Dr. Maria Borego, one of the Cuban doctors working at the Saleh Hospital serving Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria.
(Image by Linn Washington Jr.) Permission Details DMCA
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 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 since fleeing Morocco's 1975 invasion. Other camp residents were forced to flee 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 and winter night lows dip to the low 40s.
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 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 during a meeting with black American journalists, one day after the headline news announcements of the historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.
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. America justified its decades long, punishing 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 from riot-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 ranks Moroccan occupation with its worst ratings in the categories of freedom; civil liberties and political rights. Cuba, however, received the worst rating in only the 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. condemned the autocratic control of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Yet, Morocco is a monarchy ruled for centuries by 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, even belonging to the same Sunni branch of Islam.
"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 diplomatic postings 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.