In a far-ranging interview, the Cuban Ambassador talks about his time in Libya and the killing of Gaddafi, Cuban boxing coaches in Thailand, the return of Guantánamo, the continuing US ban on Cuban cigars, revolutionary cancer vaccines and the significance of his country’s changing relationship with Washington
WITH 40 years’ service in the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) under his belt, His Excellency Victor Daniel Ramirez Peña is one of the Bangkok diplomatic corps’ most experienced envoys. The Cuban ambassador to Thailand and Myanmar started his four-year term in 2012 and since then has devoted his efforts toward promoting the image and interests of his country in this part of the world.
Mr Peña’s English is superb, spoken with a slight American accent. In a recent interview with The BigChilli he discussed a wide range of issues without the use of notes. He is proud of what his country has achieved in spite of the economic embargo imposed by the United States in 1962. He talked at length on this timely topic and answered convincingly a number of questions regarding Cuba’s changing relationship with the US. He also offered some interesting insights into his time as Cuban ambassador to Libya, where he witnessed firsthand the fall of Gaddafi.
Others notables include Bangkok Governor ML Sukhumbhand Paribatra; the Chairman of Siam Bioscience and member Board of Directors of the CPB, Dr Snoh Unakul; former leader of the Foreign Affairs Committee and President of the Thailand-Cuba Parliamentarians Friendship Group, Pikulkaew Krairiksh; and President of the Institute of Physical Education, Mr Sompong Chatavithee, an institution with which Cuba’s had a long and mutually fruitful relationship.
Ambassador Peña has travelled to many provinces, including Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Sakon Nakhon, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Nan, Khon Kaen, Ubon Ratchathani, Krabi, Petchabun and Udon Thani.
Lately, Mr Peña has been closely following and visiting a sophisticated pharmaceutical facility being erected by Siam Bioscience in close technical cooperation from Cuba. The signing of a cooperation agreement between Thai and Cuban medical companies in April 2014 is due to become the flagship of economic links between the two countries.
The ambassador is always well dressed; he prefers Cuban-style shirts [Guayaberas] or nicely cut custom suits. His residence is decorated with paintings and photographs by Cuban artists. Notable during a photo shoot at the Cuban embassy located in Sukhumvit Soi 27 were photos of Fidel Castro and his brother and current President Raul Castro, which flank a portrait of the 19th century Cuban pro-independence national hero José Martí.
“I am Cuban by birth. I was born and brought up in the historical city of Bayamo in eastern Cuba, the only city to carry the title of National Monument because it was there where the war of independence started and the national anthem was born. I graduated in International Relations at Havana University in 1974. A year later I started working at the MFA. I also studied law, although I have never practised.
“My father and mother were of poor origin in Cuba before the Revolution. I say ‘Cuba before the Revolution’ because even if there are people in my country with more or even less material goods to live on, such as a nice apartment or car, I personally consider that the educational opportunities and cultural values prevailing in many of these ‘poor’ areas enable them to enjoy ballet or opera in today’s Cuba, read books like few do around the world, discuss or participate in politics, hold a sound conversation on cinema, and so on, all of which is not characteristic of a poor elsewhere. “
“Poverty in material life is usually synonymous with poverty in mind. As a matter of fact, if you ask many of those Cuban poor: ‘Are you a poor?’ They would say: ‘No.’ But having said that, I would like to emphasize it’s a very personal view of this topic on which many, particularly a foreign visitor to Cuba, would most probably think otherwise.
“My mother couldn’t go beyond junior high school because there wasn’t enough money to pay for it, something that’s rare since 1959. My father worked at a law office as an assistant and after the Revolution he became an accountant at a government office.
“I had every opportunity to get a good education. After graduation I joined the Diplomatic Academy and from there went straight to the MFA. “I am a career diplomat. Our system in the MFA stipulates that we spend four years abroad and two at home. In 40 years I have probably spent a little more than half abroad.”
Mr Peña was the Cuban ambassador to Libya before coming to Thailand. “My mission was cut short because of the tragic events there. “A no-fly zone was established over Libya by the big powers. It was passed through certain tricks and even lies in the UN Security Council and that allowed western powers to start bombing Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s positions and troops to the point of practically annihilating them. It enabled the rebels to come from across the border and establish control. They killed Gaddafi and most of his family.
“For Cuba it wasn’t possible to keep an embassy before a regime that had been imposed on blood and tears, at the expense of thousands of people mercilessly killed for the sake of eliminating one man. Cuba was the sole country to take that principled step. The effects of events there are unfortunately lingering to the extent that the country is devastated.
“Being posted in Libya was an unforgettable experience. Having to serve your country in a war situation in which you never know if a bomb is going to explode over your head or a stray bullet will go into your heart is very demanding. But as a Cuban diplomat I would never withdraw from an assignment unless I am told to do so.
“It was dangerous for me and other embassy staff. Bombs were dropped in the middle of the night and we never knew what would happen. We were not hiding in bunkers; we were fulfilling our duty, which at the time was to keep our government informed amid the internal war and aggression that was taking place.
“Fortunately the embassy wasn’t hit by any bombs. Some stray bullets went inside and at one point, me and one of my diplomats were caught in the middle of a cross fire while trying to ‘rescue’ a Cuban journalist from the hotel. On some occasions it was frightening going around the city, with the driver afraid to do his job and unable to reach the embassy. In fact, at one point my wife had to take over as ‘driver of the ambassador,’ but that was it.
“When the rebels came into Tripoli, one of the things that happened was that the Cuban embassy was immediately ‘guarded’ on each side, probably under the presumption, without any grounds whatsoever, that Gaddafi or his family could have sought asylum in Cuba, as one European Foreign Office minister asserted in public at the peak of the psychological war that preceded the cooked-up Security Council resolution.
“Previous to those events Cuba maintained a very good relationship with Libya and it was our view that changing the regime was an unwise, criminal act of aggression. I stayed in Libya and fulfilled my duties until the closure of the embassy. It was, however, from a professional viewpoint, an experience to remember, a lesson on diplomacy in times of war.”
“Diplomatic relations between Cuba and Thailand were established on May 7, 1958, but there is a very curious and interesting letter written by King Chulalongkorn [Rama V] dated May 4, 1903. The Republic of Cuba had been established just one year earlier, on May 20, 1902. The letter, written in Thai, is a response from King Chulalongkorn to a letter by the President of Cuba circulated to the heads of state of various countries, including Thailand. I discovered this letter by chance and I don’t believe historians had been aware of it before.”
“The first Cuban embassy here was opened in 2004. I am only the third Cuban ambassador to the Kingdom. Thailand opened its consulate in Havana in 2003. The relationship between our two countries has always been smooth. In particular we have maintained a very cordial and productive political relationship in multilateral organizations like the United Nations, the Human Rights Counsel, and others. We have supported each other quite often. Cuba appreciates very highly the support of Thailand in its struggle against the US-backed economic blockade [embargo].”
Ambassador Peña in Thailand
“South Asia is where I have been posted most of my diplomatic career, but although I was for a long time geographically close to Thailand, I never visited it until I took the job as ambassador here, on October 10, 2012.
“My duties are pretty much the same as most of my colleagues in the diplomatic corps here, that is, to promote and strengthen bilateral relations with Thailand in all spheres feasible and, secondly but not less important, to shed as much light on my country as much as possible, taking into account the real lack of basic knowledge about events in Cuba or what Cuba is really like after more than half a century of ill-intentioned propaganda against my country by what I call the transnational media.
“Cuba has a large, well-trained, hardworking diplomatic service but we do not exercise the ‘big power’ policy of interfering in the internal affairs of this or other countries, whether we agree or not with whatever is happening.
“Economic relations between Thailand and Cuba are not on a grand scale, but we have imported rice, electronic goods, household equipment, computers and parts, tyres, office equipment, shoes and a number of other things. To Thailand we export our cigars, Havana Club rum, which is very famous, and some biopharmaceuticals, another area in which Cuba has attained a few successes, particularly in the production of therapeutic vaccines, sometimes unique, for the treatments of certain cancers.
“Cubans have also exported sports coaches to Thailand, especially boxing coaches. This is very much appreciated by the Thai population because a Cuban coach helped Thailand to win its first Olympic gold medal in 1996.
“There’s a joint venture between a Thai company and the Cuban Centre for Molecular Immunology. We are in the process of transferring technology for the production of five or six products and there is a good scope for further enlargement of business.”
Mr Peña’s duties in Bangkok keep him very busy, but he travels around the country as much as he can. “If you do not travel then you won’t be able to understand events, know the country and its people beyond its capital. There is a lot going on outside of Bangkok. I have been in a few regions of the country, but not to every province yet. Sometimes I travel officially and sometimes privately.
“The Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture often organize very useful trips to familiarize heads of mission with the various projects, for example His Majesty’s Development Projects and others. I try not to miss any.”
Asked about the issue on everyone’s mind these days, the lifting of the US embargo on Cuba, Mr Peña commented: “It has been a mutual understanding that has developed in recent times, particularly in the last one and a half years. There is a mutual will to go into a new stage of relationship, but it’s still in the negotiating process.
“Since December 17, there has been a dramatic shift in the relationship between the US and Cuba, thanks to the decision taken by President Obama to try a different way with our country, since the embargo clearly has not had its desired effect – to stimulate regime change in Cuba. This was the purpose of the embargo when it was established in 1962, but it has failed. There is a growing sentiment among the US population at large, amongst Cubans, and amongst Cuban-Americans also that it is time for a change. Seventy percent of the American population supports the change and there have been proposals in Congress for the past several years to change some aspects of our relationship.
“I think President Obama took all of these into account and we have to recognize that it was courageous on his part to take this step forward. The fourth round of talks was concluded on May 22. Discussions related to the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies. Many issues have yet to be clarified. However, some measures have been adopted, and there have been unprecedented events like the visits by Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, and a group of members of Congress led by Nancy Pelosi. A number of cultural exchanges have also taken place.”
Is the embargo likely to be lifted or eased in the near future? Ambassador Peña replied: “We have taken steps forward and we hope that they will lead in due course to the normalization of relations, but it is a difficult thing to make happen because the embargo is locked in. It is law and therefore Congress has to approve it; there are so many regulations and so many laws associated with it, even within budgets of some ministries like agriculture and transport, so it would be very difficult to suddenly lift it. But I believe it will have to take place sooner than later because we will continue to struggle against it for as long as it takes.
“At this time there is no Cuban embassy in the US nor US embassy in Cuba, but there are what is called the US Interests Section in Havana and Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C. These were established during President Carter’s term and they are attached to the Swiss embassies in both countries. The US embassy will be located at this place, a multi-storey building in downtown Havana which the US built before the revolution. The Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C. will house the Cuban embassy.
“The positive aspects of normalization are obvious. We are the third closest neighbour to the US after Canada and Mexico, only 90 miles away. I think it will benefit both countries. For us, you can imagine what it has been like for a small country, or a big one for that matter, to have had the US foot on your head all along more than half a century, in every possible field. So normalizing relations will be positive both for Cuba and for the US.
“One example of the potential benefits for the US became evident when New York Governor Cuomo visited Cuba in April. He was accompanied by a group of pharmaceutical executives and experts who helped negotiate an agreement that will enable a Cuban-developed lung cancer vaccine to save American lives in the near future. God knows how many Americans could have been saved by the vaccine which we have had for a number of years.”
Mr Peña said the rationale for the embargo was that creating economic hardships for the Cuban population would alienate the government of Fidel Castro and cause the people to rise up against it. This never happened. Over the years the global community has chosen to ignore and criticize the embargo.
“For around 20 years Cuba has consecutively presented a resolution before the UN General Assembly condemning the embargo because of its detrimental effects on the Cuban population. It is harmful to Cubans not only in economic terms, but in all areas, including health, as much as it harms other countries because of its extraterritorial effect (the US has been applying it to foreign companies that trade with Cuba, and pressing governments as well).
“At the beginning the resolution passed, but not with an overwhelming vote. Over time, the US has become more and more isolated in regard to its stand on Cuba. Cuba gets 188 votes out of 192. Three small islands in the South Pacific abstain under pressure.
“In fact, it is this resolution that gets the highest number of votes amongst all of the resolutions presented to the UN General Assembly as it counts on the largest participation of countries and the largest support. But the embargo isn’t lifted because the General Assembly resolutions are not binding. We will submit the resolution again this year because the embargo is not yet over.
“The embargo applies to everything, including cigars. The news that Cuban cigars can now be freely brought into the US is not accurate. The change that has taken place is that US citizens authorized to travel to Cuba by US authorities are now allowed bring in up to US$100 worth of cigars, which are in high demand in the US because they have no equal. Cigars are expensive. The cheapest box of 25 pieces will cost around US$200 in Cuba.
“Cuban cigars have been smuggled into the US in the past, but if you violate the regulations – and most people don’t know this – the fine is up to US$1 million for a company or US$250,000 for an individual, plus a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. This is valid even if the cigars are bought in a third country.”
The ambassador explained that some US airlines are licensed by the US government to fly to Cuba. “When Governor Cuomo visited Cuba, some airline executives came with him. For a number of years only Cuban-Americans were allowed to fly to Cuba. It got more flexible depending on the US president of the time. With the thawing of relations, traffic is sure to increase dramatically between Havana and different American cities.”
Life after normalization
Is Mr Peña concerned that his country will be dominated by major US companies once the embargo ends? While acknowledging that the American political/cultural/economic machine is the strongest in the world, he adds “As a matter of fact that hasn’t changed or influenced the way of life in many parts of world, even in our area, which is known as the US’s backyard. Cuba has a very strong culture, formed thanks to the input of various cultures, the strongest of which are the African, Spanish, and even Chinese. On the other hand there was a very strong American presence right from 1898 when we defeated the Spanish colonizers, until 1959.
“American companies and institutions dominated the economy and heavily influenced society in general. But our culture wasn’t broken; it’s strong enough to survive, as reflected in our music, dances, and practically every sphere of life. Another example of that can be ascertained by the fact that not many Cubans can speak English fluently, in spite of that influence.
“Cuba is not an isolated country. More than 200 radio stations from the US can be received on the island, sometimes better than our own stations. There’s even one radio station and one TV station, unfortunately named after Cuba’s foremost hero, José Martí, broadcasting subversive propaganda 24/7, but we have managed to jam it [the TV station].
“Let me put it this way: I do not foresee that relations with the US will have to exert any dramatic change in what Cuba is like. On the other hand, we are indeed carrying out a number of changes, call it reforms if you like, but it is not because of the US or other foreign pressures but because the Cuban population is the one propelling those changes and the government in place is truly, truly answerable to the people who elect it.
“Eventually relations between Cuba and the US will be normalized and we will have to adapt, but this applies to both sides. I want to stress one thing: Cuba is not a ‘banana republic!’ We have struggled and survived on our own, particularly since the 1990s, and we don’t owe anything to anybody. Therefore any changes that are made will be to the benefit of the Cuban people. This is the only motivation for the Cuban leadership, to improve the situation, economic or otherwise, of the population of Cuba.”
Mr Peña stressed that the issue of non-interference in Cuba’s internal affairs is extremely important. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations governs the conduct of foreign diplomats as well as the functions of a diplomatic mission. It says no country should interfere in internal affairs of another country, and not to work with groups of people inside the country for the purpose of overthrowing the government. This principle is also set forth in the UN Charter.
“In Panama, in April last year, President Obama said that the purpose of the USA’s policy on Cuba was not regime change,” said Mr Peña. “We hope that as we move forward in the process of normalizing relations, we will see a better correspondence between such statements and real life. But as of now the US government is still asking millions of dollars for programs aimed at bringing about a change in Cuba’s internal order.”
Long and complex process
“The process of normalization of relations with the US will be a long and complex process which needs to be negotiated in mutual goodwill, with the desire to meet the satisfaction of both parties. There are bilateral problems whose roots go back more than half a century with some, such as the one concerning the illegally occupied territory of Guantánamo, for more than one century,” Mr Peña said.
“In Cuba we have identified a preliminary list that we should start to discuss once the first phase is concluded – the restoration of relations and the opening of embassies – in order to move towards the normalization of relations. On our side we have raised issues such as the lifting of the blockade – called embargo in the US – along with the return of the Guantánamo naval base, and the cessation of illegal transmissions of radio and television Martí which are harmful to Cuba’s sovereignty.
“On Cuba’s side we talked also of the subject of compensation to our country and our people for the damage caused by US policies implemented all for the past 54 years. The US for its part has advanced at least one of the items that they want to discuss in this second phase, that is, the compensation for the properties that were nationalized in Cuba at the beginning of the revolution. Therefore, we already have a range of well identified issues, at least to start.”
During the photography session at the embassy, Ambassador Peña explained the significance of the photos of Fidel and Raul Castro and the portrait of José Martí in between them.
“José Martí was the leader of the Cuban independence movement against Spanish colonialism in Cuba. When the first attempt by Fidel Castro and his friends to overthrow the bloody dictatorship of Dictator Fulgencio Batista failed in 1953, he was taken to jail. Asked who was behind the attack on Moncada Barracks, Castro said the mastermind was José Martí, who died in 1895. His ideas are very relevant to Cuba and to the whole of the Spanish speaking world. He was a politician, philosopher and writer. Modernism, in literature, was enshrined in him.
“This picture shows the current president of Cuba, Raul Castro, when he was fighting in the mountains with Fidel. That’s why he is the president of Cuba, not because he is another Castro.
“Fidel Castro is of course a legendary figure of Cuban history, and instantly recognized all over the world. When he started the revolution in 1953 with the attack on the military garrison he was put in jail and then went into exile (to Mexico) after the regime was pressed by the population. When he left Cuba in 1955, he foretold something that became famous: ‘If I leave, I will reach [Mexico]; if I reach, I will come back [to fight for Cuba’s final independence]; if I come back, I will succeed’ [defeat the dictatorship]. And he did all the three. That’s why he’s so greatly adored in Cuba and around the world.”
On a personal note
Switching gears, from political to private, Mr Peña said at the end of the interview: “I have very little free time, but when I can I like to swim, work out and watch movies – not on television, I prefer cinemas because of the wide screens and good audio. I have been to some of the best movie theatres in Europe but I don’t think that you have anything to envy in Thailand.
“My term as ambassador is four years. I have nearly two more years to go. The retirement age in Cuba is 60 for women and 65 for men, so I just have a few years to go. Then we will see. As in Europe and Japan, our population is not growing. New couples don’t want to have as many children. Life expectancy in Cuba is 78, one of the highest in the world. The population is getting older.
“What I like the most in Thailand is something that characterizes Thais to the world – the Thai smile. Why the smile? Thais have a wonderful way of saying ‘no’ which you don’t find very often. In most of the world people are blunt at the time of saying ‘no.’ In Thailand the word has a different facet.
“People are just nicer to a certain degree. Of course you do sometimes find rude Thais that demerit that peculiar feature, but fortunately they are an absolute minority in the ‘Land of Smiles.’ In any case, people are not all the same in any society. Another thing I really like about Thailand is the diversity of the land to the foreign eye.
“If you ask me what I haven’t liked here so far, it would have to be the intricacies and complexities of Thai society and politics. As a diplomat this makes my life very difficult. A diplomat is supposed to understand in due time and course the ins and outs of a country in political, economic and other aspects, so that he or she can relate adequately and recapitulate events properly to home.
“In Thailand there are codes of conduct that are unique; at least I haven’t seen them before in my experience abroad. So it has been difficult for me to decipher those codes and the gist of the country’s politics.”
The ambassador said there are three big similarities between Cuba and Thailand: “The weather, freedom from foreign influence, and the sense of humour. The love of music also binds us, although we dance more and Thais sing more.”
SOMDETCH PHRA PARAMINDR MAHA CHULALONKORN PHRA CHULA CHOM KLAO
King of Siam, North and South and all of its dependencies, Laos, Malaysians, Kareans, &. &. &.
o His Excellency Mr Tomas Estrada Palma, President of the Republic of Cuba, our good friend, health!
By your letter dated January 29 Your Excellency has had the pleasure of informing that the Republic of Cuba was inaugurated on May 20, 1902, and that Your Excellency has assumed charge and performed as chief of the Executive Power as conferred upon yourself by the Cuban Constitution.
By offering our congratulations to Your Excellency and to the people of Cuba by this happy event, we are convinced it will bring about great advantages and growing prosperity to the Cuban nation, with which we shall always seek to maintain the closest relations of friendship.
Entrusting Your Excellency to the protection of Supreme Power of the Universe, we reiterate to Your Excellency the certainty of our most sincere friendship.
(M. R.) Chulalonkorn R.
Given at Bangkok, on May 4, 1903
Date of birth: September 24, 1952
Marital status: Married to Ibis Guanche Rodriguez. They have one daughter.
Education: B.A. in International Relations, 1974; Bachelor of Law, University of Havana, 1982.
• 1975: Third Secretary, Asia and Oceania Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
• 1975-1978: Third Secretary, embassy of Cuba in India
• 1978-1980: Second Secretary, embassy of Cuba in India
• 1980-1982: Second Secretary, Asia and Oceania Division
• 1982-1983: Charge d’Affaires a.i., embassy of Cuba in Sri Lanka
• 1983-1991: First Secretary, Asia and Oceania Division
• 1991-1995: Counselor, Deputy Chief of Mission, embassy of Cuba in India
• 1997-1998: Deputy Director, Asia and Oceania Division
• 1998-2001: Minister Counselor, Deputy Chief of Mission, embassy of Cuba in Brazil
• 2001-2005: Ambassador to St Lucia
• 2006-2009: Ambassador, Asia and Oceania Division
• 2009-2011: Ambassador to Libya
• 2012-2012: Ambassador, Asia and Oceania Division
Apart from Spanish, his mother tongue, Ambassador Pena also speaks English, Portuguese and French. He has traveled on official missions to several countries in Asia, Latin America, Europe and Africa and received national and foreign decorations.