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UK delegation receive a unique insight into Cuban politics and society

From 16 to 21 September I had the pleasure of leading a BGIPU delegation to Cuba, with the aim to further strengthen the well-established UK-Cuba relationship, but also to learn how the change of President and ongoing reforms were affecting Cuban people and businesses.

As chair of the Latin America APPG and Vice-Chair of the APPG on Cuba, I was accompanied by a distinguished cross-party group from both Houses comprised of also Vice-Chair of the Cuba APPG David Davies MP (Conservative), Jo Stevens MP (Labour) who has previously been involved with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, Chris Law MP (SNP), Rt Hon the Baroness Blackstone (Labour), Lord Dubs (Labour), Rt Hon the Lord Bruce of Bennachie (Lib Dem) and Rt Hon the Lord Foster of Bath (Lib Dem), who were all able to offer their valuable knowledge and insight on all areas discussed. We were accompanied by BGIPU Deputy Director Dominique Rees and staff member Anja Richter and ably supported by the Embassy team in Havana.

Overall the group found it a well put together visit both by the Cuban hosts and the British Embassy, who added a vital civil society component. We enjoyed the opportunity to see parts of old Havana, regional areas and were able to gain a good understanding of the country, particularly the effect of the US embargo on everyday people’s lives and to discuss opportunities for UK trade and investment.

Upon late arrival in Havana on Sunday 16th September we were greeted by HM Ambassador to Cuba Antony Stokes and Jennifer Martinez, Member of the National Assembly’s UK Friendship Group. After introductions and a brief chat, we were taken to the Hotel Nacional where we would stay for the duration of our visit, feeling the whiff of history.

Monday morning kicked off with a working breakfast with the Ambassador and his team, including the local Department of International Trade representative and the British Council. We were given a thorough overview of UK/Cuban relations and the state of Cuban politics today and set out the aims and objectives of our visit.

The formal part of the programme commenced with a bilateral meeting with key members of the Presidency of the National Assembly of People’s Power, chaired by Yolanda Ferrer, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Assembly members informed us of the significant impact that they felt the US embargo was having upon the people of Cuba – a theme that was to continue throughout the duration of our visit. Delegation members made clear that the UK did not support the US embargo (“el bloqueo”, or blockade, in Cuba). During discussions, several questions were raised, including how the assembly member saw progress to promote internet freedom and the creation of small private enterprise. We were then hosted for a Welcome Lunch, where we were joyed to see members of the delegation who had visited London the previous year, Chair of the UK Friendship Group Pablo Marichal Rodriguez MP and Mr Rolando González Patricio MP.

In the afternoon we had the privilege to watch the rehearsal of British Council supported Danza Contemporanea, Cuba’s most successful and internationally renowned contemporary dance group combining modern American theatre, Afro-Caribbean dance styles and classical European Ballet. We were then hosted by HMA Antony Stokes at his residence to meet with a number of individuals who sought to engage in private enterprise. They shared with us problems they currently face when trying to establish business, and the reforms they believe would be beneficial such as making it easier to register a business, reductions in bureaucracy and greater access to the internet.

A personal highlight of mine was the opportunity to visit the home of the Catholic Archbishop of Havana. We were able to discuss religious freedoms in Cuba and learned how this has changed over recent years, and the effect that this has had on Cuban society. Tuesday began with a visit to the Solidarity with Panama Special Education School (the year of its foundation coincided with the US invasion of Panama, hence the name) which cares for children with severe disabilities. The group were unanimous in their praise for the staff at this facility and found the care and development that children were being offered especially impressive. We also heard from the equally impressive headmistress Esther La Ochoa who yet again highlighted the impact that the blockade has had on the school, and how issues such as power shortages have limited the progress of students.

Cuba is renowned for its commitment to provide free healthcare and it invests significantly in medical research and development of new treatments. At the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology we learned about a range of new treatments they have been developing for conditions such as diabetic foot ulcers, rheumatoid arthritis and several types of cancer. We discovered that given comparable life expectancies in Cuba and the UK, the most common causes of death were also quite similar, so as group leader asked that information relating to these treatments be provided such that I could share it with charities and other interested parties in the UK. This process is currently underway. Again we were told that one of the biggest challenges was that potential partners in the European market were hesitant due to their links with the United States.

Over lunch our Ambassador hosted us for a roundtable discussion with some of his colleagues from the German, Dutch, EU and the US Embassies who gave us some valuable insights into a broad range of issues relating to Cuba and how they saw Cuba’s international relationships developing.

In the afternoon the delegation embarked on a tour of the Capitolio, a remarkable congressional building similar in style to that in Washington, which is once again the seat of the National Assembly. The building has undergone significant restoration works of late – something that delegation members could easily relate to – and were unsurprisingly keen to ask questions about. Even more questions were then posed to Jose Luis Toledo, Head of the Commission of Legislative and Constitutional Affairs, who outlined the biggest changes of the new constitution that is currently under consultation and will come into force next year after having been put to a national referendum.

We were then welcomed at the headquarters of the Cuban Association of the United Nations to meet with a large number of groups representing members of Cuban Civil Society, although the term civil society is understood differently in Cuba – their work is broadly aligned with the direction of reforms being implemented across the country and included no criticism of the government. After a brief introduction from all present, we had a lively discussion about the work being undertaken, and the meeting was concluded by our friend Pablo Marichal giving us all a rousing reminder of the importance of the Cuban revolution.

On Wednesday morning the group visited the municipality and port region of Mariel, accompanied by the local DIT staff. Internationally known for the Mariel boatlift in the early 1980s when many Cubans set off to the United States from the closest harbour to Florida, it has recently been designated as an Economic Development Zone created to attract Foreign Direct Investment. After an introductory presentation we were shown around the vast area, and the Director Ana Teresa Igarza gave us an overview of the benefits to businesses operating within the area. Seeing this area first hand proved very beneficial going into our meeting with the Deputy Trade Minister Antonio Luis Carricarte Corona later in the day, where we had a wide-ranging discussion on economic and trade policy as well as what is being done to attract UK trade, an issue that many Latin American countries have been keen to discuss in recent years. I was encouraged by just how many possible areas of trade and Foreign Direct Investment existed and we urged the Minster to make the economy more open to UK FDI.

We also visited the quite renowned Latin American School of Medicine where we were given an overview of the training process for doctors, some of whom come from other – mostly Latin American – countries to train in their highly-regarded medical facilities. There seemed to be a large emphasis on sending qualified doctors overseas to do medical work in other Latin American and West African countries and providing humanitarian aid to help combat issues such as Ebola. Whilst this was undoubtedly a beneficial experience, delegation members would have valued the opportunity to visit an actual medical facility and see Cuba’s health system at work first-hand.

In the afternoon the group were able to meet with the daughter of Raul Castro, Mariela Castro Espín, director of the Cuban National Centre for Sex Education in Havana, and a prominent activist for LGBT rights in Cuba who has been influential in paving the way for the legalisation of same-sex marriage expected to be passed in the next couple of years. Mariela gave a presentation on the recent reforms that have taken place in Cuba to create a more tolerant environment for the LGBT community. She was also questioned by the delegation on issues around abortion rights, access to wider sexual health services and women’s empowerment issues.

In the evening we returned to the residence, this time for a well-attended evening reception which gave the group a chance to meet with a wider community of young Cubans and scholars along with companies and organisations with established links to the UK, who had a strong desire to strengthen the commercial relationship.

On Thursday we ventured out of Havana to Matanzas Province, where we visited the Zapata National Park and spent some time at a community arts project for young people where we witnessed some impressive guitar play and modern dance. We then headed down to the Bay of Pigs and were given a tour of the museum at Playa Giron, where we learned about the run up to and aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion, an important part of the revolution’s trajectory.

The final day of the visit begun with a meeting just opposite Revolutionary Square with the Vice-President of the Council of States, Ricardo Cabrisas. We were able to have a general discussion about our visit and Mr Cabrisas was keen to take questions from all members of the group on issues ranging from media and internet access to human rights and opportunities for young people. There was again a strong focus during discussions on the economy. Mr Cabrisas was consistent in reminding us that what we referred to as ‘reforms’, they regarded as a ‘continuation of the revolution’. The Vice-President took this opportunity to set out how he saw Cuba progressing in the next decade, bearing in mind the significant impact of the ongoing US blockade. The delegation made clear once again that the UK did not support continuation of the embargo.

Subsequent meetings with students at the University of Arts of Cuba and the internationally known Historian of the City of Havana, Eusebio Leal, displayed the high-regard in which culture and arts are held in Cuba. During the University visit we were presented with students performing both impressive opera and classical piano pieces and Mr Leal, who was a former member of the National Assembly, highlighted the importance of preservation and restoration of the old town of Havana, something to which he has dedicated most of his adult life. During a tour of Old Havana we could see for ourselves how much Leal has already achieved, but also the herculean task that still lies ahead. During a working lunch with representatives of Havana’s Provincial Assembly we heard about other challenges faced by the city, investment in urban transport and opportunities to reduce carbon emissions.

Before heading to the airport and back to the UK we met with the Embassy team on the roof of the hotel where Ernest Hemingway used to stay – some of us visited his preserved room- and reflected on the successful week, on what we had learned, seen and wanted to take forward to continue the improvement of UK-Cuban bilateral parliamentary relations.

The delegation was given a warm welcome throughout our visit and every effort was made to give access to the places and people that the group wanted to meet. Delegation members are in agreement that the US embargo limits progress in Cuba and is detrimental to the everyday lives of Cuban people and would like to see more done to strengthen UK-Cuban relations going forward.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my thanks to all members of the delegation for playing a full and constructive role throughout and to Anja Richter and Dominique Rees from BGIPU for ensuring the smooth-running of the delegation. Special thanks also to our Cuban hosts, particularly Jesus Mora from the National Assembly.

Mark Menzies MP