and people of Cuba for safeguarding the dignity and sovereignty of the country and defending to the end their fatherland, revolution and gains of socialism,” the statement added. “We are confident that Cuba would smash the interference of foreign forces, creditably overcome the present situation, and firmly safeguard the political stability of the country.”
North Korea has grown increasingly silent on international affairs, but the country has long-spanning ties with Cuba that can be traced back to the Cold War, which very much remains alive today both in the two nation’s own respective politics and their interactions with the U.S.
North Korea was officially founded under Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in 1948 as the Soviet-backed rival to U.S.-aligned South Korea in the wake of World War II. The two opposing Korean Peninsula states went to war in the 1950s, resulting in a stalemate that still stands today in the form of a cease-fire but no formal peace.
Later that same decade and across the globe, Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro led a successful uprising in 1959 that would eventually result in the first Soviet ally in the Western Hemisphere, just 90 miles off the U.S. coast.
Havana and Pyongyang quickly established relations a year later and the two would also go on to fortify economic and military ties, even offering mutual support for conflicts in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, however, also brought vast hardships for both Cuba and North Korea, though they have managed to persevere to the present through differing ways and means despite ongoing U.S. pressure.
Though Cuba abandoned nuclear weapons aspirations since Soviet attempts to deploy weapons of mass destruction led to a U.S. standoff resulting in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, a year after a failed CIA-backed invasion of the island, North Korea went on to develop a nuclear arsenal that it views as critical to its survival. This stockpile has been subject to global condemnation and sanctions, while the U.S. is largely alone in maintaining economic restrictions against Cuba, which regularly receives support from the international community in calls to lift the embargo.
Since coming to office in January, President Joe Biden has sought to review U.S. policies toward both Cuba and North Korea, which underwent drastic changes over the course of the past two presidents.
Former President Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president, initiated a historic thaw in relations with Cuba, including an easing of the decades-long embargo. His successor, former President Donald Trump reversed these measures and instead pursued landmark diplomacy with North Korea, though efforts toward a denuclearization-for-peace and sanctions relief deal ultimately stalled.
The Biden administration has raised the possibility of offering support to both countries as they deal with a worsened economic outlook as a result of the pandemic. When it comes to Cuba, however, an ongoing policy review has been complicated by the recent eruption of rare protests that Washington has capitalized on to single out Havana for criticism.
A presidential proclamation Friday to mark what the White House called “Captive Nations Week” made no mention of North Korea, but targeted Cuba along with Belarus, China, Myanmar—also referred to as Burma—and Russia.
“We hear the determination of those rejecting military rule in Burma, resisting dictatorship in Venezuela, taking to streets in Cuba to demand freedom in the face of brutal state repression, and pressing for free and fair elections in Nicaragua—as well as the Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and other ethnic and religious minorities who suffer repression for opposing Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea,” the statement said.
In comments hearkening back to the Cold War a day earlier, both Biden and White House press secretary Jen Psaki declared that “communism is a failed system” and the president further laid in to Cuba during his joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“Cuba is, unfortunately, a failed state and repressing their citizens,” Biden said. “There are a number of things that we would consider doing to help the people of Cuba, but it would require a different circumstance or a guarantee that they would not be taken advantage of by the government, for example, the ability to send remittances back to Cuba. I would not do that now because the fact is it’s highly likely that the regime would confiscate those remittances or big chunks of it.”
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the first outside of the Castro family to lead the country as both head of state and the Communist Party, has acknowledged the need “to carry out a critical analysis of our problems in order to act and overcome, and avoid their repetition” in the face of the demonstrations and has answered some protester demands by lifting restrictions on travelers bringing in some food, medicine and other essential goods.
At the same, time he’s firmly held the U.S. responsible for deliberately sabotaging the Cuba’s economy through the embargo, and has called on Biden to reverse his predecessor’s tightening of the policy.
“If President Joseph Biden had sincere humanitarian concern for the Cuban people,” Díaz-Canel tweeted Friday, “he could eliminate the 243 measures applied by President Donald Trump, including the more than 50 cruelly imposed during the pandemic, as a first step towards ending the blockade.”
He also rejected Biden’s characterization of Cuba as a “failed state,” asserting that “a failed state is one that, in order to please a reactionary and blackmailing minority, is capable of multiplying the damage to 11 million human beings, ignoring the will of the majority of Cubans, Americans and the international community.”
Also hitting out at the Biden administration’s role in Cuba’s recent unrest was former Cold War ally Russia. Moscow officials have released a number of statements attacking Washington’s position.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the U.S. of attempting to carry out a “color revolution” by “strangling the country, discriminating against its people and destroying the economy,” and then provoking tensions from within.
Zakharova said Moscow called on “Washington to take on an objective position finally, to get rid of the hypocrisy and hidden agendas in politics, and to let the Cubans, their government and people, deal with the situation themselves and determine their fate.”
“And if Washington really is concerned over the humanitarian situation in Cuba and wants to help regular Cubans,” she added, “they need to start with themselves, by lifting the blockade, which was opposed from the start by the entire global community.”
Last month, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the 29th consecutive time to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
China, an ally of North Korea and strategic partner of Russia, referenced this resolution in recent remarks delivered by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian at a press conference. Zhao asserted that “the U.S. embargo is the root cause of Cuba’s shortage of medicines and energy” and accused Washington of fomenting instability in the fellow communist country.
“China firmly opposes foreign interference in Cuba’s internal affairs, firmly supports what Cuba has done in fighting COVID-19, improving people’s livelihood and upholding social stability, and firmly supports Cuba in exploring a development path suited to its national conditions,” Zhao said Tuesday. “I’d like to stress that China stands ready to work with Cuba to implement the important consensus of the two heads of state and is firmly committed to deepening friendly relations between the two countries.”
Beijing has come to the economic aid of a number of countries suffering from U.S. sanctions and views Havana as a critical node in extending the intercontinental, investment-driven Belt and Road Initiative into the Western Hemisphere.
Another key nation that sees China as a lifeline in the face of U.S. economic restrictions is Iran, which has joined the chorus of countries in weighing in on behalf of Cuba.
“In this situation, where the United States is primarily responsible for the many problems created for the Cuban people,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters Tuesday, “it is trying to appear as a supporter of the Cuban protests and has tried to interfere in the internal affairs of this country in a blatant violation of international rules.”
As Obama pursued rapprochement with Cuba in 2015, he also signed a multilateral deal with Iran backed by both China and Russia, as well as the European Union, France, Germany and the United Kingdom that same year, to provide sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. But Trump, too, rolled back these measures, which also remain in place today under Biden, whose officials are negotiating a potential reentry into the deal in the Austrian capital of Vienna.
Iran, Khatibzadeh said, “while condemning the illegal U.S. sanctions, which are an important factor in the economic hardships of the Cuban people, has condemned any interference in the internal affairs of this country and as a country facing illegal and oppressive U.S. sanctions.”
Cuba has joined China, Iran, North Korea and Russia as well as Algeria, Angola, Belarus, Bolivia, Cambodia, Eritrea, Laos, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Syria, Venezuela and the State of Palestine, a U.N. non-member observer state to form “the Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Among the coalition’s key principles are “non-interference in the internal affairs of States, peaceful settlement of disputes, and to refrain from the use or threat of use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, as enshrined in the UN Charter.”
In March, the “Group of Friends” presented Newsweek with the following concept note, which was reiterated at a virtual launch earlier this month that involved representatives of each member state.