Cuban aid to East Timor: government statement and comment on political implications.

20 November, 2006

I posted on this Blog some time back an Indonesian media report on the role of Cuban medical teams in Indonesia after the earthquake and tsunami which hit central Java.

I post below also a statement by the East Timorese government on the role of Cuban medical aid in East Timor.

Both reports speak for themselves as to the quality of the aid given by Cuba. I will post something later reflecting on how is it that such a poor country as Cuba is able to provide such aid.

East Timorese politics and the Cuban aid

There has been some discussion among observers of East Timorese politics – mainly in Australia – that recent instability in the East Timorese government and in Dili society has reflected conflict within the government between two significantly differing political perspectives: one represented by former Prime Minister Alkatiri and one represented by current Prime Minister Ramos Horta.



It is also argued by some of these commentators that the Australian government’s decision to prepare a military contingent to be sent to East Timor and then to accede to the joint request by president Gusmao, Prime Minister Alkatiri and Foreign Minister Horta for troops to be sent to East Timor was part of a “regime change” conspiracy, i.e. the conscious attempt to arrange a change from an Alkatiri government to a Horta government – although FRETILIN, Horta’s Alkatiri’s party still dominates the government.

One of the elements that was emphasized in these arguments as an example of Alkatiri’s more independent political stance was his acceptance of aid from Cuba. The ET government sttement below, including the statements by Horta on Cuban aid, show that the policy of accepting aid from Cuba was supported by both Alkatiri and also Horta. It should be pointed out also that in the statement below Horta also has no problems in being critical of US authorities in the same breath as he praises Cuba.

The actual political differences between Horta, Gusmao and Alkatiri have always been minimal. They all share the same political perspective is East Timor as having a welfare state system, i.e. a capitalist economy with only the amount of state intervention necessary to guarantee a minimum standard of living. They have all supported the basic idea of a multi-party parliamentary system modeled on liberal parliamentary democracies. A difference in emphasis between Gusmao and FRETILIN on the latter issue, is that Gusmao has given extra emphasis for the need for a strong opposition – although this often appears to me as insisting that there be an opposition just for the sake of it.

There are however differences in political style. Horta and Gusmao have historically emphasized negotiation and compromise as central components of political strategy. Alkatiri has often worked on the basis that as FRETILIN has a majority of support from the population and is the historical representation of the majority of the people, negotiation and compromise are not necessary. This has meant he has tended towards using administrative methods to deal with political problems. In international relations, there has tended to be a “hard cop” (Alkatiri) soft cop (Horta) division of labour emerge, especially in connection with Australia, which also reflects the differences in style. However on the substantive question of whether to attempt to mobilise and organise public opinion in Australia against Australian government policy on the East Timor oil question, for example, both Horta and Alkatiri had the same aqpproach: discouraging mobilisation.

Neither supports mobilization and political education at the mass level.

Horta and Gusmao’s emphasis on negotiation and compromise as central components of political strategy was also in operation during the period of national liberation struggle. Mass mobilisation and political education (i.e. discussion of ideological questions) was avoided. During some periods, mass mobilization in East Timor itself was impossible because of the intense nature of political control under the military occupation. However even when opportunities did arise, including after the overthrow of Suharto, mass mobilization was avoided or even actively discouraged. This was a major point of dispute between Xanana and the political leadership of the radical wing of the Indonesian democratic movement in Jakarta before and after 1998. Whenmass mobilisation didtake place it was often in defiance of or, at least, led separately from the established political leadership.

Before the East Timorese people won their independence, the main tension generated by the emphasis on diplomacy over mass struggle by Horta and Gusmao was with the Indonesian radicals in Indonesia and with the emerging nuclei of East Timorese radicals, who later went on to form the Timorese Socialist Party (PST). Before independence the conflict was one of diplomacy versus mobilization.

After Independence, the same conflict is reflected in approaches to the kind of political system that is envisaged for East Timor. President Gusmao and PM Horta, as well as Alkatiri and FRETILIN, envisage a liberal democratic parliamentary system governing over a capitalist economic system. This perspective sees the population as citizens who vote at elections and as clients of a public service. There is no role for the active mobilization and participation of the population in governing themselves.

This contrasts with the perspective of the PST which emphasizes mobilization, raising the political consciousness of the whole population and organizing them in units which fuse production and political governance at the local level, i.e. cooperatives, and then projecting that onto the popular level.

Ironically, if we were to ask what does enable a very poor, developing country, Cuba, to provide some high quality and extensive medic al aid around the world, it is precisely because it has opted for the popular mobilization and organisation model of the state and not the so-called “western liberal” model which condemns the population to the role of passive voters and clients of a public service who, despite – sometimes – good will, remain separated from the people by counters where people must queue up and by mountains of red tape. (One wonders if PM Horta’s decision to try to arrange for a chaplain to be posted to Cuba to be among the Timorese students there is simply to assuage the anti-communist sentiments of the Timorse Catholic Chruch or intended to protect the students from the influence of the example of the Cuban model. Or maybe the chaplain is just intended for personal counselling?)

Ironically also, in reality it was not the strategy pursued by Gusmao and Horta, emphasizing diplomacy, that was key to the success of the Timorese national liberation movement. While these were important components, it was the mass mobilization politics that took place in spite of their preferences that were key. I summarized some key turning points in the struggle based around these mass mobilization surges in a (badly written) article in Green Left Weekly newspaper in 2003, entitled East Timor, Iraq and Jose Ramos Horta . I have posted the points here at the end of this post, after the ET government press release.

Australian interests in recent events

While there is little doubt that the leadership of the Australian government had a preference for the leadership style of Horta, compared to Alkatiri, it is mistaken, I think, to see the Australian government policy of being willing to send soldiers and police as aimed at a “regime change” or “coup”. The Australian state’s interest is in the general success of the project to establish a stable capitalist state.. The Australian government went out of its way to avoid becoming directly embroiled in the conflict within the East Timorese elite because it did want to undermine the stability of the project as a whole – which all of the elite supports. For an analysis of these developments by the PST see EAST TIMOR: The people are paying the price

If the PST starts to make serious headway, then this logic would indeed require a more aggressive stance.

The sources of instability

Analysing the sources of the instability in East Timor is beyond the scope of this post. However, a crucial relationship that must be analysed is that between the level levels of popular mobilization, participation and political education in radical ideas and the weakening of the development of key aspects of the nation itself, especially in the economic and cultural spheres. The more the model of the liberal capitalist state is pursued, the more the population is turned into mere voters and clients. This deprives the developing nation of the opportunity to develop its economy – which does requires a full-scale cooperatives based mobilization of popular resources for production – and the opportunity to develop a new political culture based on being the subjects of their political processes rather than objects.

The passivity tied to this model dilutes the sense of popular ownership of the national project opening up space for pre-national groupings or loyalties to assert themselves, one way or another. More on this in a later post.

See below: (1) East Timor Government statement and (2) Excerpts from 2003 article on East Timorese struggle and mass mobilization.

Dili, November 15 2006
Timor-Leste medical students in Cuba ‘the best and most disciplined’

Timor-Leste’s 498 students in Cuba are considered to be the best among thousands of overseas people studying medicine there – in terms of results and discipline, according to Vice-Minister of Health Luis Lobato. “Our young people are a credit to all of Timor-Leste as they work hard and show great discipline,” Mr Lobato said. “I am told by Cuban authorities that they are the best.

“The kindness, sincerity and generosity of the Cuban people and
Government is overwhelming. Despite all it is currently doing for
Timor-Leste, Cuba is taking another 200 of our students in the coming months.”

Twenty one other countries have people studying medicine in Cuba, which is a poor and developing nation but with one of the best health systems in the world – in some cases far better than in the United States, where public hospitals in some instances are no better than hospitals in developing countries.

Cuba also has 302 doctors working throughout Timor-Leste. More than 120 of these doctors are specialists working in hospitals in Dili, Maliana, Baucau, Suai, Oecussi and Maubissi. Although the Timor-Leste Government initially contributed a modest amount to the costs associated with the program, the Cuban Government now pays the wages of all its doctors and charges our medical students nothing for studies.

Prime Minister Dr José Ramos-Horta today praised the commitment and courage of the Cuban doctors helping Timor-Leste.

“During the worst of the crisis in May, June and July our Cuban doctors stayed unconditionally in the villages and hospitals with the patients and the people, providing the much-needed moral, medical and psychological support,” Dr Ramos-Horta said.

“This is in contrast with American Peace Corp volunteers, who, even
though there was not the slightest threat to their safety and well-being in rural areas, were given orders by the US administration to leave our country.

“The Cuban courage and commitment is also in contrast with the Japanese. JICA, the Japanese International Co-operation Agency, abruptly interrupted its co-operation in Timor-Leste, even though there was never any threat to Japanese nationals, particularly in the rural areas.”

The original scholarship program between Cuba and Timor-Leste was discussed on the sidelines at a summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Kuala Lumpur in 2003 when President Xanana Gusmão met Cuban President Fidel Castro and 50 medical scholarships were offered at that time. Dr Ramos-Horta was there in his capacity as Foreign Minister.

Subsequently, the Cuban Government raised the number of scholarships to a maximum of 1000.

“Thanks to the generosity of another relatively poor nation, when we have at least 500 of our students complete the course and return – together with the ones studying in Timor-Leste and other countries – we will have a ratio of doctors-to-population as high as that of any developed country,” Dr Ramos-Horta said.

“Timor-Leste has been blessed by having many nations as real friends, but I must ask: what greater gift can we receive than a guaranteed health system for our people? This is the gift from the people of Cuba.”

The Prime Minister stressed that Timor-Leste did not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and their choice of political system.

“The US and Cuba might not have diplomatic relations and have been in a state of “no war, no peace” for the past 40 years or so,” Dr Ramos-Horta said, “but Timor-Leste has good solid relations with both.

“The Cubans treat our young people wonderfully. They are allowed to practise their religion without interference and I have asked our church whether they could send a chaplain to Cuba to minister to our students’ spiritual needs.

“I have also asked Bishop Carlos Belo to visit our students and he will do this soon.”

Last Monday the Prime Minister and Vice-Minister for Health addressed a gathering of several hundred parents and other relatives of the students in Dili. Dr Ramos-Horta told the gathering that all of Timor-Leste was very proud of the commitment the students were making to the nation.

Timor-Leste has other medical students in Indonesia, Portugal, the
Philippines, Fiji, Malaysia and Australia.

“When our doctors return in 2012 I hope we will have one doctor for
every village,” Dr Ramos-Horta said.


Four major turning points in the struggle for East Timor’s independence

from East Timor, Iraq and Jose Ramos Horta Green Left Weekly, March 12, 2003

Throughout the struggle for East Timor’s independence, right up until the arrival of Interfet, the primary force that was exerted to defeat Indonesian dictator Suharto and the Indonesian military was mass street action by the peoples of East Timor, Indonesia, Australia and Portugal. In this struggle, the threat of military force played no role.

There were four major turning points in the struggle for East Timor’s independence.

(1) The first was mass demonstration in Dili in November 1991, which ended with the terrible Santa Cruz massacre. This demonstration, and the televised massacre, was the culmination of a series of mass demonstrations, including one during the visit to Dili of the pope a year before. These courageous actions, led by the young people of East Timor, revived the struggle for East Timor’s independence and again made it an issue in the eyes of international public opinion. Lobbying and state-level diplomacy in the United Nations had totally failed to have any serious impact.

(1a) [I should add here that the joint demonstrations by East Timorese and Indoensian activists in Jakarta were also a key development in the struggle – a major part of the tactic of internationalising the struggle and involving the open support of Indonesians for East Timorese independence. See Fighting together – Indonesians and East Timorese join in struggle – Max L. Nov, 2006]

(2) The second turning point was the mass upheaval in Indonesia in early 1998. The Indonesian student-led anti-dictatorship movement forced the collapse of the Suharto regime and its replacement by much weaker governments, which are under continuing pressure to democratise and demilitarise.

Another wave of mass demonstrations took place in Indonesia in November 1998 demanding, among other things, a reduction on the role of the military in Indonesian politics. Facing a deep economic crisis and mass pressure for reform on many different fronts, and receiving advice from figures outside the old Suharto ruling circles, then-president Habibie decided to allow the UN to hold a referendum on independence in East Timor. If the students had not overthrown Suharto, it is very possible that East Timor President Xanana Gusmao may still have been in jail, and East Timor still occupied, today.

(3) The third turning point was the incredibly courageous mass mobilisation of the East Timorese people ? in the face of the violent onslaught of the Jakarta-backed militia ? to campaign for, and participate in, the September 1999 referendum.

(4) The fourth turning point was the mass protests in Australia and Portugal that demanded international intervention in East Timor to end the Indonesian military/militia scorched earth policy, the mass forced deportations and the militia’s violent attacks and murder of pro-Independence people.

In Australia, demonstrations escalated in size from a few hundred to more than 30,000 each in Sydney and Melbourne within just six days. These mobilisations were not only driven by a sense of solidarity with the East Timorese people but also with intense and growing anger at the Australian government’s inaction. This was an anger that had accumulated for more than two decades, as successive Australian governments collaborated with Jakarta’s illegal occupation of East Timor.
These huge demonstrations threatened to escalate into even larger and angrier actions, drawing in the trade unions, if the Australian government continued to side with the Indonesian government and military. Howard lobbied Washington frantically to pressure Habibie to allow international forces to enter East Timor in order to stave off a political crisis in Australia.
Habibie’s decision to withdraw Indonesian troops from East Timor was not made because of a fear that an overwhelming military force was about to descend on East Timor from Darwin. It was a response by a weak and crisis-ridden government desperate to retain international support.
So the Interfet forces arrived in East Timor as a construction team and a border patrol force. In this role, Interfet has been involved in no military offensives and only in very rare exchanges of fire with remnant militias.
It was neither the threat of international force nor diplomatic lobbying that were crucial in East Timorese struggles. The failure of diplomatic lobbying was reflected most vividly in the incredible passivity of Washington and Canberra in the aftermath of the 1999 referendum.