Havana, May 17 – The map of Timor Leste has the shape of a crocodile, while the map of Cuba has the shape of a Cayman. Both countries fought long and hard for their independence and continue to fight against neo colonial tendencies. They share the Catholic fate and a common Iberian legacy.
Cuba was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the Independence of Timor Leste in May 20 2002. However, unofficial ties date back to the 1970’s with several Timorese leaders visiting Cuba.
In May 2002 Timor Leste gained its independence from Indonesia after 24 years of occupation. An estimated 98 percent of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed. The country had less than 30 doctors. Malaria, Dengue, Tuberculosis and other infirmities were quite common.
Seeing the difficulties that the youngest nation on earth was facing then President Fidel Castro met Comandante Xanana Gusmao the father of the fledging nation and Dr. Ramos Horta, then Foreign Minister. The meeting took place on the sides of the 13th Non Aligned Movement in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2003.
During the meeting Fidel Castro promised the young state that Cuba would train 1,000 Timorese doctors. He also ordered the deployment of a Cuban Medical Brigade made up of 300 Cuban in Timor Leste. The medical team arrived in 2004, its mission was to help the country s’ fledging health system while Timorese doctors were being trained in Cuba.
In 2006 when the country faced a brief political crisis the Cuban doctors were the only foreigners not to be evacuated and remained at their post. They worked in some of the most remote areas of the mountainous country, under rudimentary conditions.
As the years went by, Timor Leste began to prosper and the Timorese government began to assume financial responsibility for the Cuban Medical Brigade.
BY January 2017, 911 Timorese were trained by Cuba as medical doctors and 160 Cuban doctors were still working in Timor Leste. Every year more doctors are returning to their country. Fidel Castro’s promise has been fulfilled.
While relations between the crocodile and the caiman have been dominated by professional training. In recent years the relationship has become more diversified.
In addition to medical doctors there are now Cuban teachers, agriculture experts, architects, engineers and other experts working in Timor Leste. In 2014, an agreement was signed to built a Labiofan yogurt factory in Timor Leste. While there are plans to open a pharmacological plant in Timor Leste with Cuban assistance. Cooperation in the fields of defense, security, environmental protection and fire fighting is also being considered,
Since its independence Timor Leste has consistently denounced the injustice of the US blockade. Its former President and Nobel Prize winner Joze Ramos Horta was very active campaigning for the release of five Cubans arbitrarily detained in US prisons. Ramos Horta has also nominated the Cuban Medical Brigades for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Relations between the leaders and governments of the two countries are very close and warm. But, perhaps most importantly is the fact that people to people relations are quite close. Cuban doctors and other experts stayed and settled in Timor Leste after finishing their missions. Dozens got married to Timorese and built families.
Their presence has left a cultural mark in Timorese society. For instance there are two Cuban restaurants in the capital Dili. Cuban Reggaeton is very popular among the youths. While the image of Comandante Che Guevara is seen around the country. Painted in walls, posters and t shirts.
These warm close people to people ties ensure that the relation between the two countries remain brotherly regardless of who is in government. These close ties of mutual respect, friendship and love have ensured and will continue to ensure that the crocodile and the caiman will remain close friends for generations to come. Friendship and love have overcome distance. As the Portuguese saying goes: ‘Longe da vista, mas perto do coração’ (Far from sight, but close to the heart).
*The author is the Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste to the Republic of Cuba. He is also a scholar with more than 80 articles published in a dozen countries and has won several awards for is academic research.(Prensa Latina)