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Heads up – Embassy 32

Warming up relations

“I didn’t get a very warm welcome when I arrived in Britain, you know,” confides Cuba’s new Ambassador to London, Esther Armenteros, with mock seriousness. And then she breaks into a broad grin: “It was Britain’s worst winter in a century!”

Speaking to the Ambassador on a sunny day a few weeks ahead of Cuba’s much-anticipated sixth Communist Party Congress, things seem to be looking much brighter, both weather-wise and politically.

She reveals that President Raul Castro, who recently took over from his brother Fidel, plans to introduce economic changes – such as legalizing self-employment, the introduction of a form of income tax and the right to own property – that may have far-reaching effects.

“But this is not capitalism via the back door,” insists Armenteros. “We are doing this to make the economy more efficient so that we can preserve the achievements of the revolution to make the foundations of our socialist society – such as free health and education – sustainable.”

While still adhering to the principle of self-reliance, Cuba’s economy is also slowly opening itself to outside investors, she adds. “We prefer to use our own capital, but in some places we see that foreign investors can complement what we are doing.”

One of her priorities in London is to attract British investors in specific sectors, such as tourism (after Canada, Britain is the second largest source of tourists to Cuba), the sugar industry, biomass, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, where Cuba has particular skills in developing vaccines.

But the US trade embargo – or blockade as Cubans prefer to call it – in place for more than half a century, may deter investors. The Ambassador – who was posted to Cuba’s mission both at the UN (1970-77) and in Washington (1977-79) and covered North American affairs in Havana (1982-85) – has spent a good chunk of her career lobbying for it to be lifted.

Every year since 1992 the UN has voted to lift the blockade, she says. “This year only two countries voted against the resolution, but the blockade remains in tact. This means the US is disregarding the will of the whole international community.

“What makes it worse is that the blockade is extraterritorial so it punishes foreign companies who do business with Cuba. For us, it’s not a blockade, it’s not an embargo, it’s a war, an economic war against Cuba.”

The election of Barack Obama has not brought the hoped-for thaw in relations, she adds. “A few minor things have been changed. President Obama scrapped some of the policies imposed during the very aggressive Bush era regarding visits and remittances, so we are back to where we were with the Clinton Administration.”

Relations with EU, meanwhile, show signs of warming up and a priority for the Ambassador is to persuade the UK to use its influence in the EU to modify its ‘Common Position’ on Cuba, which demands that Cuba improve its human rights record before ties can be normalised.

Cuba released a large group of prisoners recently, but the Ambassador is keen to point out that they were not in jail for their ideas, but for their “actions to subvert the system”.

She disputes accusations that Cuba is undemocratic and that Cubans are not free to express themselves. “We do elect our representatives, but some Western countries believe that democracy is only practiced the way they do. We are free to criticise the government, there are no summary executions, we don’t torture people and we guarantee many social and economic rights. Our only crime is to do things differently to other countries.”

While the political climate remains slightly chilly in Europe, the Ambassador has been warmly received in many countries in Africa, especially those where Cuba was a staunch supporter of their liberation struggles.

Armenteros was posted to Zimbabwe shortly after independence (1980-82) and she helped open the first Cuban Embassy in Namibia (1990-93), later returning to serve as Ambassador (1994-98). A highlight was President Fidel Castro’s visit, where he received a hero’s welcome: “That was incredible,” she recalls. “People were so happy, it was a big party.”

As director of the Sub-Saharan Africa Division back in Havana (1999-2003), Armenteros travelled the length and breadth of the continent, visiting around 30 countries, before being posted to South Africa (2003-08), where once apartheid-era troops fought against Cuban soldiers in the Namibian war of independence.

 The South African political exiles that she had met on her travels are now in goernment. It was very satisfying seeing them again, she recalls, but nothing could compare with her first encounter with Nelson Mandela. “The door opened and there he was, in the flesh. I was speechless.” Which, for someone as outspoken as the Ambassador, is quite an achievement.

Strikingly tall, Ambassador Armenteros cuts an imposing figure – and she has a larger-than-life personality to match which will no doubt help her meet the challenges of her new posting.

Away from the cut and thrust of diplomacy, she likes to garden. And as any grower will tell you, whether you’re cultivating a garden or stronger diplomatic relations, it’s always better in a warmer climate.

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HE Ms Esther Armenteros

“Some Western countries believe that democracy is only practised the way they do. We are free to criticise the government, we guarantee social and economic rights. Our only crime is to do things differently to other countries”

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