His Excellency Manuel Pardiñas Ajeno, Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba to the State of Kuwait

Welcoming The Times to his chancery, His Excellency Manuel Pardiñas Ajeno, Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba to the State of Kuwait, graciously offered us coffee and chocolates, but sadly no cigars. In an exclusive interview on a range of issues from bilateral relations, trade and cultural ties with Kuwait, to his country’s contentious relations with the United States, the ambassador was at pains to point out that more than five decades of American stranglehold on his country’s economy was causing untold suffering to the Cuban people.

The ambassador implied that while Cuba’s history and culture were inextricably linked to 15th century conquistadors from Spain and its current state of affairs are indubitably tied to the whims of United States, there was no denying that tomorrow belongs to the Cuban people, and their enduring aspiration to pilot their own path and determine their own future.

Elaborating on a diplomatic career that has spanned 43 years, Ambassador Ajeno added,”Joining the Cuban Foreign Service in 1970, as an assistant in the North America and Caribbean division, I served several four-year stints at foreign missions, including in Cyprus and Netherlands before arriving in Kuwait in 2009. It has been a great honor for my country that within ten days of my arrival, I had the privilege of presenting my credentials before His Highness the Amir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. Last year, I was also appointed as non-resident ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.”

“However, this is not my first time in Kuwait. By a quirk of fate, in 1990, I arrived in this country to take temporary charge of the embassy here, while my counterpart was away on vacation. About a week later, Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. It was a terribly harrowing experience for me; I witnessed first-hand some of the brutality and destruction inflicted by Iraqi soldiers on the people and country. Nearly two decades later, when I returned here in 2009, there were no signs of that dreadful invasion; though no doubt the trauma of the experience still lingers in the minds of many.”

“Since assuming office I have worked diligently to strengthen bilateral relations and enhance the warm friendship that exists between our two countries and its people. Nevertheless, there remains much more to be done.” Admitting that two-way trade between Cuba and Kuwait were negligible and mainly involved the import of cigars to Kuwait, the ambassador added, “The long distance and freight expenses discourage any meaningful trade between our two countries.”

“Cuban cigars are a main component not so much for its trade value, but in building relations on the popular level. There is appreciation for fine tobacco in Kuwait and every year a small contingent of cigar aficionados from Kuwait visit the International Cigar Fair in Havana. Also, in November 2012, a Kuwaiti delegation participated in the International Trade Fair in Havana. These are small initial steps that we hope to build on, to encourage mutual trade and investments.”

While noting that economic ties between the two countries were still in a nascent stage, the envoy added, “State institutions like the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED) have sanctioned soft loans for reconstruction of water and sewer projects in Cuba.” Revealing that within the next few weeks he expected a delegation from Kuwait’s Ministry of Finance to fly to Havana to initialize an agreement titled, ‘Encouragement of Mutual Protection of Investments’ that will provide guarantees to capital investment in both countries, the diplomat hoped, “Once this document is signed, we anticipate more private sector investments in the Cuban economy, especially in its fast developing tourism industry.”

“On the cultural side there have been several exchanges between Cuba and Kuwait to introduce people in both countries to the cultural heritages of each other. Last week, we discussed with the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters on the visit by a Cuban artistic delegation in June this year to participate in Kuwait’s Cultural Festival. We also spoke about the possibility of a visit by a Kuwait folklore delegation to Havana in the near future.”

Asserting that bilateral political relations between Cuba and Kuwait were based on strong bonds of friendship, trust, mutual respect and solidarity in democratic values, Ambassador Ajeno pointed out,

“During visits by high-level dignitaries, and in my interactions with concerned officials in the Foreign Ministry, bilateral issues and topics of mutual interest are discussed. We also seek backing from the Government of Kuwait to Cuba’s candidature and support for its just causes in international forums. I must add that on every occasion, the Government of Kuwait has unwaveringly stood by the Cuban people and their legitimate demands.”

During our hour-long interview, the ambassador drew a vivid picture of his country’s turbulent history and its struggle for self-determination since its discovery in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. “While we can debate the logic of how Columbus could ‘discover’ a country that already existed, the fact remains that Cuba was a Spanish colony for almost four centuries. In 1895, under the leadership of Cuban national hero, Jose Marti, popular revolt broke out against the Spanish colonists. Three years later, following the blowing up of the American battleship Maine, the United States joined Cuba in the fight against Spain. The Paris Treaty, which brought the Spanish – American War to a close, resulted in Spain relinquishing control over Cuba and the country became a U.S. protectorate until its full independence in 1902.”

The ambassador went on to add, “Since our independence, the United States has maintained a belligerent policy towards its tiny neighbor. The quintessence of American strategy towards Cuba is best exemplified by the words of its sixth president, John Quincy Adams, who said, “if an apple severed by the tempest from its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union.” We in Cuba call this policy ‘la fruta madura’; in English this would translate to, ‘the ripe fruit’. This is what Cuba has always been to policy planners in the United States, a ripe fruit waiting to fall; I must say that the planners and plotters in the States are a very patient people, they have been waiting for the fruit to fall, the last 111 years.”

While Cuban identity is not exemplified by animosity to the United States, some would say it is nevertheless defined by it. The envoy continued his narrative, “On independence, our fledgling democracy was never allowed to take root; through support for autocratic rulers and frequent interventions in the internal affairs of Cuba, the United States ensured a puppet regime was always in place. Over the years these regimes handed over much of our country’s wealth to their handlers in America, including Guantánamo Bay, where as you know two Kuwaitis are still being held illegally as prisoners.”

“In 1959, at the time of the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro, foreigners, mainly from the United States, owned 75 percent of arable land in Cuba; 90 percent of services like water, electricity, phones and nearly half of Cuba’s main sugar industry were owned by Americans. The new government under Fidel Castro nationalized all foreign holdings. This led to the beginning of overt and covert operations by America to overthrow the Cuban government, and these intrusions have continued unabated for the last 54 years.”

“For over five decades, the United States has imposed a crippling blockade that has stifled economic and social development of my country and cost the Cuban economy over US$ 1.07 trillion according to conservative estimates submitted by the United Nations (UN) Secretary General in 2011. At the recent UN General Assembly session in 2012, Cuba’s resolution calling for an end to the blockade was adopted by an overwhelming vote of 188 in favor and 3 against — United States, Israel and Palau.”

Peeling off more statistics the ambassador noted, “Despite the illegal economic blockade, Cuba has demonstrated exceptional resilience. Today, we have one of the lowest under-5 infant mortality rates in the world; with around 6 deaths for every 1,000 live births, this is lower than that of United States and many developed countries. Also, Cuba offers free medical care to all its citizens and has more than double the number of doctors per 1,000 people than the United States. In fact, we have a long list of medical tourists arriving from the United States seeking Cuban medical care.”

“On the educational side, we offer free education from kindergarten to post-doctoral levels. Since 1961 the country has virtually erased illiteracy and the level of education and scientific research is comparable to that in many advanced countries. Cuba also grants scholarships to thousands of foreign students and even has a medical school where foreign students, including students from United States, are studying.”

“Cuba is often accused of being a dynastic communist dictatorship with a one-party rule. I would like to point out the current president, Raúl Castro assumed presidential duties in 2006, not because he was Fidel’s brother, but because he was the vice-president and the Cuban Constitution specifies that the vice-president should assume office when the president is incapacitated. Raúl Castro has since then been elected by the Cuban National Assembly as President for a five-year term. Members of the National Assembly are themselves elected directly by the people for five-year terms. In the February 2013 elections, over 67 percent of the members elected were new legislators. No political party, including the Communist Party, is allowed to nominate candidates or campaign for them in elections.”

“Women play an important role in every sphere of Cuban life and are an influential element in the democratic fabric of our country. According to latest report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Cuba has the second highest representation of elected women in Parliament. With women occupying over 45 percent of seats in the 614 member National Assembly, Cuba has better gender representation than the United States, where only 18 percent or 77 seats in the 435 member House of Representatives are occupied by women legislators.”

Coming back to our interview and his stay in Kuwait, Ambassador Ajeno concluded by saying, “The last four years in Kuwait have been a stimulating and pleasant experience for me and my wife, Luisa, who incidentally doubles as our counselor at the embassy. We have had the privilege of interacting with high-ranking government officials as well as ordinary citizens and I would like to state that the cooperation and support we have received from everyone has been remarkable. The graciousness and ‘white-heart’ of Kuwaiti hosts that I have experienced in different places, and on numerous occasions, is nothing short of wonderful; the downside side is that you must be prepared to eat, and eat a lot, at every event you are invited to.”




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