GETTING TO KNOW: H. E. Mr Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba to South Africa.

South Africa and Cuba share strong bilateral relations today, but the association between the two countries is not one that has always been positive. Fighting against one another in the Angolan Civil War in the mid-to-late 80’s, Cuba condemned the apartheid government and made its voice heard in the fight for former President Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. The Cuban government also worked alongside the then banned African National Congress (ANC) and in return, the ANC in July 2014 pledged its allegiance to Cuba in its struggle against US economic sanctions. We sat down with the Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba to South Africa, His Excellency Mr Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, to discuss these interesting and ever-growing relations.

Embassy Direct: Your Excellency, how would you describe your diplomatic tour in South Africa? Is there any experience or event that stands out thus far?

H. E. Mr C Fernandez de Cossio: It’s a very positive and encouraging post, to be in South Africa. It is a country that is very close to Cuba, with which we share a very long history. If I have to think of events that occurred during my stay here, I could mention two which are quite remarkable. One was the funeral for Madiba, former President Nelson Mandela, which was a tremendous show of solidarity amongst South Africans, coming together to honour their historic leader, and also an immense recognition by the international community. For that occasion, our President Fidel Castro came to South Africa and he was among the leaders that spoke at the FNB stadium, and that is quite a remarkable experience for an ambassador. Another great experience was a visit to South Africa by the Cuban five – five Cuban heroes that were finally all released from prison in the United States – and they were welcomed in South Africa as if they were South Africa’s own heroes. That was a remarkable expression of the relationship and the bonds between our people.

In relation to your family, what has their experience of the country been?

It has been very pleasant. I’ve had teenagers here, who’ve gone to school in South Africa. My wife has also enjoyed the country. We’ve travelled a good part of the territory of South Africa and we’ve enjoyed it, we feel welcomed in this country.

Your country has collaborated with South Africa by both bringing professionals from various fields to work here – teachers, medical doctors – while at the same time you have hosted South African citizens to study, particularly, Medicine at your universities. Your Excellency, how would you define the current relationship between Cuba and South Africa?

It’s a very good relationship, politically very close. I would say that bilateral cooperation in the area that you are mentioning would be, in many ways, the defining element of our bilateral relationship. This year we celebrate 20 years of official, formal bilateral cooperation between our governments – marking 1996 as the year in which the first Cuban professionals arrived in South Africa, medical doctors to help the then young government of South Africa cope with the needs of human resources, to be able to fulfil the commitments of delivering medical services to a population that didn’t have them in the past. This cooperation today is very strong in other areas too – we have (relations) in human settlements, in housing, water and sanitation, we even have military cooperation between our governments. And the medical bond continues to be very important. Currently, we have over 500 Cuban professionals working in South Africa, and in Cuba close to 3000 young South Africans studying at universities, the majority of them to become medical doctors. And that is an example of what the UN would describe as South-South cooperation – when two countries complement each other’s strengths in order to better the lives of their people and to better the lives of the nation.

Cuba was a central force of support to the ANC during the struggle against Apartheid. Being stationed here, how do you feel the country has moved forward after 1994?

I believe there’s been change without doubt. I had the personal privilege of being a UN observer to the election in 1994, and I could take a glimpse of South Africa at that time. It was just a few days, it only gives you a general idea, but if one studies the complex history of this country, and the effort being made to try to put the country together with different cultural approaches but to unite in one nation, one can see there have been advances. And one can see that there are still problems that need to be coped with. The country continues to suffer the inheritance of a deformation in terms of its social economic structure, the problems of any developing country in a world with an international economic order geared against, or structured against developing countries and for the benefit of the formal foreign powers. It still has huge challenges ahead of it, but I believe it’s a country that has advanced. Having professionals here, who have worked for over 20 years, they bear witness to the changes or advances of these past 22 years (since 1994).

The music of your country is often defined as Afro-Cuban, what is the actual influence of the African culture within your country, and vice versa?

Africa, or the inheritance from Africa, is part of the formation, and I would say definition, of the Cuban nationality. Most Cubans, we have African blood in our bodies, in our system, in our being. As well as Spanish. But more important than that, the way we think, the way we act, the way we feel, the way we eat, the way we dance, the way we dress is influenced by both the European influence and the African influence. If one were to try to separate the African influence from a Cuban one would lose the definition of a Cuban. You cannot separate the one from the other. And music is perhaps the most visible. You see all Cubans, regardless of their colour or appearance, what we eat, how we dress, how we walk, how we react, is influenced by both the European influence and the African influence. Which is common to many parts of Latin America.

And last but not least, you mentioned earlier the presence of President Castro at President Mandela’s funeral. That marked an important moment in history, exciting moments that we are witnessing! After more than 50 years, your country is now in the process of reinstating diplomatic relations with the USA. How does this significant event affect the everyday lives of the any given Cuban?

It’s an important historical and political event. After more than 50 years as you say, the government of the United States, or this government of the United States finally decides to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Cuban Revolution. And that is without a doubt an important political, and I would say strategic achievement for Cuba and our region, for Latin America and the Caribbean in general. The impact for the people of Cuba, one can see more in terms of potential, for the future and for the opportunity that this gives in not having such a powerful country maintaining an official hostile policy towards our nation. But this change has not meant, yet, a change in the economic sanction, what we call the economic blockade, which is the most comprehensive system of economic sanctions ever applied to any country. The current President of the United States, Barack Obama, has committed himself to change that. He has expressed his belief that these sanctions should be removed. But it’s not all in his hands. It depends on an act of the Congress of the United States. And while that doesn’t happen, these economic sanctions continue to have a very negative impact on the livelihoods of Cubans. It’s a fundamental impediment to our development, so we hope, again, for the future, that this is an important step to a relationship that would stop having this negative effect on the population of Cuba. Now, historically, there’s no animosity between the people of Cuba and the people of the United States, so our people welcome this new opportunity, our government welcomes this new opportunity, and we hope that with future government in the United States we can continue this path that will eventually lead to normalisation. I say eventually because we cannot yet speak today of a normal relationship.

Thank you very much for your time today, Your Excellency, and we wish you all the best.

Thank you.