IJCS: Interview with Dianna Melrose, UK ambassador to Cuba
- The International Journal of Cuban Studies
(Online) ISSN 1756-347X
Dianna Melrose, Britain's new ambassador to Cuba, talks to Patrick Pietroni about the challenges and rewards of her diplomatic mission.
Patrick Pietroni (PP): How would you describe the UK Government's current position in relation to Cuba?
Dianna Melrose (DM): I would say that it is one of very constructive engagement. There are a lot of issues and concerns that we share and that we have been working on together for some time. An example would be Climate Change - Cuba has recently suffered three extremely bad hurricanes (category 4) in an incredibly short space of time with horrendous impacts on the Cuban people and the Cuban economy. So the whole debate about climate change here has hotted up. I recently met the Minister of CITMA (Science, Technology and Environment) and we we agreed that we have an opportunity of working together to achieve an ambitious climate change agreement in Copenhagen in 2009 [http://en.cop15.dk/%5d. Cuba is very influential amongst the non-allied movement and in the UN, and so there is a lot that we can do together.
There are many other areas where we have had a very productive exchange and very practical co-operation, for example in combating drug trafficking. Some months ago a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship "Wave Ruler" came to Havana to discuss drug interception and what we can learn from Cuba on preparing and responding to hurricanes. "Wave Ruler" helped British Overseas Territories: the Turks and Caicos and the Cayman Islands deal with exactly the same hurricanes, Ike and Gustav. On child protection, (helping children who are victims of sexual abuse) we have supported practical collaboration [http://en.cop15.dk/%5d. We have also invited Mariela Castro, Director of CENESEX (Cuba's National Centre for Sexual Education) who is leading cutting edge work on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights to visit the UK meet her counterparts.
There are also trade and investment links that we would like to strengthen. The UK is the second largest source of tourists - last year over 200,000 British tourists came here, and the Cuban Government would like to see more British companies investing in the tourism sector. They say they would like to see investment commensurate with UK participation in the tourist industry. In life sciences there is a lot of potential for exchange both in terms of research, and Cuba sourcing some of the higher tech equipment that Cuban scientists need from UK suppliers.
PP: Is there any direct involvement of the UK Government say in terms of aid to Cuba at all - for instance in the hurricane season?
DM: Yes. In response to hurricanes Gustav and Ike, the Department for International Development gave £250,000 to emergency relief through the ICRC and the Cuban Red Cross. We didn't publicise it because at the time the Cuban government was still deciding whether or not to accept aid from the European Commission and EU member states. Also as a major donor to the UN, the UK is making a significant contribution. There is also smaller scale co-operation, like the Chevening scholarship scheme run by the British Council in Cuba. There are an incredible number of highly qualified Cuban applicants competing for just 2 places a year, so we wish there was more funding available.
If you are asking me whether the UK might have a large-scale bilateral development programme - the answer is no. The Department for International Development (DFID) is committed by an Act of Parliament to giving 90% of its aid to the least developed countries. Cuba is too developed in terms of its human development indicators and sub-Saharan Africa is prioritised over Latin America and the Caribbean. But EC development co-operation has now been resumed, opening up new possibilities to contribute to improving the lives of Cuban people.
PP: Has this altered because of the new position of June 2008 and has Cuba's position altered in relation to the EU?
DM: Yes. The EU never cut off development co-operation with Cuba: that was a Cuban decision after the EU introduced new measures following the detention of seventy-five political prisoners in 2003. But these measures were suspended by EU ministers in June. The good news is that we have now established a political dialogue and the Cuban Government has decided that it will agree to receive EC assistance. But the EU remains concerned about political prisoners and wider human rights issues.
PP: We'll come back to that if we can
DM: But the view was that now is the time for positive engagement, and a political dialogue on areas of mutual interest, as well as human rights. There was a very positive first meeting in Paris between the Cuban Foreign Minister and the Troika (the Foreign Ministers of the French Presidency and incoming Czech Presidency - from 1st January 09 - and the Commission). It was a very good discussion on a range of issues, including the world economic crisis.
PP: Because the Czech government has been leading the opposition against Cuba, the change in the new position, I'm very pleased to hear that they have taken a different viewpoint.
DM: Well I wouldn't put it that way. I would say that on just about any policy you get a spectrum of opinion in the EU. And it's true that the new member states have been at the tougher end of the spectrum on human rights and whether it is better to engage to try to affect changes (which the Spanish government argued most forcefully) or to maintain a distance until there are concrete human rights improvements.
PP: Am I correct in saying Louis Michel came recently and did that move things along?
DM: Definitely. Louis Michel came here in October and signed an agreement to resume development co-operation, followed by Stefano Manservisi (the Director General of DG Development) a couple of weeks ago. There was a joint declaration, which sets out areas for collaboration, one of them being immediate humanitarian relief from ECHO. Longer-term development co-operation priorities include food security and health. Possible triangulation (for example, supporting Cuban assistance to medical programmes in Africa) is also an idea on the table. I would say that relations between Cuba and the European Union have moved on. It's a very positive move forward.
PP: Can we change the area now and talk about America a little bit. What is the UK Government's view on the impact of Obama's election and its likely or unlikely shift of American policy - how do you read the runes?
DM: I need to give you a personal view, because it's not a discussion that we have yet had with the FCO in London. I know our Minister, Gillian Merron recently exchanged views on what Obama's election could mean with Cuban Ambassador, René Mujica. I was talking to a US think-tanker about this yesterday. My reading of it is it has to be positive, if you look back at say the speech that Obama gave in May (2008) about US relations with Latin America. He emphasised the need to respect the fact that it must be the Cuban people who are in the driving seat in determining their future and the future of Cuba. He very clearly said current policy has not worked, and that a new approach and engagement are needed. I think most commentators think that it is quite likely that Obama will get rid of the restrictions on travel and remittances imposed by President Bush.
DM: Because even Cuban-Americans in Miami, who are strong ideological opponents of the Cuban Government, object strongly to only being allowed to visit close relatives once every three years and only send them three hundred dollars every three months. There is a very powerful testimony given by one to Congress arguing that especially after the hurricanes it is wrong to deny family members assistance. So I think those could be lifted by Executive Order and the President can do that now without changing the embargo.
PP: Because that has to go through Congress?
DM: Yes, that will be much more complicated and so there you would need Congressional support. There are members of Congress who for different reasons want the embargo lifted, whether it is from the agricultural exporting states, or Democrats and Republicans who just think it has been a wholly counter-productive approach. Both the UK and the EU strongly oppose the embargo. I don't know if you have read the write-ups of the seven-hour interview, that actor Sean Penn had with Raul Castro in November. They talked about Obama's victory and Raul said that, provided there were mutual respect, he would be prepared to sit down and talk to the US administration. I think that there is a real opportunity and let's hope that Cuba plays this strategically and that the team that Obama puts together to work on Latin American issues, will see a change in US relations with Cuba as important symbolically in signalling a new approach on an issue that unites LAC.
PP: Absolutely, which leads us right on to the next question. Raul's Presidency - have you perceived a shift in the Cuban position in relation to some of the issues we have talked about? Has he taken a slightly different view from Fidel and has the fact that Fidel is not in the leadership role now made it easier for the West to talk to Raul?
DM: We have seen some limited changes with Raul. If you look back to the speech that he gave in July 2007, he gave a clear recognition that there needed to be economic changes in the interest of Cuban citizens. He announced agricultural reforms, which could herald important changes, although there does not yet seem to a lot happening in terms of the actual redistribution of land. [In February 2009 land distribution took place in Cuba, see http://www.reuters.com/article/globalNews/idUSTRE5113IY20090202 ]. But on the internal reform agenda, we are not talking about political reforms.
I think another area of positive change is that Cuba is very clearly diversifying its foreign relations, and there is a recognition that dependence on any one relationship with any single country is not in Cuba's best interests. They lived through tough times in the 90's with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba has strengthened its relations with Brazil and other Latin American and Caribbean countries, and agreed to a dialogue and new way forward with the European Union. Hu Jintao was here a couple of weeks ago and Medvedev was here last week. Obviously Chávez remains very important to the Cuban Government. Without that oil, the Cuban economy would be even more stretched.
PP: But is it true what I have read that by 2015 or 2012, whichever it is, the oil fields that Cuba has got, on its North coast will make Cuba self sufficient in terms of its energy requirements? This will make a huge difference in terms of its relations with or its dependence on Venezuela for instance.
DM: Exactly. I hope that there is lots of oil out there in the Gulf for Cuba's sake, but nobody knows for certain how much is there. Certainly there was an announcement recently that there is much more there than had been thought. At the time I wondered whether there is new evidence, (I haven't really found any source for it) or whether the government wanted to reassure people that times are tough now but things will get better. Only today I was talking to a British oil company about what interest there might be in investing in exploration in the Gulf, because Cuba is obviously keen to attract foreign oil companies. The answer was that it depends on the cost of oil. It is low now which makes the cost of extracting oil that's heavy, difficult to process, deep down, and needs very expensive technology, means that at the moment the equation is tipped against. Then obviously there are other factors that we have been discussing. But yes who knows hopefully for Cuba as I say there is a lot of oil there. [Plans for exploratory drilling with the involvement of foreign firms were announced in February 2009, see http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/energy/2009/02/03/cuba-plans-new-offshore-drilling-in-search-for-big-oil-finds-in-the-gulf-of-mexico.html%5d .
PP: Another question and I may be wrong here but I have the impression that for a while that Cuba had, as it were embargoed contact between Western Ambassadors and Ministers. Has this now lifted? I mean do you now have access and contact with various ministers that you might need to deal with.
DM: Definitely. I think that some of my predecessors had a tougher time particularly after the EU Common Position was adopted in 2003. Cuba is different, as everybody says. Cuba is unique: it's not a country where you can pick up the phone and ask to go and meet a Minister. You have to present a formal, diplomatic note and in July we put in lots of diplomatic notes asking for introductory meetings for me with just about every Minister. The good news is that slowly as the weeks go by, we are now getting answers and it's interesting to see which ministries have picked up the phone first, because it indicates where the areas of interest in collaborating with the UK are. The first was the CITMA Minister (Science, Technology and the Environment). Then I met the Minister of Tourism. I should have said that I had very good meetings with two Vice-Ministers of foreign affairs even before I presented my credentials. I was told I was very lucky to get an hour with each of them. Since then I've met the Minister for Trade about three times in one week (coinciding with the Cuba Initiative visit) and I've just been told that tomorrow I have a meeting with the Minister for Basic Industries.
So I'm hoping that over time I'm going to meet more and more, and at Director level we have very good relations. So there has been a tough time and I certainly don't want to give the impression that there aren't going to be rocky waters ahead. It is very important to stress that the EU Common Position isn't going to change until things in Cuba change. You'll have noticed at the time that Louis Michel came here (the European Development Commissioner) there was a lot of coverage in Cuba about how positive it was that development co-operation was going to be resumed and there had to be a strong emphasis on "mutual respect". As we see it, 'mutual respect' means mutual respect also by the Cuban Government for the European Union and the values important to us, including commitment to full civil and political rights, democratic freedoms, freedom of expression: all the rights that are fundamental to our society. So we need some respect going that way. What you will find talking to our Ministers is that we are very committed to making with the political dialogue work, but Ministers expect to see concrete results.
PP: The issue of human rights has always been mentioned as a stumbling block to the relationship between the West and Cuba. What changes need to occur for that stumbling block to be removed? I mean are we waiting for Cuba to have one person, one vote with political parties before we talk to them or do we accept their current position on their own method of participatory democracy as opposed to representational democracy?
DM: I'm not talking about any outsider determining what political system the Cuban people should have. What we are talking about are the fundamental human rights that Cuba has signed up for. Cuba was a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has recently signed both the Covenants on Civil and Political rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural rights. What we are talking about is implementation - granting the basic rights enshrined in those covenants and in the treaty: the right of freedom of expression and association and all the fundamental civil and political rights. So what are the problems? The problems are that there are still political prisoners, prisoners of conscience recognised by Amnesty. People are arrested and locked up for criticising the government. People can't get access to the internet, there is no free flow of information. So issues like the release of political prisoners are fundamentally important to those concrete changes.
What other things? Obviously we have stated very clearly in the EU Common Position and in the Council Conclusions in June that the EU does not accept that any government can tell us who we can or can't speak to. To have a normal relationship with Cuba, we want to talk to other people, hear the views of people who are critical of the government, obviously the peaceful opposition. There are British and other EU Ministers who would very much like to come to this country. But they won't come here until they are able to have meetings with both their Cuban Government counterparts and with whoever they choose from the peaceful opposition.
PP: At the risk of an increasingly difficult discussion how would you respond to the often stated Cuban position on Human Rights? Is the irony of Guantánamo Bay, where human rights are definitely not respected not an indication of the West's hypocrisy? Human rights involve free education and free healthcare before anything else and there are many people in America and the UK where that is not available. Any country that has been blockaded for 40 years by the most powerful country in the world has had to, as it were, turn down its civil liberties in order to actually survive in the way that we in the UK and America during the second world war imprisoned all our Italian and German residents and the Americans imprisoned all the Japanese. A big controversy in the UK concerns the imprisonment 42 days or 90 days for potential Islamic terrorists. How can we put that alongside the criticisms to the Cubans?
DM: I hear all those arguments and René Mujica will no doubt add others. I agree that no country is impeccable when it comes to human rights. We have got an opportunity now that, as a member of the Human Rights Council, Cuba is going to have its universal periodic review (UPR) in February 2009. We were one of the first countries to put ourselves forward because we didn't want this process to be a white-wash. We wanted a genuine exercise and we invited other countries to criticise us. A positive thing is that we are having an experts' exchange with Cuban officials over what we learnt from the UPR process [http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/Pages/UPRMain.aspx%5d. I also agree that social and economic rights are incredibly important, alongside civil and political rights. They are indivisible. And yes I would say that people in the UK are predisposed to admire Cuba for giving universal access to health and education. [See news report from the UNHRC at http://uk.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUKL536528 ].
However, even if we look at economic rights, if there were changes that gave people in Cuba basic economic freedoms, their lives would be immeasurably improved. I'm sure you've found that if you talk to people on the street they're worried about their wages, some of the huge inequalities here because of the dual currencies. They don't have the right to own property. You'll find that even street vendors are being arrested. I think that the key thing is that Cuba is a signatory to these human rights covenants and instruments. They are not impositions of the "West". The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up, as I'm sure you know by international experts from every continent. So it is really for Cuba to live up to its commitments, to move to ratify both the covenants, which would be another concrete result. So I think that we can't take exceptionalism with Cuba too far. Sometimes I'm asked why ministers insist on meeting the opposition and whether they do this anywhere else? You might have noticed that in the last week the EU China summit has been called off by the Chinese precisely because the EU Presidency intended to meet the Dalai Lama. So there is a consistency in terms of the EU taking human rights very seriously.
PP: We are hoping to host a whole series of seminars in London on this issue of Human Rights because I do believe until we unpack it and actually discuss it in some more friendlier atmosphere - so that we can hear each other's positions a little bit more clearly, we will continue to avoid an intelligent dialogue.
DM: I think that finger wagging achieves little. You need to have a constructive dialogue and there are some very good things happening. After the Paris meeting, some follow up was agreed between the EU and Cuba. This included prison visits, the conditions of prisoners here and an EU visit. Also a human rights seminar. There has been a recent seminar in Oslo on economic, social and cultural rights. Hopefully the dialogue around the UPR - is how you move forward. The human rights issue is not going to go away because it's an issue of principle, and just as obviously the Cuban government wants respect for its system, so does the EU and the UK.
PP: You mentioned economic and social rights and you also alluded to the inequalities as a result of the double currency that exists here. Given the current crisis that we are facing in the West, is Cuba in a way also facing its own individual economic crisis? How do you see the economic situation here in Cuba? Is it so outside the kind of free market system that it has its own unique and separate problems or is it navigating itself towards a closer involvement in free market, neo-liberal economies? Do you see it changing or is it going to be this closed economy that has existed with a double currency and a large black market?
DM: I think the signals are mixed. But if you think of the social values of the Cuban government it obviously is of huge concern that you have such stark inequalities. A doctor is earning £17-20 a month - which a waiter, somebody working in the tourism sector with access to convertible currency, might earn in in a couple of days. So there are big inequalities which draw the highly qualified into lower skilled jobs. Low wages, lack of economic freedoms and the daily struggle to make ends meet have fuelled a vibrant black economy. There are some very persuasive and well argued critics of the current system who support the government's social values, but are highly critical of the extent of centralisation and stifling bureaucracy. Many of them say you can't blame the embargo for all Cuba's ills: a lot of Cuba's economic woes are self-inflicted.
On the positive side, there have been moves to open up the country, potentially even the agricultural sector, to foreign investment. There are positive signs but at the same time there has been very little concrete to show in terms of internal economic reforms.
PP: I think that is clearly one of the areas that is as important as the human rights one and maybe they are connected. Will Cuba maintain the current constructive dialogue, but remain where it is, or will it encourage more changes within trade, tourism and education and an involvement of Cuba in the International scene which it is currently not, certainly in the West?
DM: Its economy is inextricably affected by what's happening internationally. As the price of oil goes down, it puts Venezuelan economic support under pressure. Also whether investors choose to invest here: It is actually a tough country to do business in and the credit squeeze will obviously affect investment decisions.
PP: I wonder if we could move to a slightly more personal question in relation to your own position as Ambassador here. Everyone knows that you were very central in the work of Oxfam. Has the experience of working with Oxfam influenced what you can bring to Cuba?
DM: I think it does influence, very strongly, how I approach my work here. Most of my career I have spent working for social justice and I've always admired what Cuba has done in terms of health and education. But at the same time within Oxfam we pushed very hard for a rights-based approach to development. I remember arguing with judges and lawyers in the UK, our trustees, that you couldn't have a hierarchy between civil and political and social and economic rights, that they were all absolutely integral, and you needed all. So I look at social and economic alongside the civil and political rights. I'm an optimist and an activist, which you have to be in an NGO. So to me to want to see change, to believe change is possible, to enjoy engaging with a whole range of people, I think it probably means that I have met a broader range of people than perhaps some of my predecessors. I hear from Cuban government interlocutors that they are pleased that I have got a development background.
PP: Many of us know of your work and reputation in the activist role that you have taken. How can you be a diplomat and an activist at the same time?
DM: Oh, I think that diplomats are supreme activists, certainly the most effective ones, because diplomacy is increasingly about delivering clear objectives. When I joined the Foreign Office it was much more about reacting to the day's events. Well that has changed markedly, we now have very clear goals and strategic priorities. You must achieve x, y, z in Cuba. And at a global level, an ambitious climate change agreement, for example is a very concrete outcome that the government wants us to help deliver. So the whole job of diplomats is to beaver away, activists as anything, trying to understand where other people are coming from and then influence them to achieve the same goals. So I would say that good diplomats are activist diplomats and I think that you would find if you asked Gordon Brown or David Miliband what did they want are diplomats that make a difference.
PP: You haven't mentioned in that list Robin Cook who was responsible for getting you into the Foreign Office.
DM: Well he created the opportunity: The job of deputy head of the policy planning staff was opened up uniquely to outsiders, because Robin Cook wanted to bring in fresh perspectives. I applied for it and ended up with an amazing job. I was brought in to be an NGO within the Foreign Office, and tasked by Robin Cook and my boss, the permanent undersecretary, with proposing issues on which I wanted to criticise current foreign policy and suggesting alternative approaches. I thought it was very positive that the Foreign Office was opening up to having a lively debate about issues, having the top people sit down together and thrash out policy. So that's how I started.
PP: But can you be a devil's advocate as well as an Ambassador?
DM: I think you can because any new ambassador has got to recognise how little they know. You start on a steep learning curve, asking a lot of questions and the more you ask questions inevitably you are questioning the status quo. Coming in fresh it's often easy to ask: why is that our position? Has something changed? Should we be doing things differently? Certainly, I have done that in every job that I have had and nobody in the Foreign Office has ever stopped me. In fact before I came here I asked the Director General (Change & Delivery) for advice as incoming Ambassador to Cuba and he said: "Dianna be yourself, keep on challenging." Obviously what I do has to be what Ministers want, we are civil servants, but my job is to develop good relations with a wide range of Cubans.
PP: And finally, we know that your background is Spanish speaking and that you lived in Latin America and feel comfortable with, presumably, the culture from your past experience. What has been your own personal life, if that is a reasonable question to ask in relation to the Cuban social life and culture that you have found here?
DM: I absolutely love it. Cuban people are warm, welcoming and great to talk to. I'm very lucky because I live in the district of Vedado. My neighbours are not other ambassadors, they are ordinary Cubans. So I can wander around the streets, get into conversations and I find it's a very welcoming, friendly place.
Culturally it's amazing and I have been very struck that there's a strong mutual admiration between Cuban and British artists, ballet dancers, film directors (we have got Mike Leigh here now) and we're hoping the Royal Ballet will come in July [now confirmed]. Cultural life is amazing: I have been to more ballets, concerts, films than I've been to in years in Britain, just in a few months.
PP: What makes you angry?
I get angry when I read caricatures of European capitalist countries in the newspapers and the stereotypes that we are somehow rapacious, capitalist countries with no social values. When I go round and say to Cubans, "Look, we like you believe in universal healthcare; we've had a national health service for 60 years; we have free education and a welfare state", I am often greeted with amazement. Recently I met the editor of Temas (an influential journal here) and suggested an edition on how to achieve economic growth with equity, and maintaining social values. Cuba shares some challenges with Western democracies. I wish people got a fuller picture of the outside world and that access to the internet wasn't blocked. Young people here want access to the internet and the information you and I have.
PP: Finally, you live in this wonderful house: the stereotype of an ambassadorial residence. Does this cause you grief?
DM: This house is beautiful and it belongs to the Cuban government so we are the tenants here and I see this as a place of work. I live in two little rooms upstairs and very rarely sit downstairs. But it is absolutely great for getting together groups of people, for seminars, discussions, films. We had an event to celebrate the handover from Beijing to London for London 2012 and invited the Cuban medal winners. We've had cultural meetings bringing together international film directors, ballet dancers and musicians. There have been scientific seminars here, exchanges on different issues like Climate Change.
Last week I had a party for 90 or so British women, who together with Fern Britton (and Professor Robert Winston for some of the way) had cycled 390 kilometres to raise money for "Women for Women" - the charity he founded. Each cyclist had to raise £3,000 for research in the UK into women/children's health issues. I invited Mariela Castro (Director of CENESEX), heads of women's organisations, women health professionals and many others. Having said it was going to be women only, I relented to charges of sexism when I heard that the British camera crew were men; and invited leading Cuban (male) medical research scientists. We had a party here with a wonderful atmosphere. And the women said that that they had loved being in this house, that it was the culmination of their visit to feel that all their arduous cycling in the heat was being recognised. But most of all, they valued the opportunity to meet Cubans with shared interests, and Mariela came up with ideas for follow-up. So yes: a beautiful house, but a house with a purpose.
PP: Ambassador, thank you for the time that you have given us and we look forward to hearing more about your work in Cuba and the influence I am sure that you will have in terms of improving UK-Cuba relations.
Dianna Melrose took up post as Her Majesty's Ambassador to Cuba in 2008.
Patrick Pietroni is Director of the International Institute for the Studies of Cuba.
This interview took place in Havana in November 2008 and has been updated with appropriate notes, in relation to subsequent developments in Cuba.
Vancouver, BC, Canada
"Cuba - Un Paraíso bajo el bloqueo"