In the coldest days of the Cold War, two countries were special poster children in the category of “Communist Hold-out in the Midst of Western Democracies.” Those countries were Cuba and East Germany. A 1972 summit between the leaders of the two countries resulted in one of the most lopsided gift exchanges in history. It also may have established what is now the last remaining piece of East Germany.
June 1972 brought Cuba’s Fidel Castro to East Germany for a state visit. At the customary exchange of gifts, East Germany’s Chairman of the State Council, Walter Ulbricht, presented Castro with an East German teddy bear. History does not record the reaction of either of the leaders when it was disclosed that Castro’s reciprocal gift would be an island that would become East Germany’s only overseas possession.
The gifted island was Cayo Blanco del Sur, located a couple of miles off the southern coast of Cuba. It is nearly 10 miles long and inhabited by a number of endangered species but no humans. It would, Castro announced, be hereafter known as Ernst Thälmann Island, in honor of the German Communist Party leader who was executed by Adolf Hitler in 1944. Castro declared that Ernst Thälmann Island would, from that point forward, belong to East Germany as a symbol of the enduring friendship between the two nations. In a subsequent ceremony, the East German ambassador to Cuba unveiled a stone bust of Ernst Thälmann on the shore of East Germany’s newest possession.
Presumably, there was some talk among Ulbricht’s staff about supplementing the teddy bear with a box of candy or something in an attempt to balance out the gift exchange. That aspect of diplomacy, alas, remains lost to the history books.
The existence of Ernst Thälmann Island was heralded by East Germany for a while. In 1975, Frank Schöbel, arguably East Germany’s biggest pop star, traveled to Cuba to film a music video for his song “Insel im Golf von Cazones” (“Island in the Gulf of Cazones”). The video featured the commemorative bust of Thälmann, and footage later showed up in a documentary celebrating the great friendship between Cuba and East Germany.
Over the next two decades, pride in Ernst Thälmann Island faded. Apparently, the memory of the overseas possession grew a little dim, too. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of communism in Europe, East and West Germany reunited on October 3, 1990. The official documents that governed the merger of the two nations addressed almost every situation under the sun, such as currency, citizenship, treaties, etc. One thing it failed to mention was Ernst Thälmann Island.
With other things on everyone’s mind, such as figuring out how to integrate a once-communist nation into a modern Germany, no one seemed to give much thought to the tiny Caribbean island until 2001. The German online newspaper, Thema 1, published a story about Ernst Thälmann Island, arguing that its ownership passed to Germany upon the merger with East Germany.
The Cuban government read the article and reacted rather negatively. The gift was not an actual conveyance of sovereignty, Cuba maintained; it was simply a symbolic act. When pressed about it, the the German Foreign Ministry concurred, telling the news service EFE that the 1972 agreement between the countries was “not a gift, but a change of name.” Presumably, the German government could have made a claim for a return of Castro’s teddy bear, as well, but someone must have pointed out that this might be perceived as petty.
UPDATE (October 2, 2020): As officially announced in the comments section below, Ernst Thälmann Island has been officially claimed by the new government of Cayo Blanco del Sur. Read the official proclamation here. Further bulletins as events warrant.