State visit: Higgins says Cubans must be free to forge new destiny

President says country at ‘interesting’ threshold as humanity faces systemic crisis

Societies must respond to the current "point of crisis" by finding new political and economic models that can offer people freedom and justice, President Michael D Higgins has said on his State visit to Cuba.

In a carefully-worded speech that situated Cuba's current changes in a global context, Mr Higgins 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.

He invoked the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, who remarked that 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.

The challenge, Galeano wrote, was to have both, “Siamese twins, living and walking together.”

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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?”

Mr Higgins was speaking at a conference at the University of Havana on the third day of his visit – the first to Cuba by a president of Ireland.

He told an audience of academics and students that to present “the free market” as the inexorable endpoint of individual and social happiness was misguided. Nor was there one single path to development.

Critical juncture

“Today Cuba stands at a threshold, and it is positioned in a very interesting place,” he said. “The Cuban people should not be required to conform to a predefined model of development. They must remain free to shape their own path of development.”

Mr Higgins said we had arrived at "a critical juncture in the history of humanity", and the systemic crisis the world faced was most striking in environmental policy. He noted that the late Fidel Castro had for decades drawn the link between the ecological crisis and the international economic system.

Today’s patterns of “distorted trade, speculative investment, proliferating inequality, debilitating debt, unbridled consumption and destructive extraction of natural resources” were not sustainable. “We have moved to a point of crisis – political, social, cultural and ecological – that calls for the articulation of new models of coexistence, development and international co-operation,” he said.

President Higgins in November 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 human rights in passing.

Mr Higgins’s visit has included lengthy meetings with president Raúl Castro and other senior Cuban figures as well as a programme of events designed to underline the historical links between the two countries and the potential for stronger relations through trade and intellectual exchange.

The visit takes place at a time of major changes in Cuba, with the death of Fidel Castro, the coming to office of US president Donald Trump and a decline in Cuba's economic expansion all helping to produce acute political and economic uncertainty.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is an Assistant Editor of The Irish Times