CubaNews / September 2009
By Larry Luxner
At the Fez Restaurant on the 26th floor of Tripoli’s swank Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel, bartender Abdel Hamid proudly serves “mocktails” that — true to Islamic practice — contain no alcohol whatsoever.
For nine Libyan dinars (about $7.60), you can choose between Jamaican Delight (pear with bitter soda) and Sahara Mirage (a concoction of bananas, dates, almonds and milk). And just one dinar (85 cents) more can buy you an ice-cold frothy glass of Tripoli Sunrise (orange juice, fresh carrots and grenadine syrup).
Not exactly a mojitoFrom a political viewpoint, the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is unique because of its relative isolation for the past three decades. Like Cuba half a world away, the vast North African nation was for years the focus of a crippling U.S. embargo — a consequence of its involvement in international terrorism.
Today, Libya offers its visitors Roman ruins, miles of white-sand beaches and a colorful variety of propaganda billboards, especially in Tripoli, often called the “Havana of North Africa.”
These days, there’s more propaganda crowding the streets and highways than ever.
During a 12-day trip to Libya last month, it seemed that every available inch of wall space in this city was plastered with identical banners honoring the country’s dictator, Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The big event: the 40th anniversary on Sept. 1 of the bloodless coup that brought Libya’s feared “Brother Leader” to power.
“Forty years of revolution!” proclaim the Arabic murals, which depict Qaddafi at the center of a photo montage featuring fellow revolutionaries Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, Gamel Abdel Nasser and Malcolm X.
Prominently displayed at the Jamahiriya Museum right off Martyrs’ Square is a light-blue Volkswagen Beetle used by Qaddafi in his 1969 overthrow of King Idris I. It reminded this writer of the Dodge Fargo used by Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries in the 1957 storming of Cuba’s presidential palace. That bright-red “Fast Delivery S.A.” truck, pockmarked with bullets, now forms part of the main attraction at the Museum of the Revolution.
Yet in reality, Qaddafi’s path of socialism, confrontation, isolation and eventual reconciliation with the West have little in common with the Cuban Revolution.
“We are totally against the idea of not having private property, and the communist point of view vis-a-vis religion,” said Mohamed H. Matri, director of the Americas department at the General People’s Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation — Libya’s equivalent of a foreign ministry.
“We feel that the state is responsible for providing the basic needs of the people, and to put everyone on an equal footing — like in sports, you cannot give a chance to one group and leave out the others,” Matri told us. “But it’s very superficial thinking to equate Qaddafi with Fidel Castro. Our socialism is totally different. We have an in-between system.”
For years, both the Qaddafi and Castro re-gimes thumbed their respective noses at Washington. During the 1980s, both actively supported Africa’s wars of liberation and stepped up anti-Israel rhetoric, backing UN resolutions equating Zionism with racism.
Several bilateral cooperation projects were signed in the wake of Fidel’s visit to Libya in 1977. Yet these agreements — in road construction, housing and health services — petered out by the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. And academic experts in Cuba were advising the country’s leadership not to get too close to Qaddafi because of his irrational, unpredictable behavior.
Matri offers his own take on bilateral ties.
“During the Cold War, our positions were different from Cuba,” he recalled. “We were always against communism. I remember once Col. Qaddafi said Cuba should not even be in the non-aligned movement because they were aligned with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the Western media never made a distinction.”
These days, Matri conceded, Libya and Cuba have little in common.
“Historically speaking, we had good relations, despite the fact that we don’t support communism,” said the Libyan diplomat, who spoke to CubaNews from his Tripoli office and has met Fidel three times. “But I wouldn’t say our relations are very strong. We don’t have that much commercial trade with Cuba.”
Hard numbers are impossible to come by, and the Cuban Embassy in Tripoli made itself unavailable for interviews or comments.
One of the few Americans who knows both places well is Peter Nathan, president of PWN Exhibicon International in Westport, Conn.
“There are similarities between the two but also major differences,” said Nathan. “The Libyans are still quite difficult to work with, but at least we have the ability to work with them, which we don’t have with the Cubans.”
Nathan is the veteran trade-show organizer who in 2002 pulled off the first U.S. food exhibit in Havana since the 1959 revolution. T
he U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition — attended by over 750 U.S. business executives — also attracted 20,000 Cubans (including Fidel himself) eager to see and taste everything from California raisins to Wisconsin cheese. Many left Havana’s Pabexpo convention center toting plastic shopping bags filled with Spam, Land o’Lakes margarine, Wrigley’s chewing gum and other U.S. brands not sold in Cuba since the revolution.
But Nathan’s attempts to repeat the highly successful show ended in frustration after he encountered “politically motivated” opposition from the Bush White House.
“Each time, I was told it was officially be-cause the event was not consistent with U.S. policy on Cuba. They denied me the license on two or three different occasions over the next six months,” says Nathan.
Coincidentally, the White House unveiled tough new travel restrictions against U.S. boaters sailing to Cuba on Feb. 26, 2004 — the same day OFAC lifted the long-standing travel ban against Libya. That followed a declaration by Qaddafi renouncing terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
Frustrated with Washington’s position on Cuba, Nathan turned his attention to Libya, and in January 2006 held his first trade show there, Oil & Gas Libya, which ran consecutively with the smaller Infrastructure Libya.
He’s since been to Tripoli half a dozen times; the last show earlier this year attracted 2,500 participants and around 140 companies, including 40 or so U.S. firms.
“At the moment, the only ones really interested in dealing with Libya are oil and gas companies and their affiliated services,” Nathan told CubaNews. “Part of the problem is the diplomatic difficulty between our countries,” he said. “While they’ve ostensibly been settled, in practice it doesn’t work that way. Visas are very difficult to obtain and American tourists are still restricted from going there. I know of people who have been on boats that docked there, and Americans with valid Libyan visas were not allowed to disembark.”
He added: “There are tremendous opportunities in Libya, but they haven’t been exploited at this stage. Even though we now have a full embassy there, and not just an interests section, conditions haven’t improved.”
Curiously, Cuba has tourists but little oil. Libya has lots of oil, but barely any tourists. In 2007, the last year for which statistics were available, fewer than 106,000 bona fide tourists — most of them Italians and Germans — set foot in Libya, compared to the more than two million visitors who flocked to Cuba that year.
One reason Libya’s numbers are so low: a bizarre government decree ordering all non-Arab visitors to get their passports translated into Arabic to obtain a Libyan visa. Another reason: with 43 billion barrels of petroleum reserves, the Jamahiriya isn’t exactly hurting for tourism revenue.
Thanks to its vast oil wealth, Libya’s annual per-capita GDP of $14,400 is now the highest in Africa; it's also the only one of Africa’s 53 countries with more phones than people.
Despite current outrage over Scotland’s release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, who’s dying of cancer, and Qaddafi’s planned visit to New York later this month to address the UN General Assembly, the fact is that only five years ago, both Libya and Cuba were on the State Department’s list of terrorist-supporting nations — along with Iran, Syria, Sudan and North Korea.
These days, Libya and North Korea are no longer on the list, yet Cuba remains.
“It’s utterly nonsensical to keep Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism,” says Wayne Smith, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a frequent critic of Washington’s Cuba policy.
“If we can have perfectly normal trade relations with China and Vietnam, and we can take North Korea and Libya off the terrorist list, surely we can move more energetically to engage with Cuba,” he said.
Smith says Cuba was put on that blacklist in 1982 without his knowledge. At the time, he headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
“There should be consequences for countries that actually do sponsor terrorism, but Cuba doesn’t belong on that list,” he said.
“I had assumed that the Obama administration, since it’s something he can do with the stroke of a pen, would at the very least re-move Cuba from the list, but he didn’t — just as he didn’t remove the restrictions on academica travel, which it also could have done with the stroke of a pen.”
Considering Libya’s past involvement in global acts of terrorism, it strikes some as deeply hypocritical that U.S. petroleum giants like ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Chevron may drill oil wells off Libya’s Mediterra-nean coast — but not off Cuba’s Gulf coast.
Jorge Piñón, energy fellow at the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy, said it’s all about politics.
“It is unfair that U.S. companies are allowed to invest in places like Libya and Vietnam, but not Cuba,” said the Cuban-born Piñón, a former top executive with Amoco.
“Today, ConocoPhillips is one of the top partners of Petrovietnam. And here’s a country where 58,000 Americans were killed, and they’re still communist. They have no freedom of the press and no free elections.” M
eanwhile, Nathan — whose trade fairs continue every year in Tripoli — is still trying to bring his food show back to Havana.
“I haven’t given up,” he told CubaNews. “I have not been allowed to organize exhibitions or even to travel there. I have an application into OFAC since 2002 and I keep renewing it every six months. So far, even with Obama in office, that has not changed.”