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Speech at a luncheon in honour H.E. Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, President of the Republic of Cuba

A chairde,
Queridos amigos,

Me complace dar la bienvenida hoy a Áras an Uachtaráin en el Presidente de Cuba, Su Excelencia Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez y su esposa, Lis Cuesta Peraza.

I am so delighted to welcome today to Áras an Uachtaráin the President of Cuba, His Excellency Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez and his wife, Lis Cuesta Peraza.

Fue un honor ser el primer presidente de Irlanda en visitar Cuba hace dos años. Nuestros dos pueblos, el pueblo irlandés, muintir na hÉireann, en nuestra antigua lengua celta, y el pueblo cubano, muintir Chúba, han disfrutado de profundos lazos de amistad y solidaridad a lo largo de los siglos, una amistad y una solidaridad que, espero, su visita a Irlanda contribuirá a reavivar y fortalecer.

[It was an honour to be the first President of Ireland to visit Cuba two years ago. Our two peoples – el pueblo irlandés, muintir na hÉireann, in our ancient Celtic language, y el pueblo cubano, muintir Chúba – have enjoyed deep bonds of friendship and solidarity over the centuries, a friendship and a solidarity which, I hope, your visit to Ireland will contribute to rekindle and strengthen].

It is a particular pleasure, President, to welcome you here to Ireland in 2019, a year of anniversaries. This year Ireland celebrates 100 years since the first meeting of the Irish parliament, while of course Cuba marks 60 years since its revolution.

As partners, we celebrate twenty years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Cuba, an important milestone in a relationship that has grown stronger between our peoples and our institutions. A celebratory example of this was reflected in March of this year, when we had the opportunity to host Ireland’s first St Patrick’s Day reception in Havana, with the generous assistance of the great Historian of the City of Havana, Dr Eusebio Leal. The parade was routed through the streets that bear the names of many Irish ancestors, and it was a celebration of the immense friendship we continue to enjoy.

The movements of emancipation, liberation and participation in Latin America at large, its social, cultural and economic development, its struggles for freedom and for human rights and, above all, an encounter with the generous heart of this continent, have struck a response with generations of Irish people and indeed have occupied a special place in my own heart for over fifty years.

I am patron of the Society for Irish-Latin American Studies, a society that gives voice to the deep and extensive scholarship that currently exists on the relations between Ireland, Cuba, and Latin America in general. The fruitful collaborations we have been witnessing in recent years, between researchers, between various schools of Irish studies, between archival institutions, are so welcome.

Cuba and Ireland are forever connected with a shared past, and a walk through Old Havana, where brightly painted classic cars rumble through the streets, rewards the curious with many interesting sights. Indeed, there are so many examples throughout Cuba, and in Havana in particular, which tell a story of the contribution the Irish made to Cuba. Indeed, it is true that in the attempts to secure freedom from Spain, the two opposing tendencies were headed by Irish people.

Irish visitors to Cuba often remark on the identification they feel with the warmth and sense of vivacity and performance culture, arts and life itself of Cubans in the contemporary period. There is of course a mutual sympathy between our two nations that is reflected in the works of the great Cuban hero José Martí. Leading figures of the Irish independence movement are mentioned in his writings, including Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. Martí, of course, was greatly influenced by the nationalist Irish emigrants he met in New York, including Thomas Moore who, Martí recalled, “pinta penas como las de Cuba, con el amor que él sentía por Irlanda”  (paints sorrows like those of Cuba with the love he felt for Ireland).

Such scholarship on the connection between Ireland and Cuba continues up to our present day. Dr Margaret Brehony, for example, an expert on migration, integration and refugee rights, whose partner, Mercedes and her sister Rita, are attending today’s lunch, has written extensively on Cuba, and of course completed her PhD thesis under the title, Irish Migration to Cuba 1835-1845: Empire, Ethnicity, Slavery and ‘Free’ Labour.

An awareness of history, of the circumstances and contexts which led our ancestors to cross paths along the trails of Empire and transatlantic networks in pursuit of independence, is, I believe, an essential compass as we apply ourselves to crafting our shared responses to the contemporary challenges we face, creating new futures together.

The awareness of our connections such as that between Simon Bolivar and Daniel O’Connell, is important, but even more so is the contemporary connection and what I hope will deepen from your visit – deeper and wider connections of many kinds.

Such an awareness unlocks for us a rich repertoire of experiences and political meanings, of solidarities lived and imagined, that not only illuminate our present, but also open up new horizons for cooperation between our countries, calling for new solidarities to be forged, of a global, regional and bilateral kind.

When I visited Cuba on my State Visit in 2017, I was, at the time of my visit, the first European head of state to visit Cuba since the signing in December 2016 of a Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement between Cuba and the EU. That new deal, which heralded a new era in mutual relations, includes sections on issues such as human rights, LGBT rights and civil society.

While in Cuba, I had a number of conversations on the process of transformation with civil society and non-governmental organisations. We discussed such matters in depth. Since then you have had a consultation process on constitutional reform culminating in a popular referendum in February of this year. I want to wish the transformation envisaged in those areas of concern which I discussed with the groups on my visit a successful implementation and every benefit.

On matters of trade and economy, Ireland is part of the multilateral system, of which international law is such an important pillar, and we have always considered the economic sanctions against Cuba to be contrary to international law.

Irish and Cuban people have in common a proud sense of their national identity, a passion for freedom and, in the past, both of our people have the shared experience of living in the shadow of a powerful neighbour. We are two island nations that carry our marks of that proximity and we carry the legacy of colonisation. We both have had to wrestle freedom from the grip of empires in order to achieve independence. This shared history has led Irish and Cuban people to easily forge many bonds of empathy and imagination, and to exchange stories, dreams and aspirations of freedom.

Then, too, Ireland and Cuba are diasporic peoples, with migration a key feature of our histories. Over the generations we Irish have often left our island homes, with many of our emigrants leaving for the United States, just as Cubans have done. The contribution of both of our peoples gone abroad to their adopted homes has clearly been immense, as has their generosity to those they left at home. Migrants’ remittances have been important to both of our peoples.

The discourse on migration has, of course, changed. In recent times, the rise of populist political ideologies that are based on fear, division and exclusion have a bitterness at times, encouraging even hatred to be directed against migrants. This poison is often propagated to those who feel they are the excluded, often abandoned in the absence of inclusive policies to become the prey of xenophobes and racists. This presents a major threat to solidarity and to wider humanitarianism, both in Europe and in the Americas.

We are all migrants on a vulnerable shared planet, and it is clear to me that if we enable and promote a reciprocal sharing of cultures and ideas, as well as forging multiple symbioses, the cultural diversity that follows will bring with it innovation, opportunity, dynamism and creative energy that enriches our society.

Cuba’s record in humanitarianism and, in particular, your actions at times of humanitarian crisis, is an example to the world. Yours is a country that has consistently reacted with urgency to emergency appeals for humanitarian aid by dispatching doctors, medicine and equipment, despite the country’s modest size and economic resources.

The facts speak for themselves: in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Havana offered to send more than 1,000 doctors to assist the US; Cuba sent a 135-strong medical team to assist in the aftermath of the devastating Indonesian earthquake of 2006; and at least 460 Cuban healthcare workers were dispatched to deal with the deadly Ebola virus epidemic in Africa in 2014.

This is not only humanitarianism in action, it is a powerfully empathetic form of internationalism. May I commend you and your country for your ongoing commitment in the area of international medical assistance in times of humanitarian crisis.

There are major challenges you face, including transitions and transformations which you are discussing in relation to personal freedoms, civil society, pluralism, and the role of an entrepreneurial state in new conditions. I wish you well in finding an emancipatory Cuban outcome in this process.

Cuba has the world’s highest proportion of doctors per capita: one doctor for every 177 people, and about 50% are female. Indeed, Cuba is a world leader in female participation in all aspects of life. Women hold 49% of the parliamentary seats in the Cuban National Assembly, ranking sixth of 162 countries on issues of female participation in political life.

We in Ireland are very well aware of Cuba’s sporting prowess. Cuba is a country that has achieved huge success in a range of sports, producing top-class athletes. More than 50 nations around the world employ several hundred Cuban sports trainers and coaches, including Ireland – Cuban boxer Nicolas Cruz coached the Irish amateur boxing team to significant success at several Olympic Games.

Cuba was to the forefront in establishing the link between the ecological crisis and the international economic system. The speeches of Fidel Castro to international audiences throughout the decades were particularly unambiguous and prophetic in their connection between global poverty, ecological destruction and an unfair global economic system. The urgency of that position was expressed most powerfully in his speech at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, at which I was present.

The prevailing neoliberal model which has in recent decades secured such a hegemony in so many senses, features markets without regulation, distorted trade, speculative investment, yawning inequality, unbridled consumption and destructive extraction of natural resources is, of course, unsustainable. We have moved to a point of crisis – political, social and ecological – that calls for the articulation of new models of co-existence, development and international co-operation. We must do this together as a global community.

The youth of today are spearheading a new movement, one rooted on a paradigm shift to an ecological-social model, the widespread adoption of which is not only an important gesture towards intergenerational solidarity, it is our only hope as a global people to avoid ecological and social catastrophe.

This new paradigm which is emerging is one based on a steady-state model, rather than the flawed concept of exponential growth, and is both ecologically and economically sustainable.

For an eco-social paradigm to be established a change of consciousness, indeed a merging of consciousness of our ecological, economic and social kind is necessary to achieve the result through deliberate political action that recognises the inherent flaws of our current model of growth ad infinitum, a model that, without regulation, inevitably results in harmful booms and busts that can have disastrous social consequences, such as those we witnessed recently in Europe resulting from the so-called ‘Great Recession’.

If we are to achieve a paradigm shift, it will be necessary to combine the radicalism that is in the consciousness of climate activism, with the consciousness of egalitarianism and the programmes of inclusion activists.

May I conclude again by welcoming you and your wife warmly once again, President Díaz-Canel. I do hope your visit to Ireland is a most enjoyable one.

Celebrating all that we have been sharing and will share in friendship and ever closer relations assisted by this visit may I now invite you all, distinguished guests, to stand and join me in a toast:

To the good health of His Excellency President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez and his wife Lis Cuesta Peraza
To the happiness and prosperity of the people of Cuba;
Long live the friendship between Ireland and Cuba!
Gur fada buan an cairdeas idir mhuintir na hÉireann agus muintir Chúba!
Viva la amistad entre el pueblo irlandés y el pueblo cubano!

Sláinte mhaith!

Go raibh míle maith agaibh