Back on August 17, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that he would deliver a speech at the 77th UN General Assembly (UNGA) at the UN headquarters in the US’ New York City, visit Cuba and attend the state funeral of the slain Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Hun Sen’s historical and rare visit to Cuba, scheduled for September 23-25 at the invitation of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, has surprised many observers over his intention.

To provide some insight, here’s an overview of Hun Sen’s relation with the communist state and the apparent motives behind his visit to the isolated island nation.

Hun Sen and Cuba

Hun Sen’s forthcoming visit to Cuba would not be his first. Back in 1999, he also paid a similar visit to the country as part of a tour to North America that included the opening of the 54th UNGA Session and a summit of French-speaking nations in Canada.

Although Cuba and Cambodia established their official diplomatic ties on April 15, 1960, their bilateral relations reached the peak during the Cold War under the then Soviet Union’s umbrella.

To illustrate this, during the 1980s, when the West decided not to provide assistance to the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea following the 1979 overthrow of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, Cuba lent a hand with extensive humanitarian aid to help Cambodia emerge from the ashes.

In more recent times, the two nations have witnessed an upgrade of their bilateral relations in many sectors including health, education and sports, which they both have vowed to foster.

Cuba-US lesson

Amid Cambodia’s troubled relations with the US – in the eyes of observers – Hun Sen’s visit will offer at least a clear insight as to how he manages Cambodian-US relations from a Cuban perspective.

By comparison, Cuba’s relations with the US have never been triumphed ever since the late Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s US-backed military junta more than 60 years ago. The issue further deteriorated during the Cold War when Cuba permitted the Soviet Unions to station nuclear missiles in response to the US’ coup attempt known as Bay of Pig Invasion.

Despite these sour periods, the Cuban-US relations have gradually recovered under the US Democrat leadership, when the Barack Obama administration decided to soften US approach toward the communist state by easing some restrictions and resuming travelling between their citizens.

Therefore, Hun Sen can take this rare opportunity to learn from Cuba to restore diplomatic relations with the US.

Learning from Cuba’s public health sector

Regardless of the population size and economic capacity, Cuban healthcare has been considered one of the most advanced in the world. The whole Cuban health system is designed under the model called “The family doctor and nurse”, established in 1984 which allows Cuban citizens to access professional doctors in the immediate neighbourhood at an affordable price.

Currently, the Cuban healthcare system consists of approximately 50,000 medical professors, more than 100,000 doctors and around 100,000 nurses. In other words, every 1,000 Cubans have their own nine doctors and nine nurses, which helps push the country’s health system to the top of the world.

Having experienced the Covid-19 pandemic, it is evident that Cambodia still lacks professional health workers which urgently require a wise solution so that the Kingdom is well prepared in the event of another public health crisis.

For example, during the early stage of the pandemic, the government had to recruit medical students who have limited experience, to cope with the staff shortage. Hence, given the current medical system in the country, Hun Sen can learn from Cuba to adopt a complementary public health model, as this could assist the Kingdom to enhance its health sector at a low cost.

To that end, the government can ask its Cuban counterpart for more medical scholarships, which in turn will help Cambodia in the long run.

Hun Sen’s neutral, non-alignment policy

Under his leadership, Hun Sen’s foreign policy has been frequently taken as being too close to either communist regimes or democracies. In response, the premier has repeatedly reiterated his neutral stance of non-alignment, calling for cooperation from every country regardless of their political regime. Thus, this three-region tour will further enhance his statement with respect to the US and Japan as democratic countries and Cuba as an authoritarian regime.

Moreover, the premier’s visit to Cuba will also enlarge Cambodia’s diplomatic ambition of “Open-Sky Policy” to not just in the immediate region, but also to the far end of the world like Cuba. In the long run, this policy will help boost the international legitimacy of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and simultaneously expand Cambodia’s trade partners.

Hun Sen’s three-region visit, to some observers, comes at the right time, as his government seemingly needs to boost the legitimacy of the upcoming national election and, perhaps, restore bilateral relations with the US.

And to make his Cuba visit more worthwhile, Hun Sen could yield benefits from the communist state in terms of public health policy and medical scholarships. The visit can also be strategic for the premier to foster his foreign policy with multiple partners.

Manghout Ki is a Master’s Degree scholar in International Relations at Griffith University, Australia.The views expressed are solely his own.