Jose Ramon Cabañas Rodriguez served in the Cuban diplomatic service for 37 years. In 2015 he became his country’s first ambassador to the United States in 50 years. During his long and distinguished career, Cabañas was involved in some of the most difficult diplomatic challenges Cuba faced in recent decades. He played a key role in securing the release of the Miami Five from incarceration in the US. Now back in Havana, Jose is director of the Research Centre for International Policy (CIPI). We met recently while he was attending MEMO’s conference on decolonisation and apartheid in Palestine.
I began our conversation by asking him about the fundamentals of Cuban foreign policy, its constants and its variables. “Some people may think we are boring and almost predictable,” he says. They know what to expect in almost any scenario. The first principle of that policy is “to defend our sovereignty at any cost.”
Naturally, Cuba affirms the efficacy of diplomacy. Throughout the past 64 years, Cuba’s foreign policy has been driven by the principles of reciprocity and mutual respect between nations. All these are enshrined in the country’s new constitution, which was adopted in 2019 and emphasises that “we will never negotiate under pressure.”
Revolutionary leaders from José Martí to Fidel Castro have always encouraged internationalism. “We follow a course of solidarity both from a political and cultural point of view. That has been seen in our role in Africa. We are returning to Africa what Africa gave to us. It is our heritage and it gave us a lot.”
Cabañas continues: “We are open to any culture and assist others; we sent medical doctors all over the world.” He asserts that Cuba’s revolutionary foreign policy has been successful because it has resolutely adhered to these guiding principles. “That’s why we have gained respect in multilateral spaces; because we have been consistent for many years.”
Given that Cuba played a pivotal role in several decolonisation struggles in Africa, in which Cabañas was personally involved, I naturally wanted to have a perspective from Havana on the Zionist colonisation of Palestine.
“We denounce the pressure and daily violence inflicted on the Palestinian people. The systematic denial of their basic rights is not an abstract matter. So why is Israel not classified on the list of terrorist states?”
Through its membership of the UN Palestinian Rights Committee, Cuba offers diplomatic support and solidarity. The Palestinian flag features prominently in all national parades and events. “Cuba has always been on the side of the Palestinian people and we help in accordance with our capability. Hence, hundreds of Palestinian students are trained in Cuban universities.”
Since 2006, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been subjected to an Israeli blockade. Their fate bears stark semblances to the 64-year-old US blockade of Cuba. How did the Cubans manage to survive this long without conceding any political ground?
Jose says: “The first lesson is unity and resilience is the only way. If you are not ready to fight until the end you will not survive. You will get no respect and solidarity. We have received a lot of support; direct economic support, as well as huge moral support.”
When faced with a blockade, the type of which Gaza faces, he adds, “you must look for alternatives and expand your international relations.”
The US blockade
“It may seem like a contradiction, but the solidarity movement towards Cuba in the US is among the largest. Remember that the blockade against Cuba doesn’t have the support of the majority of the American people. Any poll will show this. The US is isolated in the UN on this policy with the exception of Israel and a few Pacific countries.”
There are, besides, other parallels with the situation in Gaza. “What they call embargo and we call blockade is a comprehensive system of not only legal decisions but also political, economic, security and military decisions. All these are enforced while the Americans are still occupying part of our land in Guantanamo. We are, therefore, speaking about a state policy toward Cuba that has been reviewed and updated for more than 60 years.”
The first document signed by American President Kennedy stated that Cuba has a special relationship with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China and they are both US enemies, Washington should not allow them to gain a foothold in the region. “Well, the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore and China is the largest trading partner of the US. So why are we under blockade? It’s like a moving target.”
The case of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act is both revealing and significant. Cabañas recalled how the US used the argument of compensation after the nationalisation process in Cuba. “But we were unable to make compensations to the Americans simply because they cancelled our sugar quota in their market. In fact, we compensated everyone else; the UK, France and others.”
For decades the US has made no secret of the fact that its aim is to carry out regime change in Cuba. It has never hesitated to move the goalpost to accomplish this end. “Under Clinton, many political forces and politicians in the US advocated a track two approach, meaning a people-to-people dialogue; but they quickly changed this because it was working to the advantage of Cuba.” How did this happen?
When American citizens visited Cuba, they found a situation completely different from what they were led to believe. First, they were welcomed and they saw no enemies. “So they began to ask, what is the problem? [The Cubans] are not burning American flags.”
Although Barack Obama visited Cuba in 2016, the first such trip by a sitting American president since 1928, US official policy remained unchanged. “For his administration, it was a question of do we go about regime change by blockade and military force or through the friendly hug.”
Before concluding my conversation with Dr Cabañas, there were two other matters I wanted to touch on; the first was about Cuba’s relationship with its Caribbean neighbours. He explained: “The support from the Caribbean brotherhood has been a key element in our fight against the blockade. Some call the Caribbean the immediate neighbourhood of Cuba, I say it is the immediate brotherhood of Cuba, and this is no exaggeration. It is the most consistent support we have had, regardless of who is in government – left, center or right. It’s a cultural and economic stance.”
There are, naturally, problems in the region related to health, transportation, integration of trade and education. While he was in Washington, Cabañas recalled how Caribbean diplomats were often warned not to get too close to Cuba as it would damage their tourist industry. Their response was always clear-cut; they demanded an end to the blockade as it would benefit them economically. “On the whole, our relationship with our Caribbean brothers is reciprocal and exceptional. When the Covid pandemic struck in 2019, our doctors and medical teams were deployed in the islands long before the British, even though the English-speaking islands are part of the British Commonwealth. Episodes like these prove that it is impossible to detach Cuba from the region.”
The Miami Five
Finally, after so many years in the diplomatic service, what would you say was the most difficult and challenging situation you faced as a Cuban diplomat. “Surely the most sensitive experience was my personal role in efforts to free the Miami Five – Cubans who were jailed in the US in 1998 for trying to prevent terrorist attacks against their country. They were convicted in 2000-2001, and it seemed that at least three of them would spend the rest of their lives in prison. In Cuba, they were, and remain, national heroes. We visited them and for several years fought hard legal battles in different US courts for their release.”
“That experience of going to high security prisons in the US to talk to these Cubans helped me to understand how insane their conviction was – that of being foreign agents and conspiring to commit murder. Contrary to media reports, there was no mention of espionage in the courts.”
“Amazingly, every time we visited them, they were confident they would be free at some point. Fidel himself said they will be back, and they were. The whole experience was for me a very special one; and although it was an extremely tense and difficult period, it ultimately ended in happiness for the Cuban people with their freedom and return to Havana.”