Angel Villa is Cuba's Permanent Representative to the African Union. Since the early 1990s he has worked in various positions at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As a diplomat, he has served his country as Second Secretary at the Cuban Embassy in Namibia; Minister Counsellor, Cuban Embassy in South Africa and Ambassador of Cuba to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Here he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on Ethio-Cuban relations, long-term vision of Cuba within Africa and other pertinent matters. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You have been in Ethiopia for few years now. What have been the highlights of your term, as representative to the African Union?
I have been in Ethiopia close to two years. For me it has been exciting to come back to the political capital of Africa, taking into account that most of my diplomatic career has been linked to this continent.
Cuban nationhood is a mixture of the Spaniards that colonize my country for four centuries and the Africans that were taken by force as slaves. Close to 1.3 million Africans taken to Cuba by the colonial masters and their descendent made a huge contribution to Cuba´s struggle for independence and shape profoundly our thirst for freedom and sovereignty. For that reason, every time we are appointed to serve in Africa, we assume the responsibilities with pride as we are coming back home.
This period has been part of a learning process, that goes from the very interesting process around the African Union Institutional Reforms to having the opportunity to acquire a deeper knowledge of the AU current initiatives, devoted to show concrete steps to fulfill the Agenda 2063 through the Continental Free Trade Area, the Single African Air Transport Market, the peace and security actions to secure the silence of guns by 2020, the attention to the present and future of the youth, among others.
Cuba belongs to the sixth region of Africa, as part of the African Diaspora in the Caribbean. I have been raising my voice on behalf of my country in different occasions, to express our views on different issues of mutual interest but by doing so with lots of respect and consideration to the own decisions of the Africans without any interference or imposition.
I have also been contributing to the firm position of Cuba to promote, in all possible platforms, the most accurate image of Africa, because this continent has usually been portrayed by multinational media as the land of conflicts and diseases. Beyond its own real problems and challenges, Africa is a continent that evolves, through their resilient, hardworking and talented people. In this continent is possible to find scientific discovering, role models in many disciplines, and other positive experiences that have to be told in order to change prejudiced and stereotyped perceptions of the Africans in some parts of the world.
What is the role of the embassy at the African Union?
Cuba reiterates its commitment to cooperation in solidarity with other countries, based on mutual respect, disinterested aid and complementarity. Despite the shortcomings and difficulties we have been facing in the economic field and the negative impact of the US economic, financial and commercial embargo against Cuba, we will keep up our willingness to support and share with other countries, based on the principle we learnt from late President Fidel Castro that the true solidarity consist in sharing the little we have and not sharing what is left over.
The Embassy has important task to perform with respect to the African Union. Cuba has a Memorandum of Understanding with the AU signed in 2015 which is a broad base to expand our exchanges with the organization in many fields where both sides are capable to contribute, because this is a two ways avenue. In practical terms Cuba, has potential to continue contributing to the development of Africa particularly through support with its human capital in sectors such as education, health, agriculture, sports, culture, science and technology.
We are also coordinating our actions in Addis Ababa with the work of our 30 Embassies in the continent in order to promote all possible ways of maintaining an active interaction with Africa.
As Cuba stood yesterday in support of the liberation movements in Africa to achieve independence, and against racism and apartheid, we stand today in favor of the development of the continent and the wellbeing of the African peoples.
A concrete example of that longstanding commitment is the role played by Cuba in the training of human capital from Africa through scholarships programs in medicine and other university careers. At present, more than 9 000 Africans from 43 countries are studying in our universities.
Also as part of our commitment with the present and future of the African continent, more than 6000 Cubans are working as professionals in 29 African countries, mainly in the health sector.
From the political point of view, Africa and Cuba have very strong political ties and a high level of coordination at international forums. We share similar positions in many issues of the international agenda and the membership on many of the coordinating bodies of the developing world like NAM, G-77, among others. Cuba and Africa are committed to defend multilateralism, promote mutual understanding, find consensus in issues of common interest and defend the principles stated in the UN Charter. With the African Union we hold sessions of political consultations at different levels on the above mentioned issues.
Cuba receives support from Africa in many ways: from the governments to the civil society represented by the Friendship Associations with our homeland, trade unions, religious and fraternal organizations among other institutions. This support is particularly important regarding Cuba´s call for the lifting of the unfair and illegal US embargo against my country that have last almost six decades.
The unwavering position of the countries from Africa at the United Nations against the US embargo alongside the absolute majority of the international community is highly appreciated by the Cuban people. Consistent with that position the African Union Assembly approved in January this year a new Resolution calling to the end of that policy, reaffirming the support of the continent to Cuba´s call on the issue.
Ethiopia and Cuba have had a long relationship of brotherhood. What are some of the significant milestones of the relationship?
The Cuba-Ethiopia relations are part of our long history of cooperation, mutual support and solidarity between Cuba and Africa.
In July 2019, both countries will celebrate 44 years of active diplomatic relations marked by the support given by Cuba in the seventies last century, to the preservation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ethiopia that sealed forever our links in blood. The thousands of Ethiopian that have been studying in Cuba in the last 40 years (self-considered as Ethio-Cubans) are a living testimony of the nature of these relations, as well as the hundreds of Cubans professionals that have worked in programs of cooperation with Ethiopia along the years, mainly in health and education.
At present, the Embassy of Cuba to Ethiopia continues working to expand those traditional links to new heights by extending the cooperation to new areas of interest to both countries and to the benefit of our respective peoples.
Your nation is known for having an exemplary, publicly funded health care system. The African society is attempting to emulate some of that. What can African nations learn from Cuba in terms of making their health care system more inclusive like in Cuba?
Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, 60 years ago, priority was given to the health and education considering not only that they were basic human rights but also taking into account the contribution those both areas will make to the wellbeing of the population and the social and economic development of the country. As part of the revolutionary policies, health and education were then made accessible, universal and totally free of charge for the entire population.
Cuban policymakers reasoned that health and illness are influenced by the interaction of people with their environment, so health workers should understand not only the health status of their community, but also the biological, social, cultural, and economic factors that affect it. This was an early recognition of the importance of the social determinants of health. Medical school curricula were redesigned, residency training programs were revised, and polyclinics were included as teaching sites while preventive and curative services are integrated.
Cuba's national public health system is founded on strong primary health care and has been effective in application of clinical preventive services. The Family Doctor and Nurse Program has been the most important reform carried out in our system and it has become the pillar of primary care. These efforts were accompanied by establishment of four main national programs, designed as both guides to practice and yardsticks for measuring success in improving population health: maternal and child health, infectious diseases, chronic non communicable diseases, and older adult health.
Cuba has also a fairly robust national health data collection and analysis capability which decisively assist in the policy making process.
The strategies that were developed in Cuba have resulted in consistent improvement in the population's health status, to the extent that today the country's health indicators resemble those of industrialized nations. Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index 2019 considered Cuba the healthiest country in Latin America and the Caribbean and second in the Americas after Canada.
Cuba came from a situation in 1959 of infant mortality rate stood at 37,3 per 1000 live births. In 2018, infant mortality rate was 4,0 per 1000 live births, the live expectancy is average 80 years, HIV/AIDS prevalence is below 1% of the population and in 2015 Cuba became the first country in the world to receive validation from WHO that it has eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
These big transformations are only possible with a strong political will and the involvement of the whole society to bring dramatic changes in the lives of the people. An example of the commitment of the government to the preservation of the wellbeing of the people is the allocation of the 27,5% of the 2019 budget to the health sector.
I strongly believe that the results of Cuba are achievable also in other parts of the world like Africa, despite the logic differences of our respective experiences and environments.
In that direction, our country fully supported from the early stages, the candidacy of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus to the position as Director General of the World Health Organization because we believe in his capabilities to elevate Africa to that important position. He is already stimulating the creation of primary health care systems within the continent, among other initiatives.
I also commend the African leaders for the Declaration adopted in the recent 32 Assembly of the African Union for increasing the investing and financing of health.
Cuba prefers not to give advice to others on what to do, but is ready to share its own experiences with anyone who may ask for it. I believe that the important thing, rather than offering a magic formula, is to listen to the African countries on their challenges and to work together to help them to develop their own strategies. Cuba will always stand ready to offer support to Africa within its means
What is the long-term vision of Cuba within Africa?
The common destiny of Cuba and Africa is to be united.
Our mutual capacity of resilience has to prevail in order to overcome the current problems and the challenges ahead. For instance, the climate change, inequalities, poverty and underdevelopment, are issues of mutual concern and to face them we should exchange, coordinate and cooperate more.
Cuba embraced the decision of the UN to declare 2015-2024 the International Decade of People of African Descend which serves as platform to continue demanding alongside the Africans, the overdue compensation due to slavery. That will be a long and difficult journey but we will continue walking together.
Are there any mega projects on the horizon?
Unfortunately, we cannot expect mega projects within the immediate objectives towards Africa from a country like Cuba, subjected to a permanent aggression of the big superpower of the world, that limit our capacities to develop our economy and by extension, our financial possibilities to undertake initiatives of big scale in Africa as we wishes to do. Just few days ago, the US government announced new sanctions on Cuba including the inedited full implementation of Title III of the extraterritorial Helms-Burton Act with the aim to cause more hardships to our country and to third parties.
Anyway, as we inherited from Africa the capacity of resistance, this new scenario compel us to be more creative to continue expanding our presence in Africa by boosting the cooperation South-South.
In the long-term, we can expect to see more Cubans in Africa and vice versa, taking advantages of the trade and investments opportunities in both parties, of the options of study, as well as on the realization of mutual scientific and cultural projects, etc.
Cuba and Africa are sharing same vision on many important issues of the international agenda as developing countries, and we will continue supporting each other in the international arena because we believe in the importance of multilateralism.
Cuba, as a country of the African Diaspora, will celebrate every May the month of Africa, to show that our common roots continue alive on the other shore of the Atlantic Ocean. From the capital of Africa, allow me to congratulate in advance all our brothers and sisters on Africa Day, and of course, ourselves.