Tinduf, Algeria. News about the historic change of relations between the United States and Cuba triggered cheers across the five Sahrawi refugee camps located near this Sahara Desert city located 1,100-miles southwest of Algeria’s capital of Algiers on the Mediterranean Sea.
That news elevated hopes among many Sahrawi that the major changes in relations between the U.S. and its longtime, bitter enemy Cuba would lead to the U.S. pushing for changes with its longtime ally – Morocco.
Morocco is the country that has illegally occupied the Western Sahara, the ancestral homeland of the Sahrawi, since a 1975 invasion. Morocco controls 80+ percent of the Western Sahara, including its mineral rich inland region and coastal fisheries that generate billions of dollars in exports annually -– money that helps fund Morocco’s expensive occupation.
Since 1991, when Morocco and the Polisario Front (which represents the Sahrawi) ended a 16-year long war over Morocco’s invasion, America’s major ally in North Africa has repeatedly reneged on its agreement with the United Nations to hold a voter referendum in the Western Sahara where residents would decide their future through a democratic vote.
“We woke up very happy with the historical announcement of President Obama establishing new relations with Cuba. We hope that Mr. Obama will take another historic position and enforce international law on the Western Sahara. We are tired of waiting,” Adda Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim is the governor of Smara, the largest of the five Sahrawi refugee camps surrounding Tindof. Over 160,000 Sahrawi live in those camps, many ever since they fled Morocco’s 1975 invasion. Other camp residents were forced to flee over the years from Morocco’s brutal occupation of the Western Sahara. All camp residents live in bleak conditions on barren desert land where summer temperatures hit 130 degrees.
The government formed by the Polisario Front for the Western Sahara is the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The SADR is the government for the liberated zones of the Western Sahara and for the Sahrawi living in the refugee camps around Tinduf.
“What President Obama did with Cuba gives us hope that there will be a clear vision for the Western Sahara,” Khadija Hamdi, Minister of Culture for the SADR said, one day after headline news announcements of the historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations during her meeting with journalists from America.
The U.S. broke relations with Cuba in the early 1960s following a revolution in that Caribbean nation that overthrew a brutal but pro-American dictator Fulgencio Batista. The US justified its half-century-long, punishing (and still running) embargo against Cuba by contending that nation needed democratization and a greater respect for human rights.
The Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara is rife with human rights abuses condemned in reports by the Obama Administration and other monitoring organizations like Amnesty International. Sahrawi inside the Western Sahara are routinely beaten savagely and imprisoned by Moroccan authorities for peaceful protests. Women and children are frequent targets of beatings on the streets that include baton strikes, kicks, punches and stomping by riot-gear-clad police. Sahrawi in West Sahara endure high unemployment and other forms of discrimination.
The 2014 democracy/human rights rankings issued by Freedom House list Cuba as better than Moroccan domination in the Western Sahara. The Washington, DC-based Freedom House gives Moroccan occupation with its worst ratings in the categories of freedom; civil liberties and political rights. Cuba, meanwhile, received the worst rating in only Freedom House’s political rights category. Freedom House, a research institute, was co-founded in 1941 by then U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
For decades the U.S. denounced the allegedly autocratic control of Cuba by Cuba’s revolutionary leader and long-time president Fidel Castro. Yet, Morocco is a monarchy ruled for centuries by absolutist kings, while the Polisario Front has democratically elected officials at the local and national levels.
The residents of Morocco, the Western Sahara and the refugee camps outside Tinduf share the same religion – Islam — and even belong to the same Sunni Islamic sect.
“The U.S. having better relations with Cuba is in the interest of the entire world,” Brahim Mojtar, SADR’s Minister of Cooperation said. Mojtar has held SADR posts in the U.S. and many countries across West, East and Southern Africa.
“The time must come for the U.S. to realize it is in its interest to put an end to this impasse and put the U.N. referendum in place,” Mojtar said.
That U.N. supervised referendum for the Western Sahara would enable the Sahrawi to vote for three options: independence for the Western Sahara, autonomy of that nation under Moroccan control or complete integration within Morocco.
Morocco contends it has an ancient claim over the Western Sahara dating from when the Kingdom of Morocco was dominant in a section of North Africa prior to European colonization. International legal and political bodies have consistently rejected those claims to the Western Sahara, which is located south of Morocco on the Atlantic Ocean coast of North Africa.
The African Union, the body representing 54 nations in Africa, supports the call for a U.N.-backed vote to determine the future of the Western Sahara. Morocco is the only country on the African continent that does not belong to the AU – having left the AU’s predecessor (the Organization of Africa Unity) in 1984 when the OAU recognized the SADR’s claims on the Western Sahara.
Morocco has been able to defy the United Nations and other bodies demanding a referendum due to overt support from France and tacit support from the United States.
Morocco’s position to extend autonomy to the Western Sahara enjoys bi-partisan on Capitol Hill –- support that embraces strange bedfellows. For example liberal black Democratic Congressman from South Carolina James Clyburn, a staunch supporter of President Obama, supports Morocco’s autonomy scheme as does South Carolina conservative white Republican Congressman Joe Wilson, who uttered the infamous “You Lie!” insult at Obama during the president’s 2009 State of the Union address.
While most Americans view Cuba through a decades-long anti-Castro/pro-embargo prism, most Africans praise Cuba for its contributions of economic, educational, medical and military assistance. Legendary South African leader Nelson Mandela frequently credited Cuban assistance as pivotal in the defeat of apartheid. America fully supported South Africa’s white minority racist government until the late 1980s.
Cuban assistance to the Sahrawi includes having trained thousands of Sahrawi in areas from education to medicine without charging fees. SADR Minister Hamdi said proudly that one of her children received training as a journalist in Cuba. Minister Mojtar noted that during “400-years of colonialism, just one Sahrawi was trained as a doctor.”
Seven of the 14 doctors working at the Bachir Saleh Hospital serving the refugee camps near Tinduf are from Cuba. The six Sahrawi doctors at that hospital received their training in Cuba. Cuban Dr. Maria Borego said she works six-hour shifts, six days a week. Borego said the work at Saleh is difficult because of differences in language and culture.
In early November, many Americans applauded the 25th Anniversary of the removal of the Berlin Wall, that once divided Germany’s largest city, unaware of the ‘Moroccan Wall’ that is ten times larger.
Morocco built its 1,677-mile long wall (nearly a third as long as China’s Great Wall) to enclose its occupied area of the Western Sahara. That wall, stretching across the length of the Western Sahara, is constructed of sand, rock and metal.
Over 100,000 Moroccan soldiers man this wall, which is buffered on the non-occupation side by 5-to-7-million land mines. Operating the ‘Moroccan Wall’ costs Morocco nearly $3-million per day, with the funds for operation of the wall generated by plundering natural resources in the occupied parts of Western Sahara according to European experts.
Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.