Unused Government notes on ‘towering’ Castro influence

Diplomatic effort to tackle fall-out from President Higgins’s warm tribute to leader


Fidel Castro was “a towering figure of the 20th century” with a “troublesome record” on human rights, according to unused speaking notes prepared for Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan last month in the wake of the former Cuban leader’s death.

The notes, written by officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs on November 29th, were cast in such a way as to avoid drawing similar criticism to that directed at President Michael D Higgins, who greeted Castro’s death with a glowing tribute. In an attempt to shield the president from further problems, however, the notes also repeated some of the sentiments in the statement from Áras an Uachtaráin.

In the end, Mr Flanagan opted not to use the speaking points, instead releasing a two-line statement that expressed his condolences to the Cuban people, adding: “While his legacy is a complex one, Fidel Castro was a major figure in twentieth century history and his death marks the end of an era.”

President Higgins received some of his most direct political criticism since taking office when he greeted news of Castro’s death with a warm tribute that only mentioned in passing the human rights abuses of the authoritarian regime on the Caribbean island.

In a statement issued within hours of Castro’s death on November 29th, President Higgins praised Cuba’s literacy rates, health service and economic growth, describing Castro as “a giant among global leaders whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet”.

The president acknowledged that economic and social reforms introduced in Cuba “were at the price of a restriction of civil society, which brought its critics”, but some politicians and commentators said the wording appeared to distance Mr Higgins from that criticism. One official with knowledge of the events said that was “absolutely not” the Áras’s intention.

Detailed speaking notes drafted by the Department of Foreign Affairs, obtained by The Irish Times, referred to Castro as “a towering figure of the twentieth century”. His influence on world politics was “enormous” and its impact was felt far beyond Cuba, the document noted.

“His passing marks the end of an era. His name is synonymous with Cold War politics and with the clash of ideologies that divided the world in the aftermath of the Second World War, but also with the hopes of a generation for a fairer world.”

The document, prepared a number of hours after the release of the Áras statement, also echoed President Higgins’s praise for what it called the “admirable” achievements of the Cuban revolution in healthcare and education.

However, the speaking notes pointed to the “complexities” of Castro’s legacy. “We should not draw a veil over the troublesome record of the Cuban administration on issues such as the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular political and economic freedoms and freedom of speech.”

The notes also referred to the “very warm” relations between Ireland and Cuba and reiterated Ireland’s opposition to the US embargo of the island.

Government sources say there was no communication between Áras an Uachtaráin and Government about Castro’s death on November 29th. While the Department of Foreign Affairs often provides draft speeches and briefing material for the President’s overseas trips – material Mr Higgins draws on but substantially rewrites – there is no such practice for statements on the death of a foreign dignitary, according to four sources.

The same sources say Government was determined to avoid any public confrontation with the Áras over the Castro statement. In an appearance on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics on November 29th, Mr Flanagan defended the president, praising his work on human rights and his knowledge of Latin America while stressing the head-of-state’s right to express his views. “They genuinely have a very good relationship,” one official said of President Higgins and Mr Flanagan, while acknowledging that their views differ on many issues.

Independent senator Rónán Mullen called President Higgins’s comments “fawning and wholly inappropriate” while Fine Gael backbencher Noel Rock said the president should have acknowledged that the Castro regime “killed and tortured political opponents”.

Reacting to the criticism last month, a spokesman for President Higgins said he had raised human rights concerns with Cuban representatives at every opportunity. The claim that he neglected such concerns was “both unsustainable and unwarranted”, the spokesman added.