Zim-Cuban relations can grow beyond politics

Albert Chavhunduka

Zimbabwe and Cuba have shared strong ties, which can be traced back to the days of the liberation struggle. The two countries have cooperated in many areas, particularly in higher and tertiary education.

Cuba has in the past sent different doctors and specialists to assist in the country’s health sector. Our reporter Albert Chavhunduka (AC) had the opportunity to sit down with the outgoing Cuban Ambassador to Zimbabwe Mrs Carmelina Ramirez Rodriguez (AR).

A number of issues were discussed, among them, the ongoing plans by Cuba to assist Zimbabwe to produce its own vaccines, tips on overcoming the grip of sanctions, as well as creating economic exchanges between the two countries.

Below is the full interview.

AC: As outgoing Cuban Ambassador, how has been your experience in Zimbabwe?

Amb: For me Zimbabwe is my second home and my diplomatic experience has been wonderful. I had an opportunity to interact, not only at a political level, but also personal level. I’ve interacted with the local ordinary people and that’s the reason why I felt that I was at home.

I don’t have any complains, I had huge support from government, ZANU-PF, parliament and from everywhere where I’ve been, so I received lot of love from the people. I’m Cuban inside me, but the attachment I had with the society is very deep.

AC: Your Excellency, recently you spoke about how Cuba is willing and ready to assist Zimbabwe to be able to produce its own Covid-19 vaccines just like what Cuba is doing. How did you work to achieve that and when can we anticipate results?

AR: We cannot yet anticipate results so to say, but it’s a project that is ongoing and we are working on it. We are willing to increase our cooperation on the scientific side, so we have already met authorities from the University of Zimbabwe.

There was a delegation that travelled to Cuba to have a first-hand encounter with our scientific centre of bio-technology and pharmaceutical industry. The idea is to create a joint venture that will allow Zimbabwe to produce its own medicines, but that’s a project that is still being worked on.

I have the belief that we will have very good results in the end.

AC: What impact do you think such a partnership in the science and technologies will have on our two countries?

AR: It will benefit our two countries quite a lot. For example, now that we have the Covid-19 pandemic, if Zimbabwe can finally produce its own vaccine, that will benefit the population. You know that there are no enough vaccines for the whole world, so it’s like the developed countries will say we can only help others when we are done vaccinating our own people.

That’s why in the case of Cuba, we knew that nobody will give us the vaccines and we have an emergency and we had to rush to produce our own Covid-19 vaccine. Right now we have more than 90% of the population which is vaccinated with our own vaccine, so the level of Covid-19 in Cuba has been very low and people are not dying because they were vaccinated.

So to produce our own vaccines is a necessity because we have a global emergency. Zimbabwe has done very well in Africa so far. It’s one of the countries which have managed to vaccinate a large chunk of its population. They have received vaccines from countries like China, India, Russia and Serbia and if Zimbabwe can produce its own vaccines, everybody will be vaccinated.

AC: Cuba and Zimbabwe have something in common, our two countries have been under illegal sanctions imposed by the West. What’s your comment on this issue and what are the parallels and lessons that we can draw from this?

AR: Yes, we have a same destiny and we share common challenges.

Cuba has been under sanctions for 63 years and we don’t simply call them sanctions, but it’s a blockade because it’s financial, commercial and economic. The ferocity of the blockade is not only the sanctions, because if you compare Cuba and Zimbabwe, the internal economic situation is not the same.

Zimbabwe is blessed because it has good land, mineral resources and can manage to escape the sanctions. In our case it’s different because we are an island and we need to import almost everything and because of the blockade, we have shortage of almost everything and this has affected the livelihoods of the local population.

The last sanctions that US former president Donald Trump imposed before he left office in January 2020 were 243 measures against Cuba and they included everything. So nobody could escape these sanctions and for example when we wanted to buy a ventilator during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was even impossible.

Even when we wanted to do commerce with any other country, we couldn’t do it because we can’t use the American dollar or international banks. At the moment we have 30 000 containers that are stuck at different ports around the world and they cannot be moved to Cuba because other countries are scared of being fined.

So that’s why we call the sanctions a blockade that affect our daily lives. Zimbabwe has been under sanctions for about 20 years now and this is not the same with Cuba, which has been under this blockade for a good 63 years. But even so, we have developed it, we have been very creative to try and overcome all these limitations, for example, the case of our vaccines that we produce.

This is a good example that we have to demonstrate how Cuba has developed and taken advantage of its own human resources; for example, the scientists and technicians. It’s also very important to have unity as a country, and we are a country just like Zimbabwe also and we love our independence and sovereignty and we have paid a high price for that.

That sentiment of sovereignty is in our blood and we have always been like that since the days when we were fighting colonialism. We want to have a normal relationship with the US as well because we are neighbours and we can benefit from each other.

AC: You’ve been under this economic blockage for 63 years like you mentioned and despite that, Cuba has managed to develop. What advice can you give to Zimbabwe so that we can as well overcome sanctions imposed on the country and develop as well just like what Cuba did?

AR: I wouldn’t use the word ‘advice’, but what I think is Zimbabwe has so much potential and the possibility to do it by itself without depending on others because it has everything; you’ve good land and vast mineral resources.

Sometimes they say the sanctions are not directed at the people, but at the government. That is not true, the sanctions affect the people, that’s why you see people leaving the country to look for better opportunities outside the country.

If you have a better environment which allows foreign investment, Zimbabwe can go very far without depending on anybody and the people here are very hardworking. So the issue of unity is very important and people should work for their country and love it to develop it.

AC: Zimbabwe and Cuba have a strong partnership, especially in higher and tertiary education. Recently, you said that there are plans to extend these ties to commerce, where we will see commercial trade happening between our two countries. Can you explain more about that your Excellency?

AR: That idea came to me when I heard about the Namibian ports. In spite of the good political relationship that we have with Zimbabwe, on the field we don’t have anything because of the distance which makes it very expensive to make any trade exchanges.

So when I heard about that, I said to myself this is an opportunity that we can utilise step by step, not only with Cuba, but that it will also open opportunities for Zimbabwe to the other side. As I said before, you’ve a lot of potential that could be attractive on the other side of the Atlantic.

In our case, I’ve been exploring the business community and also working together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade on how we can open that window for both sides. In Cuba, we need a lot of things that you have here in Zimbabwe, the grain for example, and those things are important for us because our staple food is rice and beans and we don’t produce enough because of the climate.

AC: So with this optimism of possible economic exchanges between our two countries. What can you say about the business environment in Zimbabwe?

AR: I explored it, but I didn’t really go very deep about the business environment, like looking at the legal environment and the possibility of both sides benefitting from each other.

I once attended a conference last year in Bulawayo where Zimbabwe was presenting some measures and steps being taken to make it more flexible and attractive for international investors.

It’s not easy for countries like ours to develop because of sanctions and the limitations that we have, so we want to obtain more profit from the investments and the investors also want the same. We need to find a balance for mutual benefit.

It’s the same with what is happening in Cuba because we have the main industry, which is tourism, and people come to invest in hotels, particularly Spaniards, but want to retain their profits, whilst we also want to benefit from those investments.

AC: Your Excellency, as the outgoing Ambassador, what’s your next assignment and what will you miss about Zimbabwe?

AR: I’m going back to Cuba and I’ll know when I get there what my next mission will be.

I will miss the people and since the last month when I started to bid my farewell, I realised how much I love Zimbabwe, as well as its people. I’ve visited Victoria Falls, Kariba, Nyanga and they are very beautiful places that you will not find in any other countries.

For me, my biggest experience has been with the people and the hospitality. That for me is what I’ll miss.

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