Minister of Foreign Affairs [Mrs. Rodrigues-Birkett]: Thank you Mdm. Deputy Speaker, and may I also reciprocate your kind greetings for a happy New Year to you, my colleagues in the National Assembly, members of the media, staff of the Parliament Office and others present in the National Assembly.
It is with a sense of great pride and honour that I stand on behalf of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic Government to present this motion celebrating the 40th Anniversary since we established diplomatic relations with Cuba. Unfortunately, as you mentioned, the distinguished Ambassador could not be here with us because of a bout of flu and we wish him a speedy recovery. He has, nevertheless, sent his best regards.
I would also like to welcome Mr. Halim Khan, the Vice President of the Guyana-Cuba Friendship Association.
Mdm. Deputy Speaker, Colleagues of the National Assembly, it is not very often that our National Assembly meets to consider relations with another country in this manner – by way of motion. We enjoy excellent relations with many countries and for that we are thankful and appreciative. However, for the Government and people of Guyana, this island state of approximately eleven million resilient people is not just a good and consistent friend to Guyana, this humanitarian giant called Cuba is special. Whilst diplomatic relations with Cuba was established on the 8th December, 1972, the People’s Progressive Party’s (PPP) relationship with Cuba started close to two decades before that. Indeed, our relations began following the Cuban Revolution in 1959 under Dr. Cheddi Jagan who desired to pursue a political and commercial relationship with Cuba. It was under Dr. Jagan’s leadership, in 1961, that Guyana exported rice to Cuba representing six per cent of all its exports for that year. Mdm. Deputy Speaker, your good self and the National Assembly are aware of the pressures of that particular period. This act of trade, therefore, made us one of the first countries, in a way, to break the economic blockade. Cuba in turn provided cement and oil, oil which it received from the Soviet Union, I am advised, to Guyana.
It will be remiss of me if I did not recognise that indeed the political misfortunes of the PPP, which was engineered by forces in foreign lands, including the removal and the prevention of the PPP from returning to Government, had a lot to do with the principled and good relationship it enjoyed with Cuba and the fact that it shared similar ideas on what it wanted for our people.
There is a book written by Stephen G. Rabe, an American historian, and the book is called “The US Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story” and this is what it states, on pages 80 and 81:
“The John F. Kennedy administration tried to prevent Cheddi Jagan and the PPP’s August 1961 electoral victory. With the Cold War coming to the Western Hemisphere, in the form of the Cuban Revolution, the Kennedy administration would accept only those Western Hemisphere governments that unequivocally denounced communism and assented to US foreign policy positions.”
He went on to say on page 81:
“In the case of British Guiana, the President’s actions also belied his rhetoric about respecting nationalism. Kennedy saw Jagan and the PPP through the prism of revolutionary Cuba.”
Robert F. Kennedy, his brother – this is also in this book - said that what happened in British Guiana might determine the future of South America. Kennedy conceded that it was a small country, but Cuba was also small and it caused a lot of trouble.
There was a certain degree of paranoia during that time and that is also captured in this book. I just want to read a bit about that because it is important that we sometimes know what went before us and for the purposes of our younger people. It states here, referring to Governor Grey, Governor-General of Guiana at that time, that he was investigating alarms sounded by US officials. This is what it stated:
“In February 1962, for example, US Consul Everett Melby relayed intelligence that a Cuban vessel, the Bahia de Santiago de Cuba, carrying fifty tons of arms, had docked in Georgetown’s harbor. Grey ordered his security personnel to board the vessel. They found secondhand printing machinery on board. The ship left Georgetown after loading the rice that British Guiana’s farmers had sold to Cuba.”
I am advised that the Hon. Member Gail Teixeira and Minister Rohee would know about that printing press and how it worked very well for us.
In another case, as is stated here too, and this was what was being reported by the US officials:
“The Cubans allegedly deposited an arms cache on the western coast of Venezuela, more than 1,000 miles from Georgetown.”
Of course, Governor Grey said that the people who sent out those reports looked at maps because at one thousand miles from here would have been some other place.
The man, himself, who was the subject of all of this, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, in his book The West on Trial, also spoke about that period, and it is interesting what he said. He was quoting, actually in his book, from an article which was published by a US columnist, Drew Pearson. The headline of the article was “Castro and Jagan” and this was what he quoted from the article:
“The United States permitted Cuba to go communist purely through default and diplomatic bungling. The problem now is to look ahead and make sure we don’t make the same mistake again. We are already on the way to making it in Haiti, but in British Guiana, President Kennedy, having been badly burnt in the Bay of Pigs operations, did not look ahead. Though it was never published at the time, this was the secret reason Kennedy took his trip to England in the summer of 1963. He had promised Premier Fanfani and Chancellor Adenauer to go to Rome and Bonn, but London was added to the itinerary only because of Kennedy’s haunting worry that British Guiana would get its independence from England in July, 1963, and set up another communist Government under the guidance of Fidel Castro.”
It also spoke about the strike and these were Dr. Jagan’s words. I am speaking about Cuba.
“Without their help of nearly $100,000 per week for strike relief, the strike would have collapsed in a couple of weeks. And without the help of the Cuban Government, which supplied us with kerosene and gasoline, we would have been forced out of office. When the Cuban tanker arrived there was only one day’s supply left in the storage tanks of the Electricity Corporation, and the emergency supplies of the police were running low.”
I make these points to say that the PPP’s relationship is much deeper than anything else, as it relates to Cuba. But lest I be accused of quoting from books - I heard one Member mumbling that the reviews were not very well - let me quote from some official documents. I have these in my possession. This document, here, is one, again, from the US officials based in Guyana and it has to do with deliberately keeping Dr. Jagan out of office. It is from Richard Lehman, the Deputy Director of Current Intelligence to Intelligence Cushman of Washington, here it is speaking about the continuation of financial support to the political party in office at that time in Guyana. That was in 1969. [Ms. Teixeira: 1969?] Yes. It was 1969.
“It is probably too late to call the operation off, but it is getting…”
I cannot use this next word in the National Assembly. There is a word before the word “expensive”.
“…expensive. The best result we can hope for will be the continuation of something like the present shaky coalition, maintained in power by fraudulent means, and as paralyzed as ever by Negro-East Indian enmity. On the other hand, if we do not put up the money we will eventually be faced - but probably not for three or four years - with an English speaking communist state in this hemisphere. In fact, even with funding at this level we may not be able to prevent such an outcome, or at least a bloody little mess which will require forceful intervention from outside. The question is therefore whether to spend the money in the hope of not saddling the next administration with ‘another Cuba’."
I am proud that our country did not bow to the pressures of that time. I think the situation, in 1969, was one where – this is a fact indeed - several of the countries in the English speaking Caribbean had just attained independence and the leaders of that era, the Excellencies Forbes Burnham, Eric Williams, Michael Manley and Errol Barrow were, no doubt, wary of following the dictates of foreign lands. Indeed, they were on the threshold of shaping their own destiny and eager to make their mark in their newly independent countries, and so it was for Prime Minister Forbes Burnham, who was Prime Minister at the time of Guyana’s independence from Great Britain. Even as the Cold War dominated the geopolitical realities of the early 1970s there was a sense of political and economic hope bounded, nevertheless, by the small size and other constraints of limited capacity.
The enthusiasm that independence brought also saw greater participation and leadership by the newly independent Caribbean states in international affairs. During this time the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Caribbean Community, in the form of Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) at the time, the African Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) and the Lome Agreement were evolving, whilst oil prices created many difficulties for both developing and developed nations. Guyana was hosting the first major meeting of the foreign Ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement in August, 1972. It would have been the first international meeting in the Western Hemisphere outside the realm of the United Nations following Comandante Fidel Castro’s revolution. Cuba, at that time, was already suspended from the Organization of American States (OAS).
Whilst those developments were taking place the United States of America was keeping a watchful eye on Guyana, conducting its assessments and making predictions on what positions Guyana, under Forbes Burnham, will take in international fora. In a telegram dated May 1970, an analysis was done and this is one of the declassified documents. Under section D, “Burnham and Foreign Policy”, this is what it states:
“While he is not unaware of the risks involved, Burnham is also a bit intrigued by the supposed benefits that would derive from increased trade and contacts with the Soviet bloc. He entertained a Czechoslovak trade mission in 1968 and was disappointed that nothing materialised from it. More recently he has put out fielders to East Germany and an East German trade representative is expected here in Guyana in the next few days. Undoubtedly Guyana will be less prone in the future to support automatically western initiatives in international forums and it may well oppose the west on some key issues, including Cuba, given the right circumstances. Yet, Burnham is smart enough and realistic enough to know the perils of going too far and will attempt to steer a thoroughly uncommitted course. He will also, of course, attempt to lead the countries of the English speaking Caribbean along a similar route.”
That assessment, in part, was wrong. It felt that continuing with assistance would deter the Prime Minister from going Cuba route. However, discussions had already commenced between the Government of Guyana and the Government of Cuba, in terms of establishing diplomatic relations.
Guyana then courageously extended an invitation to Cuba to attend the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in August, 1972. That was in the face anti-Cuba sentiment in the hemisphere – rabid anti-Cuba sentiment, if I can say. I have had the benefit of speaking with one of my predecessors, Mr. Rashleigh Jackson, who was Permanent Secretary, at the time, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He told me that discussions started a while before the NAM meeting and it was hoped, by Cuba, that the announcement of establishing diplomatic relations would have been made at the NAM meeting in Guyana. To use the words of another predecessor, Sir Shridath Ramphal, “We were already skating on thin diplomatic ice.” As such it was felt that, given the pressures of that time, it would be better to get the three other independent Caribbean nations on board - Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
Following the NAM meeting (Of course, Cuba was present at the NAM meeting and discussions were held there between Sir Shridath, the Minister of External Relations and the representative of Cuba) the Prime Minister Burnham, himself, made contact with his colleagues, the distinguished Prime Ministers Eric Williams, Errol Barrow and Michael Manley. Those discussions were followed up with by my predecessor Sir Shridath Ramphal. The Declaration of the Seventh Heads of Government Conference of Commonwealth Caribbean Countries, in October 1972, states, as follows: “The four independent countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean will seek early establishment of relations with Cuba, and to this end will act together on the basis of agreed approaches.’’ That was a public declaration.
Those discussions went very well, and on the 8th December, 1972 the English speaking Caribbean diplomatic embargo was broken when Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago together established full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Simeon Neville Selman, Guyana’s acting High Commissioner to Canada and Oliver Jackman signed the agreement for Guyana and Barbados in Ottawa with the Cuban Ambassador Jose Fernandez signing on behalf of Cuba. Of course, the Guyana’s embassy in Cuba was established in February, 1976.
Whilst the PPP was not in Government at the time, we fully supported the position taken by the Government. Indeed we were elated with this development since, as I mentioned before, our relations with Cuba started a long time before. Cuba now has diplomatic relations with more than one hundred and ninety countries and institutions, including all fourteen independent Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries. Indeed the Heads of Government of CARICOM in December, 2002, in which it was the 30th Anniversary, agreed to designate the 8th of December as Cuba/CARICOM Day and every three years the Heads of Government of CARICOM meet in one of the Caribbean territories or Cuba, alternating their place of meeting.
Guyana has consistently supported Cuba in the hemisphere and beyond. It has voted year after year in the United Nations for the removal of the unjust economic blockade imposed by the United States of America. We took a decision – I was honoured to be part of that - to have Cuba in the Rio Group. In 2009, we actively supported the rescission of Cuba’s suspension from the OAS which was imposed in 1962. With the advent of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean nations (CELAC), where Cuba is a full member, we congratulate Cuba as she takes leadership of this organisation from Venezuela this year. We did all of this - not only because Cuba is a good friend to us, not only because Cuba has provided our country with immeasurable assistance, not only because Cuba has stood together with us in good times and in bad - we supported Cuba in all of those areas because it was the right and principled thing to do. Guyana will continue to stand in solidarity with Cuba and to extend its support and friendship to this great nation.
It is very clear that Cuba remembers the act of solidarity and courage shown by Guyana and the other three countries in 1972. It has consistently forged and strengthened its relations with Guyana through cooperation agreements in the areas of health, education, culture, sport and agriculture, among others. Guyana has been receiving Cuban medical personnel since 1978. They have provided health care and services to Guyanese at home and to those who have travelled to Cuba for specialist treatment at little or no cost. I am sure that every Guyanese can identify with at least one Cuban professional or one Cuban trained professional.
Guyana has benefited from hundreds of scholarships with the majority being in medicine. Indeed Mdm. Deputy Speaker, Guyana has the largest contingent of scholarship students from the CARICOM, as we speak, studying in Cuba. The Operation Milagro programme and the three diagnostic centres in different regions of Guyana perhaps best illustrate the value of our relationship.
To say that Cuba’s generosity to Guyana has to do with the courageous position we took back in 1972 would be rather uncomplimentary to this great nation. This country, which has an economic blockade for over five decades, is a friend to the entire developing world. Since the Cuban Revolution, in 1959, twenty-seven thousand professionals from one hundred and nineteen countries have graduated from Cuban institutions. Of this total, five thousand are from the Caribbean and five hundred and fifty-four are from Guyana. The National Assembly has been a beneficiary. We have with us today Dr. Jennifer Westford and Dr. Norton, and from all indications, and my own experience, they are very good doctors who have studied in Cuba. Currently Cuba has twenty-four thousand foreign students studying there of which three thousand are from the Caribbean and seven hundred and fifty-seven are from Guyana. This is no easy feat for a country with an economic embargo, but, as I said, before the Cuban people are a resilient group of people and altruism is characteristic of them.
To speak about Cuba, its achievements, its resilience, its focus on human development and the immeasurable assistance it has given to sister countries and its place in the international, cannot be done without paying tribute to the visionary, determined, revolutionary behind it all, Comandante Fidel Castro Ruiz. The achievements have been many but one stands out and that is in the area of health. In the August 2010 issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs an article titled “Will lifting the Embargo make things Worse?” and is written by Laurie Garrett - those of us who read that magazine would know the leanings of it - even that magazine had to admit that Cuba is a world leader in the area of health. I quote what is stated there.
“Under the Castro’s brothers’ rule, Cubans life expectancy has increased from fifty-eight years in 1950 to seventy-seven years in 2009.”
The article went on to state, and I quote:
“According to the WHO, Cuba has the second lowest child mortality in the Americas…”
The United States of America places third by the way.
“…and the lowest per capita HIV/AIDS.’’
Today, as we pay tribute to our relations with Cuba, let us also pay tribute to Comandante Fidel, not only for what he has done for Guyana, but for humanity in general. We must also pay tribute to his brother President Raul Castro Ruiz for his leadership of the Cuban people and continued support to Guyana. We wish them both long life and good health.
Through you, Mdm. Deputy Speaker, let me say to the Government and people of Cuba,
Guyana values greatly its relationship over these forty years of diplomatic relations and the bonds of friendship which it enjoyed even before that. We express our gratitude for all the assistance they have given to us over these many years, especially in the area of human development. We will continue to advocate for the end of the economic blockade against their country. We wish President Raul Castro Ruiz and the people of Cuba every success as we continue to work for the benefit of our people.
Spanish translation of the above paragraph.
Guyana valora mucho nuestra relación durante estos cuarenta (40) años de relaciones diplomáticas y de los lazos de amistad que gozamos incluso antes de eso. Expresamos nuestra gratitud para toda la asistencia que se nos ha dado durante estos años especialmente en el área del desarrollo humano. Continuaremos a abogar por el cese del bloqueo económico contra su país. Deseamos al Presidente Raul Castro Ruiz y los pueblos Cubanos muchos éxitos mientras continuamos a trabajar en beneficio de nuestros pueblos. Muchas gracias a Cuba.
Viva Cuba Viva Guyana. [Applause]
Mrs. Rodrigues-Birkett (replying): I thank all of my colleagues who spoke on this motion, especially those who shared with us their own experiences from that period.
I like to flatter myself that it was the establishment of diplomatic relations between Guyana and Cuba that heralded my mother’s pregnancy and then my birth. I say this to say how thankful I am for some of the experiences of that time that were shared with this honourable House and, by extension, our society.
I can stand proud as a citizen of Guyana and as a Member of Parliament in this House because of the many brave positions our country has taken over successive administrations and governments, whether it had to do with the end of apartheid, whether it had to do with independence for Mozambique, Papau New Guinea or Cape Verde or whether it had to do with Palestine. We have all united across party lines on these issues.
I take note of the point made by the Hon. Member Dr. George Norton, about Cuba doing so much for us and the world, at large, and maybe we should look at what else we can do. I would like to let the Hon. Member Dr. Norton, through you, Mdm. Deputy Speaker, know that with respect to the trade agreement between CARICOM and Cuba, Guyana has asked for a meeting in the first quarter of this year and Guyana’s position is very clear that that trade agreement should be concluded, and we will work to, for want of a better word, convince the other Members of CARICOM to have that agreement concluded. We have already started some discussions in CARICOM about what our countries can do for Cuba.
I think this day is a very significant, historical day. As I said before, we have agreement here by all the parties in this House, and, by extension, I would say, by all the people of Guyana, on this motion. We would not only vote to continue the excellent relations we enjoy to wish the Government and people of Cuba very well, but also to end the economic blockade. This is the first time in this National Assembly that we will be voting to continue to call for the end of the economic blockade.
Now that we have unanimity on this motion, I think it sets the stage for the rest of our business in this National Assembly. I hope that we will be able to use our methods in terms of how we deal with foreign policy to deal with domestic policy.
With that, I would like to indicate that with respect to the amendments, I have had discussions with the Hon. Member Rupert Roopnarine and I have asked that the amendment tabled by APNU be the second WHEREAS clause, about the motion being substantially about Guyana and Cuba’s 40th Anniversary. The amendment by APNU would become the second WHEREAS clause and my amendment would become the third WHEREAS clause. With that, I ask that this motion be passed as amended.
I thank you. [Applause]