Antonio Luis Pubillones, the Cuban Ambassador to Uganda talked to The Independent’s Ronald Musoke about the steady Cuba-Uganda relations and the resilience of the Cuban people amidst a 60-year U.S. economic blockade.
You have been living and working in Uganda for almost four years. What has been your impression?
I have been here since February 2016 and I think Uganda is a beautiful country with a lot of potential. I have been to Kidepo National Park; I have been to Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Parks. I still have places that I would like to visit like the Elgon Mountain. I have come to know many people and I have made lots of friends. I have enjoyed Ugandan food. It is somehow similar to Cuba’s. We also have chicken, pork, and plantain like Matooke. Although I will be happy to return to my country with my family soon, I will miss the country and I will miss the friends I have made here.
What has been the focus of the Uganda-Cuba relations?
Cuba’s relations with Uganda started on 9 May 1974 and so we have had 45 years of Cuban-Uganda relations. Our cooperation with Uganda has basically centred on health. We (for instance) currently have five Cuban professors based at Mbarara University of Science and Technology. We were the pioneers in giving help to the university. I wish I could do more to bring more Cuban doctors here. There is an agreement signed between the two governments’ Ministries of Health but it is currently on hold. We are very much willing to bring more Cuban doctors to work in the Ugandan communities.The principle of our cooperation is about solidarity, friendship, love and passion. It is about helping others to prevent disease. It is about exchanging experiences among our doctors with those where we are.
What exactly happened to the Cuban doctors who were expected to come and offer their services to Ugandans last year?
The Cuban doctors are ready and are only waiting for the Ugandan government to tell us when the right time will be. The agreement is on hold. I know that Cuban doctors will be useful here. I feel proud when I talk about the quality of the Cuban doctors. I have been working with our doctors for many years now and I know what the Cuban cooperation is all about. I know about the work ethic of Cuban doctors; I see them each day working, getting ready, and studying all the time about their experiences in the field. They do their work with passion and love. They are not working for money or financial interest, they work for principles and this is the education they have got.
Cuban doctors offer high quality services wherever they are posted but how do you respond to reports that the Cuban government actually exploits its medical workers under these bilateral arrangements?
This is one of the lies and one of the slanders our enemies go on telling the world. The U.S is trying to denigrate the meritorious work done voluntarily by hundreds of thousands of Cuban health professionals and technicians over a long period of our history. But, we are not afraid of the American scheme of slander because all the countries with which we cooperate know what our health professionals and nurses can do. We started our cooperation nearly for free but now we cannot afford to do so and some countries pay a fair amount of money because of agreements between governments. Part of that money goes to the health workers and part of that money goes to the government to keep the country moving; to tackle the needs of the Cuban people, the needs for the children and the elderly because Cuba has no choice. The Cuban doctors don’t go abroad to benefit the Cuban government; they go abroad to work to benefit the Cuban people and the people of the countries they are working for.
Tell us about the trade relations that exist between Cuba and Uganda?
This is an area that we are trying to fast-track. For a while, we have been dealing with private companies in the pharmaceutical sector and we feel that in the near future we can start more collaboration. We, for instance, have many vaccines which are of good quality which we can provide to the Ugandan market. Those who deal with Cuban pharmaceutical products are very much aware about the Cuban products. In the pharmaceutical and bio-technological field, we are second to none at this point in time. We have just come up with a lung cancer vaccine which is now on trial and is giving positive results. We have come up with skin cancer, prostate cancer vaccines and our researchers are at the moment working on a vaccine for all types of cancers. We are focused on the biotechnological and pharmaceutical industry as a priority for our people.
Cuba is a country that is not very much economically endowed and yet for decades, you have deliberately nurtured very robust education and health systems. What explains your government’s emphasis on these two sectors?
Health and education were prioritized since the triumph of our revolution. We have prioritized these sectors because an educated and healthy people are an asset for the country and this is why our Commander-in-Chief, Fidel Castro, was always thinking of education and health. He wanted Cuba to be a country of scientists. And if it were not for the U.S’ economic blockade, Cuba would be far ahead in other sectors. That blockade has caused a lot of damage to Cuba. The blockade is a flagrant violation of our people’s human rights. It is the main obstacle for the social and economic development of the Cuban people.
What is the genesis of this economic blockade and how come it has held for all these decades?
The blockade started in 1962 and the essence of the blockade is to make the Cubans not trade with the U.S. It was started by an executive order by President John F. Kennedy at the request of his Undersecretary of State who came up with the proposal to create hunger and chaos to make the Cubans suffer so they could topple Fidel Castro. The U.S government thought this was the way to quickly get rid of Castro’s Cuba so America could come back and own Cuba as it was before the revolution. This blockade also has an extra-territorial aspect to it because Cuba is forced to go very far to get supplies of basic commodities. This means that we have to pay 10-15 times more for that product than if we traded with our natural neighbours. But, we have made great effort in making our people resilient to this blockade for the last 60 years. We are going to continue resisting and go forward with our socialist project. We shall continue supporting our government and party because we know that our project is a very just and dignified project.
How would you describe the relationship between Cuba and the U.S?
Our relationship has not been a normal relationship for many years. Save for a period during President Barrack Obama’s administration where there were some positive developments; where we had both constructive and respectful relations; for many years, the relations have not been good. During Obama’s administration, we signed different technical agreements and we were moving forward but because of the blockade, progress was limited and insufficient. Despite the efforts President Obama made to get rid of the blockade, it was impossible because the only way to get it lifted is through the U.S Congress. The current U.S President, Trump, came up with new sanctions immediately he took power. There have been sanctions each and every year. Trump’s administration is trying to tighten the blockade; they are trying to create chaos in Cuba; they are trying to have a situation where Cubans starve because we don’t have the same ideals and they have failed to dictate to us what we should do. The U.S is trying to push and get us bent on our knees and that will never happen.We chose our socialist project and this is the project we are going to continue pursuing. We will not get away even a millimeter from that project. We are people of principles, we are people of conviction and we have an ideal and legacy of our historic leader, Fidel Castro, and we will continue to fight for the benefit of the Cuban people.
Cubans have indeed survived 60 years of the U.S’ unilateral economic sanctions. What explains the Cuban resilience to all this socio-economic adversity?
The Cuban spirit is about sticking to our principles; to defend what is ours, to defend our coast, not to allow anybody from outside to come and tell us what to do. Since the founding of the U.S, America has always tried to have Cuba as part of America and we cannot accept that. My parents’ generation suffered because Cuba was like a “garbage landfill.” Cuba was for a handful of people taking all the wealth of the Cuban people. Our generation is not willing to go back to the past.