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“Free Education and Free Healthcare are Fundamental Human Rights”- Interview with Juan Antonio Fernández Palacios, Cuban Ambassador in Geneva

AUTHOR:   Zeit-Fragen

Translated by  Current Concerns

CC.Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959 the country has often been regarded as an appendix of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union many people in the West expected an end of the cuban socialism. However, 18 years later, the Cuban system still exists, even more solid than before.

After the 1959 revolution the US established a trade barrier against Cuba in 1961, which should force the small country to its knees. They did not succeed, as the cubans were not willing to submit to the dictatorship of the USA. For years, the UN have called for a end to the embargo. In October 2008, 185 nations agreed on a Cuban resolution on the occasion of a UN General Assembly. The resolution wanted to abolish the American trade embargo that has been in force for the last 50 years. The EU has abolished its embargo this year; the US, however, still maintain theirs. On this occasion Current Concerns made the following interview in November 2008 with the Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba to the Mission of the United Nations in Geneva, Juan Antonio Fernández Palacios.

CC: Cuba has been under sanctions since 1961. The sanctions came from the USA, after Cuba changed its system and chased the dictator out of Cuba. How was it possible for Cuba to survive in this very difficult and hard situation?

Ambassador: We are talking about almost fifty years of blockade. It is important to say that it started immediately after the revolution took the power and we started the process of nationalisation and recovering of natural resources in our country. Cuba was completely controlled by the United States during the first half of the 20th century, and especially in the period of the Batista dictatorship. It is important also to recall one specific document, a very little part of one memorandum of the US State Department early 19611. In simple words, it said that the only way of dealing with Cuba was to impose sanctions in order to create unhappiness in the people, to provoke hunger, dissatisfaction and to move the people towards a rebellion against Fidel Castro. That was written. We have the recent declassified documents that prove it. So, the beginner of all this economic war against Cuba was no other than the US government, as early as 1961. The blockade and the sanctions are the masterpiece of national legislations and norms that create a situation aimed at affixing the Cuban economy and to get the overthrow of the government. Throughout history we know about cases of blockades between superpowers and other powers. But this blockade has been maintained for almost 50 years like a silent war by the greatest superpower ever known against our small but brave island.

   «Most Cubans support Castro. There is no effective political opposition […] the only foreseeable means to alienate internal support is by creating disillusionment and discouragement based on lack of satisfaction and economical difficulties […] We should immediately use any possible measure to […] cause hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government.»

It is also a war policy that qualifies as genocide, according to the Geneva Conventions, in particular when we say that it is a policy  aimed at destroying a whole people, and aimed at causing sufferings and hunger collectively.

The sanctions started in 1961 and have been working until now. I think there are two important elements that we need to highlight within the framework of that policy. In 1992 the Torricelli Act was adopted by the US Congress. This was not by chance. In the nineties Cuba suffered from the strengthening of the blockade for one simple reason: they saw Cuba as part of the East domino cycle, the end of the Eastern Block. So, they thought by strengthening the sanctions the revolution could come down. The Torricelli Act reinforced the extra territorial application of the blockade, mainly prohibiting ships of other countries to go to the USA, if they stop first in Cuba. That is one of the worst issues.

The Torricelli Act was not enough and they came immediately in 1996, with the Helms-Burton Act. This one is very well known all around the world because of its extra territorial applications which try to reinforce the character of the Torricelli Act. The Helms-Burton Act was a new product, not only for reinforcing the embargo but for the re-colonisation of Cuba in different aspects. The international community is mainly concerned about section 3, which is the extra territorial application. But It is actually the section 1 and the section 2 which are the most dangerous due to the attempt of the ultraconservative right wing of the US to trying to organise the Cuba post Castro. They are planning to renew all our institutions, revoking the constitution, changing everything.

As a result of the Torricelli Act in 1992, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution introduced by Cuba on the necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo of the US against Cuba. Since 1992 until now, the UNGA has adopted every year such resolution with the overwhelming majority of the UN Member States voting in favor. In 2007, the UNGA voted 184 in favor of ending the embargo against Cuba. Only three countries voted against: the US, Israel and the Marshall Islands. The reasons are obvious in these three cases. But 184 countries supported our resolution: It is a clear signal that the international community does not agree with this kind of policy and not with the extra territorial application of the US domestic laws to the rest of the world.

Of course, the blockade has created a lot of difficulties to our people, particularly in common life. We can show you all our reports to the UN Secretary General. We could say, for example, that the embargo cost Cuba’s economy, in a conservative way, more than 93 billion dollars during these 49 years.


We could show numbers on how it has affected all sectors of the economy. We can even show clearly the way that it affects the daily life of Cubans. When I talk about daily life it is about the possibility to acquire some specific medicine only manufactured in the US, to have better food, etc. I think that is the main issue. We have a number of examples, so we have a lot of difficulties to import, to buy essential tools and implements for our hospitals, for the treatment of people with cancer. As all of us know, many of these advanced technical equipments and medicine are exclusively produced by North American enterprises and the US government bans their trade with Cuba.

It is a real tragedy. It is completely illegal, according to both, the International Law and the United Charter principles. It is also an ethical question. That is what I have to say on these sanctions.

You were talking about difficulties. As far as I know, the health system in Cuba is one of the best. It is like a miracle that your country survives all this pressure from outside. Can you say something about your health system?

You are absolutely right. The situation is just as you presented it. How can we show the tremendous achievements in the health sector, in education? That is true and the answer is very simple: this quality derives from the political will of the government. Essential principles showed all these years which enshrine health and education, as fundamental human rights of all Cubans.

We try to do everything concerning these two issues. We struggle and go everywhere trying to guarantee essential implements for our hospitals, we buy two times more expensive for the tools or the equipment that we need. This is part, as I told you, of the political will and the conception of a policy that recognises education and healthcare in Cuba as free and universal for all and as fundamental human rights. Those are two parts of our system which we are so proud of.

Now, I would like to make a point. How far could we be in health and education without these restrictions against Cuba?

That is the answer I want to provide. A little example is the possibility to buy catheters for the children. Another example could be the efforts that we make running the price in order to provide condoms for the campaign against HIV. An enterprise supplying us was punished with half a million dollars for dealing with Cuba and selling condoms for promoting “safer sex” and preventing HIV. But there are many more examples on the impact of the health care system. It is really crazy and cruel.

"Cuba defends itself alone !"

Can you tell us about your cooperation with Venezuela? How do you cooperate, in which ways? I have heard about the health problems. I know the Milagros, can you explain a little about this?

Yes, that is true; we have very special relations with Venezuela, informal relations which are not common in this world, which is mainly rolled by the market economy. Unfortunately, this is the world in which we are living.

I remember, by the way, in the past we had this kind of relation with the Soviet Union. Always the western media said that Cuba was maintained by the Soviet Union, by the Comecon. I remember they said Cuba was a satellite. The world made a mistake; the eastern block failed, and Cuba continued to be there, we are still there 18 years later. In this respect, talking about the Soviet Union and the Comecon, it was a simple, a different relation in the international scene. It was the relation of a superpower with a small developing country, based in a just and fair trade. That was a different relation, a relation based on solidarity.

The case of Venezuela is still this kind of relation, a human relationship between two free countries. As you mentioned, we have thousands of doctors and paramedical Cubans working in Venezuela. We are developing this relation. We made a very extraordinary operation, you said a “Milagros”. This is a big plan for the surgery of the cataracts of thousands of people.

I do not remember the exact price, but you know, cataract is a very simple surgery, very simple. It is not more than 100 francs, the real costs. But in the private market healthcare system you pay 500, 700, it is an abuse. The difference is tremendous. But you can recover your vision by a simple operation. Thousands of persons particularly Latin-Americans are born and die without vision, for a simple operation of 100 francs. We made this in Venezuela, Bolivia and in other parts of Latin-American, even in Ecuador, in Peru with a tremendous achievement. What is important to say, is the difference to come from shadow to light by a simple operation. So we provide this kind of service, not only in health care, also in education, to Venezuela. We have a kind of agreement, and the way that we exchange services with Venezuela is very simple.

We also have economic and trade relations. They supply for us a number of tons of oil. We pay for that, of course, but on better conditions of pay. It is not a gift, it is a different relationship. Of course we are not paying the oil price of today’s international market. For us that would be impossible. The agreement just provides the possibility to pay an important segment and to bring to us the possibilities in five, seven, or even ten years to continue, paying us an affordable price. Essentially, we have an excellent cooperation with Venezuela in all fields.

Can you go into more detail about this?

One person or member of the family can go for cataract operation without any costs. If you have the problem with cataract you can come with your mother, with your father or your wife free, everything is free: the operation, the travel and the person that you bring with you. You come to the hospital and that’s a very nice facility, with a room for you, three or four days you make the operation and at the end of the week you go back. And all that is free.

I ask this, because I think, this is a form of trading or working together, which we have to think about, if we look at the problems in the crisis on the financial markets. I wanted to clarify this, how it works, because this can be a model for other countries to help each other. One gives the resources and the other provides medical care or something else. So we get a new way of fair trade.

Yes my commentary to this, that is true, this is a new kind of relationship. We started this program making mainly all the operations in Cuba, at our hospitals. Right now we are talking of a project because what is important here is to create capacity in other places, speaking in long terms. We are creating the conditions and providing and supplying all this equipment in different hospitals in Bolivia, in Ecuador, in Venezuela, and in other countries, so that they can make it there in the near future. We send our doctors to train others, because that is important. It is not just to say we have all this in our country then you have to come here. You can not have these facilities and not thinking on long term. That would not be fair.

We have in Havanna the highest school for doctors in Latin America. That is also a wonderful project. We made a scholarship. It is free to Latin-American students to make a career in Cuba with the compromise that they go back to their countries later, so they can work at least a number of years in poor communities, not in the capital.

That is a problem in Latin America, all the facilities, all the doctors are in the capital, but rural population, and the indigenous people are forgotten. That is another example. We are preparing human resources from Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela so that they can go back to their own countries to provide this service to their own population.

But not only from Latin America. Every year 100 students from the USA begin studying in Cuba to get a medical doctor degree. This project is related to the “Pastors for Peace”. That was a caravan that comes to Cuba every year lead by Reverend Lucius Walker. This is a very interesting project. It is a caravan coming from the US, through the border of Mexico, or Canada and they bring with them medical supplies, computers, they bring all this to Cuba. It is solidarity. But it is mainly from the American church. This has existed for about 16 years.

The western world now is busy with the financial crisis, how does this affect Cuban economy and if so, which measurements does the government take?

You see, it is funny to see what happens right now with this so-called financial crisis. The British nationalise the banks; the Dutch nationalise the banks, the Irish too. It is completely contradictory to the model applied for years and imposed to others. How can they explain to us, to Latin America? It is completely contrary to the policy promoted by the international financial institutions for years in our continent… “privatisation and free market”.

I was reading in a newspaper about the nationalisation of banks in the US and France. It is completely contradictory.  Well, the regularisation and the speculation on real estate on the financial market are quite clear. What is interesting is to realise their response; their response is regulation, nationalisation. But the method imposed on us for years was completely different.

Talking specifically about Cuba, I could say that in a globalised world, of course, we are also suffering from the consequences of this crisis. But I have seen that we are in a better condition, because, as a result of the blockade, there is not any link between Cuban and North American financial institutions. As a matter of fact, and I want to bring this issue: In the last two years, banks have been one of the most affected sectors by the blockade. The US imposed a prohibition to foreign banks, to make any transaction with Cuba. I do not know whether you are aware of that, for example, the UBS, which is very well known, they expelled the account of the Permanent Mission of Cuba here in Geneva.

When did that happen?

That was last year. The Mission was forced to move from UBS to The Post because UBS refused to continue having a relation with Cuba. Do not forget that the UBS was fined three years ago by the US Department of the Treasury because of some kind of business with Cuba on finance. Right now they stop their relations with us, completely.

We have even a real problem with all this. Let us explain it because it has become very complicated.

As a member of the United Nations we are obliged to pay our contribution to the different international organisations based in Geneva. The majority of the accounts of these international organisations are in UBS. So, as a result of this position of UBS regarding Cuba, we can not transfer a single cent directly from our country, from Havanna, to the accounts of these international organisations in UBS. We are talking, for example, about the ILO, the WHO, and many others. So we are obliged to send our money to a bank in Germany or in Zurich and to make a third transfer to UBS.

You can say “Well, you can do it anyway.” Yes, but we pay more for this, a lot more because of the fees for the transactions. And nobody knows about this issue. People could think that something as simple as a financial transaction to pay our duties to the international organisations is not a problem for Cuba. But, unfortunately it is, because of the blockade.

So you do not have to take any measurements from the government concerning the financial crisis?

Well, you know because of the US blockade, we can not operate with US dollars. We are obliged to make international transactions in Euros or other foreign currency, different to US dollar. Our financial system is neither linked with the American financial system nor with international financial institutions. But of course, we are suffering in the global context. And, in any case, we are not obliged to nationalise banks, we already did it 50 years ago.

But I want come back to one point which I think is very important. The financial problems do not affect you, but what does it mean for the world trade, for all economic issues?  We have the problem that there is not enough food today for all. And I know that you have found solutions in your country. For example, people who have a garden and try to help to have enough food. Can you tell us about this? Maybe this could be a model for others.

I would like to clarify something. According to data provided by Jean Ziegler and by the FAO, the world produces enough food for all. It is not a question of lack of production or lack of availability. Even the world is able to produce more food, and food for all of us. The problem is the distribution, the control, the prices; and the control by transnational enterprises which speculate with the prices.

Jean  Ziegler visited Cuba last year. He made a report on this visit, a very interesting one.

How do we solve this issue? Well, by a regulation of the distribution. It will be difficult for me to explain, but we can find a very good explanation in English in Mr Ziegler’s report. Essentially, we have two systems. One is the controlled distribution by the state, with affordable prices for all. We call it “la libreta”. It is a rationing card. Through this system we provide limited quantities of sugar, rice, oil, essential food in very affordable prices for all. This kind of distribution, of course, is completely assumed by the state as a responsibility for the food of the people, no matter the economic loss. Of course it is not enough, but you have an option that guarantees a minimum for all, basic food, so nobody dies, nobody starves.

If you want to have more, and human beings are always looking for consumption, we have the free market and you can go and you can find food with a different price. This is the other side of the system. The free market is made by private farmers, who come with their prices.

So you have two complementary options to guarantee the right to food for all in Cuba. So you have distribution for all. That is the key.

So there is no hunger problem in Cuba? Is that right?

Not at all! You can check the data of the FAO and from Mr Ziegler, when he was in Cuba. No children are undernourished, no children died by this. We have standards of health care and expectation of life extraordinarily high, as a result of this essential policy. I think it is a good practice, a good example.

Also another point is very important: some people have chronic diseases, and the state provides supplementary food for them. This also applies for medicines. You could need some specific medicine that Cuba does not produce. Sometimes the state has to buy this medicine on the international market. And the state provides it to people in Cuba who need it for a special price. That means everybody who has a chronic disease in Cuba receives supplementary help from the state, both for medicine and for food.

What do you think about Russia approaching  the Latin American states?  Is this a reaction to the US towards Eastern Europe and Asia? Is it about bringing the weapons from Russia to Venezuela as a kind of reaction?

I want to answer very simple to this question. You see, Russia is regainig its role in the international arena. There are also funny things. It is normal for the media or the so-called international community that the Fourth Fleet of the US Navy goes to Latin America and the Caribbean. That is “normal” for everybody. But if there are three ships of Russia, that is a scandal!

By the way, you can find right now in the Havanna harbour a British vessel that also came to help us and to exercise on combating narcotics and training on dealing with disaster. But that is normal to us. That is my point. What is essential to me, coming back to your question, is that Russia is regaining its role in the international arena. They are trying, they are working for a multipolar world that we need. We need it, because this unipolar world that we were living in since the 90s is not sustainable. So, Russia has recovered its role in the world and is working for a multipolar world. That is the simple answer.

How do you see your role in the Human Rights Council? What is your impression, what role do you play?

First of all, for understanding the Human Rights Council it is important to know the past. The discredited former commission was an unhappy body, as a result of the politicisation, and the activity Cuba was convening in so many years. Right now we have a different situation, a new situation, without the unfair resolution against Cuba imposed to the former Commission for many years. So, the politically motivated mandate against Cuba disappeared with this new Council.

Cuba became a founding member of the Human Rights Council. And we are working under new and different conditions. This body is promoting cooperation in human rights. Not longer any fingering, pointing, blaming and shaming which was the practice in the discredited former commission. And of course, our approach and our experience with the Human Rights Council are completely different than in the past.

On the other hand, you have the self-proclaimed champion of human rights, the US. They are not a member of the Council. Worse than this, they decided to abandon the Council, and they are not even observers. Why? Just because the situation within the Council is completely different now. They received a lot of criticism for this behaviour.

As a result of this new momentum in the field of human rights, we decided to sign two important covenants. As you are aware, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

We invited the Special Rapporteur, Mr Jean Ziegler, to visit Cuba. He was there. These gestures from Cuba just show the commitment and embedment that we have said we will have in a different environment, in a body that promotes cooperation; we are always ready to cooperate. But we will never accept imposition, politicisation and manipulation. This is the assessment of the Cuban policy in the Human Rights Council. Mainly this has been our way of acting in the Council during the last 15 years. That is the main difference.

We have a new body; we have now the UPR (Universal Periodical Review). The UPR is a universal periodic review where everybody conveys, including us.

This body is important and quite different from the past one. In the past it was very simple. The western countries came with a resolution, a shaming and blaming one, tabled and imposed it and went for a walk. That’s nothing. The UPR is for all, it is universal, and everybody is free to ask questions, to make comments and to make a review of the country. After four years you need to answer, to show your results in relation to the previous review made by the Council, by the international community.

May I come back to what you said about the Russians and that you think that it is necessary to have a multipolar world. Can you say something about the future of your country? Where do you think is the way you have to go to? What is your perspective?

We will follow our own way, of course learning from everybody, from different experiences, but mainly following our own way. I am aware of the comments, of different reports of the international media about a possible change in Cuba. After 50 years of revolution, Cuba has already created the conditions and has proved its achievements. I am not trying to say that we are perfect, of course we are not. We know that we need to improve some things, but we will make our own way and our own rhythm. We are trying to achieve this thinking of our national hero José Martí who in the 19th century wanted to create a society in which there is justice for all. We will never be completely happy until we have not created a new and different society with justice made a reality for all Cubans. We have been on this way for almost 50 years now, but we will continue. The future for me is more revolution and more socialism, doing it in our own way and improving our society.

Thank you very much.                              

Thanks to you for the opportunity of transmitting our point of view, our vision.   


1 Memorandum from the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Lester D. Mallory) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Roy R. Rubottom Jr.). Department of State, Central Files, 737.00/4-660, Secret, Drafted by Mallory, in Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1958-1960, Volume VI, Cuba: (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1991), p. 885.
«Most Cubans support Castro. There is no effective political opposition […] the only foreseeable means to alienate internal support is by creating disillusionment and discouragement based on lack of satisfaction and economical difficulties […] We should immediately use any possible measure to […] cause hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government.»

"Down with the blockade!"

Source: «Freie Bildung und Gesundheitsversorgung sind in Kuba fundamentale Menschenrechte» - Interview mit dem kubanischen Botschafter Juan Antonio Fernandez Palacios

Original article published on Dec. 15, 2008

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: 22/12/2008