When you ask an older person from Ethiopia what they know about Cuba they will likely tell you about the medical support and sacrifice of Cuban soldiers when they helped Ethiopia fight against Somalia’s aggression. Right now Cuba is developing a new constitution which will reform the economy and structure of the government. Capitals’s Tesfaye Getnet talked with Ambassador of Cuba to Ethiopia Vilma Thomas Ramírez to learn more about her country’s relationship with Ethiopia and their new constitution.
Capital: Some say that after the downfall of Derge regime (a socialist Ethiopian Government) the economic, political and cultural relationship between Ethiopia and Cuba has been declining. What do you think about this?
Vilma Thomas: I do not agree with that opinion. I believe that since the seventies Cuba and Ethiopia have established and developed relations which have been strengthening through cooperation in various field. During Cuba´s participation alongside Ethiopians in the Ogaden War, helping to protect the territorial integrity of this country, our relations acquired a special character because they were nourished by the blood shed by children of our two peoples fighting for a common cause. Around 163 Cubans gave their lives fighting for Ethiopia at that time and their sacrifice is the testimony of the strength of our bonds, which, as the Ethiopian friends always say, are forged in blood. We take those special links as the basis for our past and present relations with Ethiopia, which I am proud to say that have been strengthening in the last years. It has been possible through the willingness and commitment of both our governments to expand our cooperation in various fields and to increase the level of interaction bilaterally and in the international arena.
We maintain our cooperation with Ethiopia in the health sector, with Cuban doctors providing health care to the Ethiopian people in institutions in Addis Ababa and Jimma. We also cooperate in education, with a group of Cuban teachers working for the TVET Institutes around the country. We continue also our cooperation in the building of human resources capacities in Ethiopia and as part of that we provide every year a number of scholarships for young Ethiopians to go to Cuba to study free of charge, in a program that started 40 years ago and is still ongoing, having produced to date more than 5000 Ethiopian graduates in Cuba.
We have also started cooperation in science and technology and we are working in various projects in areas where Cuba has comparative advantage. We have expressed to the Government of Ethiopia our willingness to make available all our experiences and internationally recognized results, if required, to contribute to the development and wellbeing of the Ethiopian people.
Capital: How is Cuba interacting with non-other Socialist countries across the world?
Vilma Thomas: Cuba has diplomatic relations with 195 States, which is the absolute majority of the international community. Despite US attempts to isolate Cuba for decades, our country proudly exhibits an extended and active interaction with the world and it is host of a large number of foreign diplomatic missions, with a total of 113 countries and 6 international organizations accredited in Havana. Cuba also has Embassies in 124 countries. Those figures, on their own reflect the extent of Cuba´s relation with the rest of the world. Those relations are not base in the political or economic system each one of those countries may have but on the mutual respect and cooperation which are core principles of Cuba´s foreign policy.
As examples of the good and fruitful relations we have developed with many countries of the world, allow me to mention that we have entered into an agreement of cooperation and political exchange with the European Union, we have strengthened our links and cooperation with countries of own our region, we have brotherly relations with African countries, with which we have extensive cooperation programs. We also have very close cooperation with China, Russia and many other countries of the world and as from 2015, we also have diplomatic relations with the United States. In the case of this last one, I have to mention that although the steps taken by former Presidents Barack Obama and former Cuban President Raúl Castro were welcomed by the international community, with a lot of hope and appreciation, in the last two years many obstacles have prevented its advancement as expected. Unfortunately, the permanence and tightening of the US blockade against Cuba with its very negative impact on Cuba´s development and the wellbeing of the Cuban people, as well as the counterproductive measures taken by the current US administration have hindered the advance of the process of normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States.
Capital: Recently Ethiopian President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) went to Havana what major issues were discussed?
Vilma Thomas: His Excellency the President of Ethiopia, Dr. Mulatu Teshome visited Cuba in January this year and the visit was very important as part of our common effort to continue strengthening our bilateral relations. The President convey the gratitude of the Ethiopian people to Cuba for the sacrifices made during the Ogaden war and all the cooperation we have given Ethiopia in health, education and other sectors since. Both Presidents also has lengthy discussion on the possibilities to strengthen our bilateral cooperation taking into account the comparative advantages of each country. The areas of health and science and technology were among the ones identified by Ethiopia as their main interest. The visit also provide an opportunity for productive discussions between representatives of those sectors from both our countries, in the way forward in order to materialize specific projects for the mutual benefit of Cuba and Ethiopia.
Capital: Is Cuba still training Ethiopian medical professionals and do you meet with the Ethiopian doctors trained in your country?
Vilma Thomas: As I mentioned previously we continue providing scholarships to Ethiopia mainly for medical studies, so there are young Ethiopians receiving training in Cuba to become doctors. Also there are a significant group of Cuba´s trained doctors proudly serving the Ethiopian people with the knowledge they acquired in Cuba.
The Ethiopians who were trained in Cuba not only as doctors but in many other areas proudly acknowledge themselves as part of the Ethio-cuban community. They keep alive among themselves the memories of their stay in Cuba and the customs and traditions that they incorporated into theirs. They are also the backbone of the solidarity movement with Cuba in Ethiopia. As part of the gratitude they feel and express towards the country that receive them as songs and daughters and to the people that share with them the little we had, they are organizing in Ethiopia as from October 10th until the 14th a series of events to acknowledge Cuba´s contribution and solidarity with the people of Ethiopia.
We have close and frequent interaction with the Ethio-cuban community and a direct participation in the activities they organize. They bring Cuba and Ethiopia together and we are forever grateful for that.
Capital: Currently Cuba is preparing to reform its constitution, what are the important changes in the new draft constitution, and to what extent would it modernize the country?
Vilma Thomas: The text we are talking about is still a draft but the aim of the new Constitution is to include in the fundamental law of the country all the changes produced in the country in recent years, as well as to foreseen others that might happen in the future.
The Parliamentary Commission mandated to write the Draft studied the Constitutions of several countries from all the continents and also took into account the Constitutional tradition of Cuba with the aim to have a modern text, valid for the present and future generations of Cubans. For this reason, the discussions of the Draft have been extended to the society as a whole including the Cubans working abroad under governmental contracts, as well as those from the diaspora.
Among the main proposed changes are the recognition to the private, cooperative and mix property, the consideration of the foreign investment as a driven force in the economy to achieve sustainable growth of our GDP, a new structure of the State by including a Prime Minister as Head of Government, a bigger power to the municipalities, the expansion of written human rights of the citizen according to the international instruments signed by Cuba, the acceptance of the effective citizenship, among others. The Draft preserves only 11 Articles of the present Law, modifies 113 and deletes 13.
Capital: Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue said that the revised constitution appears designed mostly to reinforce governmental authority over its citizens, and keep the economy under tight state control. Under the new charter, Cuba will remain a one-party state, with the opposition outlawed. What is your opinion on Peter’s comment?
Vilma Thomas: The above mentioned analysis and assumptions on the scope of the Cuban Constitution have been made from an antagonist perspective to ours. We are changing our Constitution to reinforce Socialism not to transition to Capitalism.
The changes we are proposing in our legal system are not intended to please scholars, politicians and the so called Cubanologists from abroad. The aim of the new Constitution is to fulfill Cuban’s needs and expectations.
Of course, we will continue having the Cuban Communist Party as the superior force of the society. Our party is considered the Party of the nation which have been transforming itself to accommodate all the forces in our society that stand for the continuation of socialism regardless their color, race, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc .
After many years, we have been receiving receipts from abroad of what we have to do and how to manage our domestic affairs. Cuba is a sovereign and independent State and after 60 years of Revolution, we have been demonstrating why we are not accepting that anyone dictates our destiny –particularly from the U.S-. The will of the majority of the Cubans has been guiding our process up to date and it will continue towards the future.
The Referendum scheduled for February 2019 will provide the final answer to everybody.
Capital: Some experts argue that the private sector will not prosper in the face of the tough tax and regulatory regime that the government announced a few weeks before the constitution was unveiled. In your point of view how will the new constitution increase FDI in Cuba?
Vilma Thomas: One of the main transformations in the new Constitution refers to the recognition of the private, cooperative and mixed property in Cuba. The regulations put in place this year are related to correct some organizational problems that were not observed at the time of their implementation.
The Government has ratified that the private initiative shall contribute in a bigger manner to the growth of our GDP, for this reason the new Constitution is embracing this concept.
I cordially invite you to Google the text of the Constitutional draft (unfortunately is in Spanish), to take from there your own conclusions and to engage in further discussions on this matter.
Capital: Will the draft constitution shift Cuban from her firm Socialist ideology?
Vilma Thomas: Our model of socialism, built in the Caribbean and subjected to all kind of negative actions from our big neighbor to make the Revolution fail, has been changing over the years in order to preserve socialism in Cuba. The new Constitution will rightly reflect the domestic and international junctures and establish the legal base to build the notion of socialism we want: prosperous, and sustainable.
The principles of Cuban socialism are based in the equity, dignity and liberty of its citizens. The development of our model and it success is only possible through the preservation of the human values and the increase of the labor productivity.
In conclusion, the Draft does not in any respect shift Cuba from the socialist ideology but ratifies it.
Capital: Could you explain how the US embargo has hurt Cuba’s economy over the past 56 years and how you are addressing this problem ?
Vilma Thomas: The blockade has been applied for almost six decades and the accumulated harm during that period as amounted to USD 933.67 billion dollars taking into account the depreciation of the dollar as compared to the price of gold on the international market. At today’s prices, the blockade has caused damages that can be calculated at over USD 134.5 trillion dollars. All sectors of the Cuban economy have been affected by the blockade.
For example, the Cuban health system has suffered serious repercussions due to the policy of the blockade against Cuba, derived from the difficulties in acquiring medicines, reagents, instruments, spare parts for medical equipment and all the other consumables needed for the sector to function; all of this must be purchased in faraway markets and, on many occasions, with the use of intermediaries. This adds to the costs of these consumables. To all of this we must add the suffering and despair which is caused for patients and their loved ones when they cannot obtain the ideal medicine to treat a given disease and, in many instances, at the moment it is needed to save a life. A price can never be put on such pain.
However, despite the very negative effect of that policy Cubans standing together and directing the resources to priority areas in order to promote development of the country and wellbeing for the population have been able to develop sectors like health, education, science and technology,