Cuba and Serbia established diplomatic relations in 1902, and the friendship between the two countries during the turbulent world history has never been questioned
While speaking with H.E. Gustavo Tristá del Todo, the Cuban Ambassador to Serbia, we learned about the truly strong friendship between the two nations despite the many international challenges that both countries have been facing.
This year marks the 120th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba. What do you think of the relations between the two countries so far, taking into account the historical events from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until today? Which events in our shared history would you like to single out?
The 120th anniversary of relations between two friendly countries deserves a comprehensive overview of everything that we have done together, which in the case of Serbia and Cuba, covers a wide range of subjects, especially since 1959 with the Triumph of the Revolution. I will mention only a few examples. The official relations were established on November 4, 1902, when King Aleksandar Obrenović sent a congratulatory message to Tomás Estrada Palma, the new President of Cuba, on the occasion of his inauguration. In 1959, Commander Ernesto Che Guevara visited Yugoslavia as the head of a goodwill delegation. At that time, Che was received by Marshal Josip Broz Tito and stayed in Belgrade, Brioni and Kragujevac. During the visit, the two politicians discussed various topics.
Cuba and Serbia founded the Non-Aligned Movement together in 1961, and our country was represented by its then-president Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado, who, together with other leaders, planted a tree in the Friendship Park that is still there. Cuba resolutely opposed the NATO bombing (of Yugoslavia) and expressed solidarity with the Serbian people in the face of large-scale aggression by several powerful countries against a small European nation. The last two presidents, Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksandar Vučić, visited Cuba in 2015 and 2017 respectively.
Serbia does not recognize the US sanctions against Cuba, while Cuba supports Serbia in preserving its territorial integrity and sovereignty by not recognizing the independence of so-called Kosovo and voting against its membership in UNESCO and Interpol. Is the Cuban government facing any kind of pressure to change these decisions?
The position of support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia is a result of the historical feelings of friendship toward its people. This is a principled position of Cuban foreign policy that is not subject to possible changes. At the same time, Cuba appreciates the position of support for our resolution in the UN General Assembly, known as “Need to end the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the Government of the United States against Cuba”, a policy of sanctions that was implemented more than sixty years ago to suffocate the country.
The fact remains that Cuba is not a country in crisis nor is its population in danger
From the beginning of the sanctions until last year, they have caused quantifiable damages of more than 150 billion dollars, and have become the main obstacle to Cuba’s economic development. The sanctions have also included campaigns against the Revolution, and allegations that Cuba prevents religious freedom. To remind you, we are talking about the country where the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril took place in 2016. Similarly, the very aggressive measures imposed by President Donald Trump against our economy are still in force, and they are aimed at exacerbating our commercial and financial difficulties, and further lowering the living standard, while creating discontent and provoking violent acts. However, the fact remains that Cuba is not a country in crisis nor is its population in danger.
Cuba has complicated relations with America, and a developing and strong friendship with Russia, which is reminiscent of the relations from the Cold War period. Do you think that the current situation with the war in Ukraine can affect both the relations with these countries and the relations between Serbia and Cuba?
I see no reason why this factor should in any way influence relations with Russia, which are based on friendship, mutual respect and cooperation in all domains. Historically speaking, this has been true and will continue to be so. As for the United States, the intention of destroying the Cuban Revolution, by all means, has not changed. As our Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez explained, “the recipe is the extreme tightening of the blockade, causing deprivation to the average Cuban family, lowering wages, causing hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government.” Under these conditions, it is very difficult to improve bilateral ties. In the case of Serbia, we have no open issues that jeopardize our relations. On the contrary, a high-level political dialogue is taking place in a climate of understanding with mutual agreement on important issues relating to the international agenda. Our relations are in good health.
To quote our Foreign Minister Nikola Selaković, there is plenty of room to improve our relations in science and health care. Have the two countries been planning to do joint projects in these two areas? What is the current cooperation like?
Everyone is aware of Cuba’s advances in public health, with our health system being free, having high scientific rigour and available to the entire population. Added to this is the research, and through that research creating top-notch medication, particularly related to cancer treatment. The results achieved in battling the coronavirus pandemic are also well-documented and our researchers have managed to create three brand anti-corona vaccines, based on the programs developed since the Triumph of the Revolution. 90% of the population is fully vaccinated, which numbers nearly ten million people. By July 1, a total of 38 million doses of the Soberana 02, Soberana Plus and Abdala vaccines were administered. Currently, the number of infected people, on average, does not exceed 30 and since May there have been no deaths from the coronavirus. These indicators are achieved despite the criminal sanctions of the United States against Cuba. I believe that the existing potential for cooperation in this area is vast.
Also, Serbs are no strangers to the Cuban culture, be it Cuban film or music. Is it possible to create better tourist offers in Serbia and Cuba, so that our two nations can get to know each other even better?
With the pandemic under control, the country has reopened for tourism after a severe lockdown in the past two years. From December to June 26 of this year, 1,181 Serbian citizens visited Cuba, a figure that is still low compared to the 7,000 in 2019, before Covid-19 hit. There are well-known travel agencies that successfully sell tourist packages, with varied offers that include not only sun and beach tourism, but also interesting tours of our main cities, which are completely safe to visit. People can also travel individually, both for business or personal reasons and take part in events, as well as undergo medical treatment. The latter is quite successful and facilitates interest in coming back to Cuba. In any case, I always recommend making a first-time trip that should last at least two weeks – one week to be spent in Havana, especially the Old Havana, and one on the beaches, in Varadero or the northern keys. On a second visit, I suggest travelling to Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Trinidad, connected to the southern beaches, as well as visiting Pinar del Río, which produces the best tobacco in the world. There is a lot to see in our country and, even though it can be expensive for an average Serbian tourist to come to Cuba due to the geographical distance, it is worth a try.
With the pandemic under control, the country has reopened for tourism after a severe lockdown in the past two years
What trade results do you expect to see this year, in the post-pandemic period but in the situation where we have a crisis in Eastern Europe?
There is no doubt that the pandemic has affected the economic-commercial trade. The online seminar titled “Serbia-Cuba: Business Opportunities” was held recently, during which the representatives of the Cuban Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Serbia signed the 2022 and 2023 Action Plan. On the occasion, the seminar participants highlighted the importance of continuing to work on developing trade and cooperation ties for the benefit of both peoples, while also recognizing the will of both governments to promote them.
Serbia and Cuba foster excellent relations full of understanding. During your term as the Cuban ambassador in Serbia, what will you work on the most to nurture and improve the existing relations between the two countries?
My mission in this country is nearly finished, after four and a half years of hard work. This was a period in which I made numerous new friends, in addition to the existing ones and had to deal with difficulties, especially during the pandemic, but also had plenty of new experiences which I will fondly remember. Before my term as the ambassador expires, my plan is to continue working so that in the coming years, our bilateral relations can continue to grow and diversify, both countries can continue to identify and develop common areas of cooperation and we can support each other in regard to the most important issues.