Higgins steps on to sensitive diplomatic terrain in Cuba

Irish President meets Cuban activists and independent journalists on final day of visit

President Michael D Higgins met Cuban activists and independent journalists on Saturday, moving onto diplomatically sensitive terrain on the final day of his landmark visit to the Caribbean island.

The private two-hour meeting, which did not appear on the official programme for the visit, was attended by seven journalists, bloggers and academics, including some whose organisations have been put under pressure by the Cuban government in the past year.

A number of foreign leaders and delegations from various EU countries have in recent years been impeded from meeting with civil society groups in Cuba. There was uncertainty until the last minute on Saturday as to whether the meeting with Mr Higgins would go ahead. It took place amid tight security.

The President's three-day visit to Cuba – the first by a president of Ireland – focused on trade and cultural links between the two countries, but, coming at a time of major change in Cuba, the presidential delegation also had to negotiate delicate political and diplomatic questions about state repression and constraints on Cubans' personal freedoms.


Sensitive questions

These were also sensitive questions for Áras an Uachtaráin. Last November, the President received some of his most direct political criticism since taking office when he greeted news of Fidel Castro’s death with a warm tribute that including only a passing reference to human rights.

The visit was closely watched by other European diplomats. Mr Higgins was the first European head of state to visit Cuba since the signing, last December, of a Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement between Cuba and the EU. Previously the relationship was based on a 1996 EU document, known as the “common position”, which Cuba saw as interference in its internal affairs.

The new deal, which was negotiated over two years and has been described by both sides as heralding a new era in relations, includes sections on issues such as human rights, LGBT rights and civil society, and among diplomats Mr Higgins’s visit was seen as one of the first big tests of the new framework.

At a four-hour meeting and dinner with his counterpart, Raúl Castro, described as “warm, long and comprehensive” by Áras an Uachtaráin, the President used the EU-Cuba deal as an entry point to a discussion about human rights in Cuba. Several of those who attended said Mr Higgins broached the topic in a clear but polite manner. “You don’t come in and lecture people. You can do it in a way that doesn’t antagonise,” said one source. “He is very clear about what he is referring to, but there’s no wagging of fingers. That’s important.”


Mr Castro greeted Mr Higgins with a bear-hug. The Cuban leader was aware of the President’s statement on the death of his brother last year, and thanked him for it, according to one of those who was present.

Mr Higgins also met Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who was archbishop of Havana for 35 years, who has in the past called for change in Cuba and played a behind-the-scenes role in recent moves towards rapprochement between Havana and Washington.

Ireland has consistently opposed the US embargo of Cuba. Over the past decade, the State has tended to form part of a majority group of like-minded EU states who favour a constructive relationship with the island. The Government has argued at EU level that more substantive dealing with Havana on a broad range of issues positions the EU to more effectively and credibly express its concerns on human rights and to argue for political changes that would expand the space for civil society and independent media.

Over his three days in Havana, Mr Higgins carefully calibrated his public remarks on the country’s political and economic system. Contrary to normal practice, at no point in Cuba did he speak on the record to the travelling media – a tacit acknowledgment of nervousness about the trip on the part of Áras an Uachtaráin and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Keynote speech

At his meeting with journalists and academics, Mr Higgins referred to his keynote speech of the previous day, in which he set out his thinking on Cuba’s ongoing changes.

In that address, the President argued that neither the "collectivised, authoritarian state systems of the 20th century" nor the "financialised version of global capitalism" that prevailed after the fall of the Berlin Wall were capable of meeting people's needs.

The "so-called market economy" had sacrificed justice in the name of freedom while the "so-called real socialism" had sacrificed freedom in the name of justice, he said, borrowing the formulation of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. The challenge, Galeano wrote, was to come up with a model that guaranteed both.

Applying that to Cuba, Mr Higgins added: “As external pressure on this island is decreasing, as Cuba is enabled to reopen onto the world at this juncture of a new era, can we imagine new relations between freedom and justice?”

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is the Editor of The Irish Times