Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 21 June 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Current Political Situation in Cuba: Mr. Fernando Gonzáles Llort
In session B we meet Mr. Fernando González Llort to share views on the political and social situation in Cuba. He is very welcome to our meeting.
I remind members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even when on silent mode, with the recording equipment of the committee room.
I also remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. If they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I invite Mr. González Llort to make his opening statement.
Mr. Fernando González Llort:
Good morning. It is a pleasure for me to be here. I am head of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples. I was also recently elected as a member of the Cuban Parliament, which began its ninth legislative term in April, selecting a new Council of State and new ministers. The Council of State is led for the first time by a member who was not traditionally part of the Cuban revolution and military. We know there was a lot of speculation outside of Cuba about this fact, but for us it was a natural process. Our colleague, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has made his career in the party and in government and has the trust of the party and of the Cuban people. There was a generation that traditionally led the Cuban revolution. Our colleague, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is the progression of this. Women comprise 53% of the Parliament. The Council of State, apart from the president and first vice president, has five other vice presidents, three of whom are women. Of these three women, two are black women. It is a Parliament that represents all areas of Cuban society and is constituted of parliamentary groups of solidarity. We hope we can establish links between this committee, other Irish parliamentary committees and European committees to strengthen relations between our countries and to understand the experiences of both countries.
Our Parliament is also involved in the process of reformation of the constitution, particularly in respect of the realities of the current Cuban economy. Our country has been involved in a modernisation of its economic model in recent years, with new forms of economic activities, including private companies and co-operatives. This requires fundamental change to the Cuban constitution, which will be a complex process. We must also pass this on to the people because all changes in Cuba must be voted on by the people.
The constitutional process that emerges from this process will be put to a popular vote.
There is an accord between Cuba and the European Union. It still needs to be ratified by the Irish Parliament. We hope the Irish Parliament will ratify the agreement between the European Union and Cuba.
That is the end of my introduction and I welcome any questions.
I thank Mr. González Llort for his opening remarks. I welcome the outline he gave us of the reform process under way and the increasing participation of women in parliament and government.
Deputy Niall Collins has another commitment so I will allow him to contribute before Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan.
I have to step out. Will Mr. González Llort give us an overview of the levels of trade, if any, between Ireland and Cuba and the number of Cuban nationals living in Ireland? What are the ties between our two countries?
Mr. Fernando González Llort:
I do not have the exact figure for the number of Cubans who reside here. The ambassador has told me it is 300. It is not a considerable number considering the number of Cubans who reside in other European states. For example, in Spain there are a large number of Cuban residents. They are possibly in other European countries but Spain is the country where they mostly reside.
In terms of trade, there could be more links. In the context of technology, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, there are a lot of links we could establish with the Irish State and a lot of trade links that could be promoted and established further with the Irish State.
Mr. Fernando González Llort:
I do not have the figures on the level of trade that exists between Ireland and Cuba but I imagine it is heavily impacted by the embargo the United States has on Cuba. The magnitude of the trade is small; it is concentrated in replacement pieces for construction and some dairy products. Ireland has a lot of spheres in which trade could be beneficial to both countries. We should look for ways to promote that trade without letting the US embargo affect it.
I understand the Irish Dairy Board has sought permission to tender for the supply of dairy products. Maybe Mr. González Llort could help progress that process, which would be beneficial to our dairy industry.
Ar dtús, cuirim fíorfáilte go dtí an Dáil agus an coiste seo roimh na finnéithe. Mr. González Llort is very welcome. I also welcome the newly appointed ambassador, Mr. Hugo René Ramos Milanés. I acknowledge the role of the previous ambassador, Mr. Hermes Herrera Hernández, his relationship with the committee and the work he did in building relations between Ireland and Cuba.
Ireland and Cuba have a great deal in common. Ireland was colonised but it took us longer - 800 years - to get rid of our colonial power. Cuba was quicker in that regard. We are still both in the shadow of our big neighbours. Cuba has the United State and we have Britain. Brexit is coming. I have just returned from Cuba and I met Mr. González Llort in Havana. I acknowledge the work ICAP does when people visit. Anybody who has been there has to acknowledge the health system and the education system. One thing in education that is so impressive is the literacy campaign that took place just after the revolution. Today, Ireland, as a developed country, still has literacy issues. Cuba has done much on that issue.
I have a number of questions. The blockade is the biggest challenge at the moment. I feel the EU could play a stronger role. What does Mr. González Llort think about the agreement that has been signed? We know the fines that certain banks faced in the United States if there was engagement with Cuba. That is the first question.
The second question relates to the fact that when one is in Cuba, one can see the benefits of private enterprise. Will that be a challenge for those who work in the public sector, such as the great doctors and teachers Cuba has? How can that dilemma be addressed? One cannot talk about that without talking about Guantanamo Bay, which is one of the biggest human rights abuses in the world. That the United State has been allowed to continue its presence in Guantanamo Bay is amazing, to put it mildly.
My final question is on food. The briefing note we got referred to the extent of the importation of food and yet Cuba is a very fertile country. There are parts of Cuba that are greener than Ireland. How is that issue being addressed?
Mr. Fernando González Llort:
Despite President Obama making the decision to change the relationship with Cuba two years ago, the blockade still remains.
His opinion, stated publicly, was that the blockade should be eliminated. However, the blockade can only be removed by Congress; it is a legislative decision, not an Executive one. There is not sufficient will in Congress for this change. It is not just a question of changing one law but involves a combination of laws. In the initial six months after Donald Trump assumed the Presidency, his Administration began a process of revision of Cuban-American policy. That revision culminated in a public declaration on the part of the President of the United States on the reinforcement of the embargo against Cuba, which was to be expected and would take place, the pursuit of every financial or commercial transaction with Cuba, discouraging travel by north Americans to our country and searching for a pretext to reduce the operations of their embassy in Havana and ours in Washington. This policy shift is having an effect on the functioning of our economy.
In terms of the private sector playing a bigger part in the economy, this is something that has been deeply debated in the Cuban Parliament. The promotion of small enterprises and small entrepreneurs does not go against socialist principles. Private enterprises are already a reality within the Cuban economy. What really creates imbalances and problems is the double currency that exists in Cuba. At the moment, we are involved in the very complex process of trying to unify the two currencies. We are looking for the exchange rate that will have the least impact on the economy when the two currencies are merged. It is a very complex issue that in another place could perhaps have been sorted from one day to another. The unification will have an effect on those who earn the least in Cuban society so when these changes are brought about, the emphasis is to be on having the least effect on those who are at the bottom and suffering the most. It is established already that the unification of the currencies has to happen as soon as possible. The imbalance which the Deputy observed is something that the Cuban Government is examining.
There was a reference to another imbalance in our economy, namely, that relating to the production of food. For us, it is contradictory that although we have land to cultivate, we have to import the equivalent of €2 billion each year in produce. Part of the policy of remodelling the Cuban economy has to do with maximising internal food production. There will always be a number of products that we will have to import because they cannot be produced in our climate. However, we need to be prepared to produce the largest amount of food possible. That is what our people expect and that is what we are working on. It has not been easy but we are working in that direction.
On Guantanamo Bay, it is a scar on our dignity. It is a territory on our island that the United States occupied in an illegal manner and that it maintains against the will of our people and our Government. There are American military bases in many countries. In some countries, they exist against the will of the population but are accepted by the national government. This is not the case with Guantanamo Bay.
The latter is the only military base which operates against the will of the people and the Government. It was obtained by the United States in an illegal manner at a critical moment in Cuban history. This is an important question because the debate is often made around should the base be opened or closed. There is no debate, however as to why that base is there or its legality or illegality. It is important that this issue becomes part of the debate's agenda. For Cubans, this is a key issue and there is no possibility of fully normalising relationships with the United States as long as it continues to occupy that territory. We can have increased dialogue with the United States Government but the complete normalisation of relations cannot happen while a territory in our state is being occupied.
I welcome the witnesses. I attended a wedding in Cuba on this day 17 years ago. I am wishing I was back there now rather than sitting here.
Anyone who visits Cuba is impressed by its healthcare and education systems, the arts and the country's climate, as well as the friendliness of the people. There is a relationship and warmth between the Irish and the Cuban peoples. There is a realisation that we have something in common. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan spoke about our difficult relationship with our largest neighbour. We have much in common with humour and other traits too.
When I visited Cuba, I saw people queuing up for food but I did not see any homeless individuals like one would see in Ireland. People's living conditions were basic. There was great hope after the former US President, Barack Obama, shook hands with the Cuban President, Raul Castro, that things would open up. Unfortunately, it has not happened.
The Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, visited Cuba last year and spoke about building a mutual relationship between Ireland and Cuba. What concrete steps can the Irish Government and people take to improve Irish-Cuban relations? While we are all concerned by the sanctions, not many people understand their impact and how it affects simple things such as banking. For example, if a company trading with Cuba uses a bank which has a subsidiary in the US, the bank is open to fines. There is a concern that there may be a trade war between Europe and the US. Some of the sanctions which impact on Cuba may happen in Europe too. I wish Mr. González Llort well with building relations with Ireland and Europe.
We have a Cuban solidarity group in the Parliament. It is one of the more active ones. I am sure Mr. González Llort will encourage Irish people to travel to Cuba. Meeting people at first hand is the best way of building friendships.
When I was in Cuba, there was much coverage about the arrest of Mr. González Llort and his four colleagues in the US. The American Government claimed they were spying and were a threat to America. I understand Mr. González Llort's group was trying to infiltrate groups involved in no-warning bombing campaigns, blowing up aeroplanes and killing innocent people, and not just in Cuba. He wanted to get information to prevent such attacks. The Cuban Government at the time sent back information to the US authorities about what was happening. Many of us would see what he was doing was positive but the American Government had a different view. Will he elaborate on his experience in the American jail system? I am glad he is now home with his family and I congratulate him on his election to the Cuban Parliament. I hope there are concrete steps our Government and this committee can take to build on the friendship between the two countries.
Mr. Fernando González Llort:
I was part of a group of five who were in prison in the United States for 16 years. We were arrested in 1998 and we left prison in 2014. Our presence in the US was due to a history of ongoing violence coming from groups based in the United States, even though US laws state that one cannot organise in a manner to bring about violence in a foreign country. It is a law which is never mentioned, the Neutrality Act. At the beginning of the triumph of the Cuban revolution, many Cubans went to southern Florida and began to organise and conspire against the revolution from there.
These groups obtain finance, weapons and logistical support in the United States of America, from where they attack Cuba and Cuban interests all across the area.
As a result of these attacks, 2,000 Cubans have been killed, while 3,000 have been mutilated. This has been ongoing for decades, since the triumph of the Cuban revolution. The US authorities that are supposed to act on these actions have never done anything to the individuals involved. Cuba has no other option but to send individuals to south Florida to identify them and discover where they are getting their armaments and logistical support. That is what we were doing in south Florida. We never set out to get any information on the US Government; that was not our objective. However, the US authorities arrested us and prosecuted us on espionage charges. I believe it was part of the historical hostility of the US Government towards our country.
An international campaign was organised, in which a lot of our colleagues in Ireland were involved. A number of Irish parliamentarians signed the petition to have us freed and express solidarity and support, for which we were deeply thankful. Little by little the truth began to emerge as to why we were in prison. Thanks to this solidarity, the factual and real information on our case began to get through and in the end we won the battle and were freed. I believe the truth imposed itself. Once again I take the opportunity to thank all of the parliamentarians and people involved in the campaign in order that I could be here today speaking to the committee. There is an inter-parliamentary solidarity committee in Cuba and the Irish Parliament also has a Cuban solidarity group. I believe every mechanism that promotes dialogue and co-operation between our two countries is important.
On international policy, I believe there are a lot of areas where we have common points. The ratification by the Irish Parliament of the EU-Cuba co-operation agreement was a very important step. The visit to Cuba by the President of Ireland was also a very significant act of solidarity. Any time a head of state visits a foreign country it is a great show of solidarity. It also shows a will to advance economic and social co-operation. It creates interest within the Irish business sector to trade with Cuba. Cuba also has a lot to offer in trade. We have a highly educated population. Sectors of the Cuban economy rely very much on the important contribution made by the knowledge economy. There is development of the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors in Cuba from which Ireland could benefit hugely. Cuba could also benefit from Ireland's experience in these sectors.
In my modest opinion, Ireland and Cuba should go down those roads. I hope this Parliament will support those objectives in order that they can be made more concrete.
I acknowledge the role played by Cuba, with Norway, in the Colombian peace process. With Colombia having a new president, how confident is Mr. Gonzalez Llort that the peace process can be maintained? The larger picture is the manner in which lawfully elected governments in Latin America are being undermined by forces within which are being orchestrated by outside forces.
Mr. Fernando González Llort:
I thank the Deputy for her questions. All Cubans are very proud of the role Cuba has played in the negotiations between FARC and the Colombian Government. Its role has also been recognised by the guerillas and the Colombian Government. It has been acknowledged that when the negotiations were going through a very difficult time, Cuba, among other countries, helped to maintain the process in as smooth a manner as possible. In his public statements the new President of Colombia has given the impression that he will not support the peace process to the same extent as his predecessor. He has stated that although he supports the peace process, he wishes to reform and modify the document on which it is based. However, what someone says when they are a candidate may be different from what they say when they are the president of a nation. We wish for the peace process to be strengthened for the good of Colombia and the wider world.
That is connected to the Deputy's second question and relates to the efforts made by the United States to undermine all progressive governments in the region. Those efforts are evidenced by the shameful manner in which the United States removed Dilma Rousseff from the presidency of Brazil and the imprisonment of Luiz Lula da Silva, the most popular candidate for the presidency. These actions were taken to prevent them from winning the election.
The hand of the United States is evident in the irrational violence in Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan Government is trying to mend differences through dialogue, but the violence is continuing.
The interference of the United States can be seen in the war being waged against Venezuela and its legitimately elected government. The Venezuelan Government that has won 23 elections in 18 years is constantly attacked and undermined internationally. It is part of a strategy to weaken and remove any progressive government in the region and instead establish neoliberal policies which would lead to big benefits for multinationals.
I thank Mr. González Llort. He will note from the contributions that the committee and the country wish to build on the relationship between our two countries and avail of the opportunity to increase trade. I have mentioned that the Irish Dairy Board has sought access to the opportunity to tender for the supply of dairy products to Cuba. We hope that administrative matter can be progressed.
Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan and Seán Crowe and Senator Mark Daly have visited Cuba. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan who is Vice Chairman of the committee has, for many years, been a powerful advocate for improving relations between our two countries which she continues to promote at every opportunity at the committee and during parliamentary debates. I welcome the visit of Mr. González Llort and hope we can send a clear message on the natural affinity between our two countries and the opportunities for trade in order that we can build on our bilateral relations. I thank Mr. González Llort and the ambassador for their presence and presentation.