Cuba’s name is so tied to Fidel Castro that even after months of the death of this Cuban figure, the continuation of his anti-imperialistic way in today’s world is a topic of interest to the media. Castro’s death was also widely reflected in Iran, and considering the revolutionary approach both Iran and Cuba had adopted against the West and the US in particular, it was expected that the two countries could become strategic partners in such environment and the geographical distance between them seems to be the only barrier in between. That is why we carried out an interview with Cuba’s Ambassador to Iran which is as follows.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with
Vladimir Andres Gonzalez Quesada, Cuba’s Ambassador to Iran
How bold are Fidel Castro’s anti-imperialistic policies in Cuba’s political and social context?
From political and social standpoints, the character of Fidel Castro is very important in Cuba. But that importance has trodden beyond the borders of Cuba. In Latin America and other countries, Fidel Castro is a renowned figure and one of the most famous people of the 20th century.
In fact, not just among his friends, but also among his enemies Fidel Castro was well-known and had turned into a symbol to fight imperialism.
Castro is a known figure, even in the Middle East, because of his comments, as he always spoke of his viewpoint toward matters like Palestine, Syria, Iran’s nuclear deal, the crises in Yemen and Iraq.
On his approach toward fighting imperialism, I can point to Castro’s impact on the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and his active role in it. However, it must be mentioned that just like Cuba, Iran played an important role in forming the NAM.
Fidel Castro’s death was widely reflected in Iran. Considering the difference his ideology and worldview had from Iran’s Muslim community, what parameters can best describe his popularity?
One reason for Fidel Castro’s popularity in Iran is his anti-imperialistic character, which is, of course, a common ground between Iran and Cuba.
Fidel Castro was against the Cult of Personality and that is why he left a statement in his will saying that no picture of him would be posthumously displayed in Cuba. How relatable is this attitude to his ideology?
Before being a leader, Fidel was a man of his people and if any problem were to occur to them, he would stand right beside them. Some of his opponents claimed Castro lived a different life, whereas he had been raised among common people, which means he knew their conditions well.
Fidel always wanted to be viewed as a man of the people; that is why in his final days, he decided that not only his image would not to be used in public and opened places, but also no street would be named after him.
This decision became a law passed by the Cuban Parliament and in this regard also his request for cremating his body was carried out.
Fidel lived a simple life and never intended to seek fame through such acts. The only thing that matter to him was the protection and continuation of his path by the people and being in their hearts and minds. That is why on Fidel Castro’s funeral, people chanted, “We are all Fidel”.
It was sporadically on the news that Fidel Castro did not believe in God. Is that right?
In his youth, Fidel Castro received a religious education. There is even a book by Frei Betto entitled Fidel and Religion in which the author refers to Fidel Castro’s stances toward religion.
Although in his childhood and youth, Castro was in contact with religion and had even received religious education, he did not perform any religious rituals. However, that does not mean he would harbor anti-religion approaches or prohibit religious activities in Cuba.
Fidel Castro firmly believed in the basic principles of socialism which are very similar to Christianity and even Islam because of how they view social welfare and justice.
Since 1959 when the revolution of Cuba came to victory, many outside the country spoke of similar matters to influence the revolution, but religion was never prohibited in Cuba. Christianity, Judaism and even some groups which adhere to the African rites are allowed to hold their ceremonies and perform their rituals. Now, even Muslims’ Association is easily following up on its activities in Cuba.
Within the Cuban Constitution passed in 1976, it is clearly stated that all religions are at the liberty to perform their rituals. So we can conclude that even though Fidel was not a religious man, he always respected the religions. It must be warned that thus far, three Popes have visited Cuba and two of them were officially received by Fidel Castro. The relations between Cuba and Vatican have been good from old times.
Thank you for providing me with a report on religious freedom in Cuba. But I have not understood yet whether Fidel Castro believed in God in his final days or not.
I really do not know what Fidel Castro’s thoughts have been. But I do know that he had done research and acquired information about religions. Cuba is a country where people of different religions live together, and it is a certain fact that if one does not respect their religions, it would be impossible to rule them.
Can the policies of the new US President further strengthen Fidel Castro’s anti-imperialistic theory in Latin America?
Trump’s comments have not only aroused criticisms on the inside, but have also instigated a great deal of criticisms from the outside.
We are in a time of globalization and one can no longer build a wall between countries; we must bridge the gaps and connect countries to each other. These policies have been even followed by criticisms from the US judicial system.
There has not been any remark in Trump’s words to Latin America but the one that revolves around building a wall along the US borders with Mexico.
However, if there were more negative remarks, then they can certainly give more strength to Fidel Castro’s anti-imperialistic beliefs, which is not improbable.
The White House Spokesperson spoke that Trump’s will review every aspect of the US agreements with Cuba. Is it possible the enhancement of ties between the two countries, which was the fruit of the Obama Administration, to go away during Trump’s presidency?
We cannot move ahead of the things that have not happened yet. As you know, over the past few years, there have been positive achievements in the relations between US and Cuba. Since December 17th, 2014, when the Presidents of the two countries, Raul Castro and Barak Obama announced together the intention to reestablish the diplomatic relations and it was concreted, high-ranking visits have been carried out between the two countries and several agreements have been signed, and the ongoing trend is positive.
I do not want to say everything is worked out, but we have intently worked on improving and normalizing ties.
Obama clearly stated that the policy adopted towards Cuba had failed and a new policy should be drawn to action. Of course, given the old background behind the ties, things will not become normal fast.
One matter that forced this decision of the US was that more than 50% of the American population wanted the normalization of ties. In addition, private corporations also asked the US government to normalize the ties so they can initiate trade with Cuba.
When we put these pieces next to each other, if Trump wants to suddenly oppose the normalization of ties between Cuba and US, then he has chiefly opposed everyone who seeks the normalization, which is all but impossible. My opinion is that there shall not be any change in the relations between the two countries. I do not mean to prejudge, however, it would be better to wait for US officials to show their positions and then for Cuban officials to react.
What do the remaining sanctions against Cuba include?
The most important of them is the economic, commercial and financial blockade. It is now 25 years since a resolution to condemn this blockade is presented at United Nations (UN) annually. You probably know last year all countries were in favor of lifting the blockade; even the US and Israel who always voted no, stayed abstained this time. That was to the purpose of building trust.
On the first step, the blockade should be lifted because it has inflicted huge economic and human damages upon Cuba. Blockade is just a word, but its impact goes way beyond that. Obama said at times to the Congress that it is necessary to remove the blockade against Cuba and by his executive power; he managed to lift some of its sanctions, while most of them are still going on.
On Obama’s final days in power, some of these sanctions were called off, including the unfair immigration law. For example, they suspended the “wet feet, dry feet” and “Parole” policies. The last one had the purpose to encourage the Cuban doctors to abandon their humanitarian mission in third countries to immigrate to US.
The cancelation of these two policies was step on the way to normalize ties between the two countries in the area of immigration and a decrease in brain drain in Cuba. There are still some problems, though, which should be worked out, such as the Guantanamo territory which has gone under illegal, occupation. There is also the matter of unlawful radio and television waves emitted by the US toward Cuba as well as the financing of the so called “opposition groups” in Cuba.
In spite of all these problems, there are rather good interactions between the two countries and the visits by their officials are a proof to that, which have laid groundwork for cooperation.
What has changed in the relations between Iran and Cuba after the implementation of the JCPOA?
Some things have really changed. Since July 2015 and following the lifting of some economic sanctions against Iran in January 2016, most of bilateral trades have been resumed. In fact, before the JCPOA, the two countries’ economic relations had almost hit the buffers.
You should note that Iran and Cuba are considered to be developing countries and are dependent on world powers and their global actions. That is why the removal of any single sanction would directly affect our countries. The formation and continuation of political and economic relations between Iran and Cuba are on the agenda for the officials of the two sides and to address that, the 16th intergovernmental commission was held between the two countries in Havana. It must be mentioned that the last intergovernmental commission goes back to September 2011.
The reason why this commission was formed is the last visits of high-ranking officials. These visits started in August, 2016, when the Vice-president of the Council of Ministers, Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, represented the Cuban President on his visit to Iran and carried a letters for the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, and the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, marking a new era in the relations.
It was this August when Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Latin America for the first time as Minister of Foreign Affairs and his first destination was Cuba. On that trip, his counterpart, Bruno Rodríguez, and Raul Castro, Cuba’s President, met with Zarif.
Zarif’s trip held political and economic importance, as along his side was a delegation of Iranian businessmen and entrepreneurs who met with Cuban authorities and there was even an agreement signed between Iran and Cuba’s Chambers of Commerce.
After his visit to Venezuela to take part in the XVII NAM Summit, President Rouhani travelled to Cuba. The trip to Havana bore important fruits, because after meeting President Raul Castro, Rouhani had a historical interview with Fidel Castro, which is considered to be very significant and was one of the last meetings Fidel Castro held. During this visit, five agreements were inked.
Would you please explain about these 5 agreements?
The first one was an MOU on banking for the debts of the two sides. When sanctions were imposed on Iran, especially on the SWIFT, problems occurred to the transactions between the two countries.
In the fields of agriculture and biotechnology, Iran and Cuba signed an agreement too. There was another contract signed for transferring the DTP-HepB-Hib vaccine.
In the past, the technology for making five different vaccines was transferred to Iran Pasteur Institute, which has a huge plant in Karaj. But DTP-HepB-Hib was not one of them at that time.
Dr. Ghazizadeh Hashemi, Iran’s Minister of Health met with his Cuban counterpart, Dr. Roberto Morales, and signed an MOU so that Iran and Cuba could jointly produce medicine and medical equipment.
The final visit to Cuba was done by an Iranian delegation headed by Vice-president Majid Ansari to attend the wake of Fidel Castro. After the funeral, there were meetings with several Cuban authorities, but there was not any agreement.
These compact meetings over the past 5 months created new grounds in the ties between the two countries, and that is how the 16th intergovernmental commission was celebrated.
What topics were discussed at the intergovernmental commission? What agreements came to life?
During this commission were discussing different and important topics regarding health, sciences, high education, agriculture, sport, finance, trade and immigration. At the end of the event 12 agreements were signed, like the Memorandum for Cooperation in Pharmaceutical Sector between Iran and BioCubaFarma Group, the MOU on Cooperation between the respective Ministries of Agriculture, the General Cooperation Letter between Tehran University and Havana University, and MOU on Visa Exemption for Diplomatic, Official and Service Passport Holders.
As conclusion of the meeting, the MOU of the XVI Session of the Joint Commission for Economic and Scientific Cooperation between the both Governments was also signed.
Is there a banking line thought of for facilitating the commercial relations between the two countries?
It has been some years now that a credit line of €200mn became available between the two countries, which Iran intends to increase to €500mn. Cuba has used up part of this credit line, but there are sums left. However, there are problems in using this line that we are working to resolve.
How are the banking relations of Iran and Cuba working out?
The problem in this regard was mainly the banking sanctions and the fear banks had for doing business. Currently, banking relations are available, but the transactions are rather crippled by lots of problems in the way.
How is the process of developing parliamentary relations between the two countries coming through?
Over the recent years, there have been parliamentary visits and ties are at a high level. For example, I can refer to the visit of the Chairman of National Security and Foreign Affairs at the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Allaeddin Boroujerdi, to Cuba in 2014. Also, because of the request on the part of the Iranian party, the same year the Chairman of the Cuba-Iran Friendship Group at the People’s Power National Assembly and his deputy traveled to Iran and even attended the activities for the 25th anniversary of Imam Khomeini’s death.
The Chairman of the Iran-Cuba Friendship Group at the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Abdolreza Mesri, was also scheduled to visit Cuba. The visit was supposed to take place at the end of 2015, but due to the parliamentary elections in Iran during the first half of 2016 and the changes that followed it, was canceled.
Soon as the new parliament was formed in Iran, we met with the new Chairman of the Iran-Cuba Parliamentary Friendship Group, Mohammad Reza Mansouri. During that meeting, Mansouri asked for expanding developments and deepening relations. He requested to go on the trip to Cuba which was planned for his predecessor in 2015. The invitation for this trip was posted by Yolanda Ferrer Gomez, Chairman of the International Relations Commission at the People’s Power National Assembly, who is precisely the counterpart of Boroujerdi in Iran’s Majlis.
It was also requested that Iran’s Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani visit Cuba. Cuba’s incumbent Speaker of Parliament, Esteban Lazo Hernández, traveled to Iran in 2009, though he was not the Parliamentary Speaker then, but was only Vice-president of the Council of State. Back at the time, Raul Castro was bound to be invited to take part in international conference on counterterrorism, but Lazo came on his behalf.
After all these visits, an agreeable dialog is happening between the two countries.
What are the ongoing activities regarding exchanges of students and experts?
In the past, given the scholarship Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology had granted, a number of Cuban students traveled to Iran to learn Farsi and it might be of interest for you to know that one of them is now working for the Embassy of Iran in Cuba.
At the moment, Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology has allocated 10 scholarships to Cuban students, 5 of which are for learning Farsi and the other 5 for graduate and post-graduate studies. In Cuba, we are looking to qualify eligible individuals to use these scholarships.
How strong is your contact with Iran’s Ambassador to Havana? How conducive is he to you in expanding economic and political ties between the two countries?
Iran’s ambassador to Cuba, Kambiz Sheikh-Hassani is a serious, adept person in the relations between Iran and Cuba and we are constantly in touch. We have made contacts to him whenever and whatever we needed help for and necessary arrangements were made without any problems.
Is there any ongoing military cooperation between the two countries?
No, there is no military cooperation between the two countries.
Is there any plan to be considered for starting military cooperation between the two countries?
In the past, there was a proposal for military cooperation between Iran and Cuba, but that neither got anywhere nor was followed up. In fact, it gets back before I was appointed to Iran and the discussions were about military industries.
In what military section has Cuba made progress which can be exported to Iran?
I do not know exactly what military technologies we can send to Iran, but as far as I know, the level of Iran’s military capabilities is high.
What plans are devised for extending touristic relations between the two countries?
Presently, we are working to help the Iranian tourists who intend to visit Cuba. After the JCPOA went into implementation, a new wave of Iranian tourists headed toward Cuba.
There was a series of negotiations between Iranian and Cuban agencies to send more groups of tourists from Iran to Cuba. We are mediating the contacts between them.
We need to stress once again that after the JCPOA entered the implementation phase, the number of Iranian tourists who geared toward Cuba and South America has had significant increase.
Currently, through which cities the Tehran-Havana flights are carried out?
In the past, Moscow was the only available path, but now there are many ways like Turkey, Paris and Rome. There is also a more distant way like Dubai, too. Unfortunately, there is no direct flight between Iran and Cuba, but in our opinion, the best flight path is from Iran to Turkey and then to Cuba.
Last year, how many Cuban visas were issued for Iranian citizens?
We do not have an exact number, but our visa issuance conditions for Iranian citizens are very simple, unlike European countries, and the number of visas is high. Possibly, the visa issuance shall be cancelled for service, official and diplomatic passports and we hope in the future to completely remove visas between Iran and Cuba.
At the end, we must say that Iran and Cuba are shaping new relations, especially in commercial interactions and we have lots of positive cooperation with Iran.