Tamara Kunanayakam is best known in Sri Lanka as former Ambassador to the UN in Geneva from 2011 to 2012. It is less well known that she chaired the UN Working Group on the Right to Development from 2011 to 2015 and was Ambassador to Cuba from 2008 to 2011. Following the outpouring of condolences from around the world on the death of Fidel Castro, she responded to some questions for the Daily Mirror.
Q The death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro has triggered expressions of sympathy from around the world, including from those who did not agree with his political ideology. What does this say about the values he stood for
The tribute paid to Fidel Castro by his people and millions around the world, including Heads of States and Governments, is unprecedented. It is testimony to the extreme popularity of Fidel resulting from his force of conviction, his impressive culture and his revolutionary action. It is also testimony to the credibility acquired by Cuba internationally.
Fidel stood for universal values and principles – social justice, human dignity, selflessness, solidarity. He demonstrated that it was possible to transform ideas into material reality. It was the task he set for himself and fulfilled.
The Cuban people, worthy and united, deserve respect. Many politicians, to begin with here in Sri Lanka, would benefit from finding in this page of history plenty to meditate upon. Those who consider this a non-event are but dwarfs before a giant of the 20th Century.
Q Why is there a strong negative perception of Castro and the Cuban revolution in some quarters
Those who are against Fidel are also those against the Cuban Revolution.
They are those who benefited from the pro-Washington dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, those who thrive on a system based on exploitation, domination, wars and aggression.
The Cuban Revolution is a process, a Revolution of the poor, by the poor, for the poor. The example of successful resistance of a small country against the world’s most powerful force located just 90 miles away must be destroyed at all costs. The Cuban Revolution continues to inspire numerous struggles around the world for justice and dignity. It has shown Frantz Fanon’s ‘Wretched of the Earth’ that change is possible.
It is fear of contagion that drives permanent US-hostility against Cuba – the criminal economic and financial blockade imposed in 1962, but also other multiple aggressions – Bay of Pigs invasion, commando attacks against agricultural workers, burning of sugarcane plantations, bacteriological attacks and attacks against public buildings or tourist hotels. It is known that Fidel survived some 637 CIA-orchestrated assassination attempts. The cost of the blockade is estimated at more than US$ 125 billion at the current rate.
In spite of this criminal policy, Cuba has continued its acts of solidarity around the world. It has 35,000 health workers in 76 countries working among the poor. Which country can claim such selflessness, such solidarity?
"Fidel stood for universal values and principles – social justice, human dignity, selflessness, solidarity. He demonstrated that it was possible to transform ideas into material reality. It was the task he set for himself and fulfilled"
Q Divergent messages were conveyed after the death of Castro, in the remarks of US President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump, who said during his election campaign that he would reverse the moves made by Obama towards normalizing US relations with Cuba. How will this divergence affect the rapprochement initiated under Obama’s presidency
The belief the blockade has ended is false. Formal diplomatic relations have been established, but fundamental issues remain to be resolved for normalization. Obama’s 2016 directive on Cuba makes clear that the economic and financial blockade will not be lifted, that the US occupied Guantanamo Naval base will not be restituted, that the campaign of interference in Cuba’s internal affairs and destabilization efforts will continue.
Trump may have threatened to reverse Obama’s policy, but the question is whether there is anything to be reversed. Trump broke ranks with nearly all other Republican contenders by supporting Obama’s decision to re-engage diplomatically with Cuba. “50 years is enough”, he said, adding, “I think it’s fine, but we should have made a better deal.”
Q The Cuban government says the US economic blockade on Cuba is the main obstacle to normalizing relations and that it must be lifted. It is reported that lifting the blockade would require Congressional approval since it is embedded in US law. Given that Republicans control Congress and now the presidency as well, what is the likelihood the relevant laws will be amended/ repealed
That is unlikely to happen unless the political motivations behind the blockade change.
The Cuban External Affairs Minister told the UN General Assembly that the Presidential Directive does not disguise its goal of altering the country’s constitutional order and promoting changes to its political, economic, and social system, nor plans for intervention.
The sectors subject to Congressional approval are relatively narrow and can be overturned by the Executive. The US president has extensive executive prerogatives that he can use to substantially modify implementation of the blockade, but didn’t. Even without changing laws, he can grant “special licences” or waivers, make humanitarian exceptions or do so in the national interest. Had he wished, Obama could have re-established bilateral trade, authorized private credit and investments and authorized imports of non-food products on loan from the US market.
"It is fear of contagion that drives permanent US-hostility against Cuba – the criminal economic and financial blockade imposed in 1962"
Q As a UN official who has worked for over 10 years in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, can you comment on why the UN human rights apparatus is unable to do anything about the economic blockade on Cuba which is said to be in violation of international law and the UN Charter? The whole world has condemned this blockade, as reflected in this year’s vote at the UN General Assembly on Cuba’s resolution demanding its removal.
Thanks to the efforts of developing countries, particularly Cuba, the UN human rights body has established that unilateral coercive measures, which are contrary to international law, international humanitarian law, the UN Charter and norms and principles governing peaceful inter-State relations, impede the full realization of human rights, especially the right to development.
According to a UN report, unilateral coercive measures, including sanctions, boycotts, embargoes and blockades, currently affect more than 90 countries, mostly developing countries.
The Human Rights Council and its predecessor have consistently called on States to stop adopting, maintaining or implementing such measures. It has also condemned their use by certain powers as tools of political or economic pressure, particularly against developing countries, aimed at preventing their exercise of the right to decide their own political, economic and social systems.
The means of pressure available to the human rights body is political, and mounting such pressure against the world’s most powerful State takes time, conviction, courage and effort.
As UN staff, I was a privileged witness to Cuba’s success in obtaining quasi-unanimous support against the US blockade. I remember a time when the resolution did not obtain majority support. Today, the Human Rights Council has a Special Rapporteur to address the issue of remedies and redress with a view to promoting accountability and reparations.
At the General Assembly, political support for Cuba and corresponding US isolation has been spectacular. The first resolution against the US embargo was adopted in 1992 with 59 in favour, 3 against and 71 abstentions. This year, the vote count was 191 in favour, none against, with the US and Israel abstaining for the first time.
Cuba’s handling of the issue is an example to all of us. It shows that it is possible for even a small country to defeat the most powerful enemy as long as it has a vision, conviction, commitment, perseverance, and a people united.
Q As one who was Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to Cuba, is fluent in Spanish and well informed on developments there, what kind of political trajectory do you see unfolding for Cuba without Castro
Fidel is physically no more, but having led his people to freedom and dignity, his ideas will prevail. As long as there is exploitation and oppression, as long as there are injustices, as long as there are the downtrodden, Fidel’s ideas will continue to inspire generations of Cubans, of Latin Americans, and people around the world!
I am convinced that the physical disappearance of Fidel will not alter the will of the Cuban people to defend their sovereignty and independence, which are synonymous with dignity and one of the most important achievements of the Revolution. We are talking about a people whose level of culture is one of the highest in the world, an asset of the Revolution. A conscious and free people do not give up, they fight, they resist!
What is this Revolution that the Cubans are attached to? We must turn to Fidel for the response:
“Revolution means to have a sense of history; it is changing everything that must be changed; it is full equality and freedom; it is being treated and treating others like human beings; it is achieving emancipation by ourselves and through our own efforts; it is challenging powerful dominant forces from within and without the social and national milieu; it is defending the values in which we believe at the cost of any sacrifice; it is modesty, selflessness, altruism, solidarity and heroism; it is fighting with courage, intelligence and realism; it is never lying or violating ethical principles; it is a profound conviction that there is no power in the world that can crush the power of truth and ideas. Revolution means unity; it is independence, it is fighting for our dreams of justice for Cuba and for the world, which is the foundation of our patriotism, our socialism and our internationalism.”
"Thanks to the efforts of developing countries, particularly Cuba, the UN human rights body has established that unilateral coercive measures, which are contrary to international law"