Encounter

Inside his office, there is no trace of lavishness. There are no official portraits of the country’s president and that of the ambassador. It is a policy that was put in place by former Cuban President, Fidel Castro, that the people come first before any individual. Carlos Trejo Sosa, the Cuban Ambassador to Nigeria tells Stanley Nkwazema about the country’s 2018 elections, the first in several years

 Historic Moments of 1974
Carlos Trejo Sosa, the Cuban Ambassador to Nigeria, was full of praises for THISDAY. He just could not hide it.
“Your newspaper has paid a lot of attention to Cuba; we are pleased that information provided by you is balanced. You have portrayed the right Cuba – Nigeria relations. Be that as it may, in 2014 we celebrated our 40th anniversary of establishing formal diplomatic relations with Nigeria. It has been very cordial since the signing of the Lagos document of relationship. Despite the political movements, the relationship has been very cordial; it has been sustained over the years. We have been very frank in our dialogues especially on international affairs, African Affairs in which Cuba has been involved for so many. Cuban presence in Africa has been a long standing relationship even before most of the countries got their independence, more especially in the Southern part of the continent and other areas. Nigeria is not excluded,” he said.

Cuba and Nigeria since 1974
Sosa says his country has always considered Nigeria an important friend of Cuba and there are instances to back such up. The ambassador said, “If I can remember, President Olusegun Obasanjo was in Cuba twice during his tenure. Some Nigerian leaders have also visited Cuba. Just last year we received in Cuba the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Godfrey Onyeama. In the 70s and 80s and especially during the 90s, with regards to Nigeria, I will say that over 300 Nigerians studied in Cuba with full scholarship, from Cuba, we had sports trainers and doctors work here to improve the quality of health care and sports development and other areas.”
He laments that the economic crises of 2008 ensured Cuba could no longer sustain the effort because it went beyond her capacity and so the scholarship was reduced to the barest minimum.
“But we opened Cuba to students from several parts of the world as self-financed students which is a small contribution which cannot be considered as huge. For instance, foreign students attending one of the best medical schools in the world, in Cuba, for seven years including the compulsory one year language study don’t pay so much. It is affordable. Studying in Cuba is affordable and the quality of education is very high. It is nothing when compared to what you have to pay anywhere in the World, the Cuban diplomat noted.

Despite Blockade, We Survived
With the economic blockade which affected the island country badly, Cuba had to go without many essential things. The country had to think deep, dig deeper especially in the areas of research to overcome the difficulties. Perhaps, that was why the country recorded a lot of successes in the area of medicine; mainly in the healthcare delivery and orthodox medicine. Early enough, the late Fidel Castro understood that Cuba being a very small island, with very little resources, should concentrate her efforts at trying to produce something which they only needed their brains. Government then decided to prepare people in sciences mainly.

Speaking on that Sosa stated, “We had to be a country of scientists because we have free education system from nursery to doctorate levels. Not only in Cuba, but outside the island. More than 10 per cent of the Cuban population holds university degrees. We have a good number of doctorate degree holders in sciences, which gave us the raw materials to produce and do very well in research. The money was put to achieve results. For instance, in biotechnology and genetic engineering, Cuba is well advanced. I will say without being immodest, Cuba is well placed in these areas. The things we have produced in Cuba are not only for the Third World countries but also for countries that consider themselves highly developed. In Cuba, at the moment, we are producing the only vaccine against lung cancer which is now being tested in the United States and studies in many countries have been turning to be very good. We are now engaged in research with our partners in the US and some other countries. We also produce another drug which saves the legs of those who would rather have been amputated when they suffer ulcer provoked by diabetes. We have successfully saved them by more than 85 per cent. They have equally gone back to their normal lives. We are offering the services to Nigeria. A Nigerian company is working with Cuba and they are very near to obtaining the license to import and use the products here.”

Life after Fidel Castro
Everybody must die, but the death of that man (Fidel Castro) immediately affected the entire Cuban population. It was a big hit on the Cuban people. Cubans were used to being with him, solving all the problems for six decades.
“For us, it was like somebody that could not be lost. He died and left a legacy. We are trying to make the best out of his legacy. To use his teachings and apply the teachings because any country or generation looks more like there must be changes. Cuba is undergoing this process of changes quietly. We plan for many years in advance,” he added.

Cuba Democracy like no Other
Next year will be the end of the second tenure of Raul Castro. And no issue of self-perpetuation since he has already declared that he will not run again. He has proposed that Cubans and all elected bodies should not stay longer than two terms. Then there is also the proposal to the National Assembly to legislate on that issue.
“Next year he will end his second tenure and according to our democracy,” Sosa said. “The way we have prepared everything, we have not previously elected people to that position. So to be a President in Cuba, they guy has to contest local elections, elected as a Deputy, then elected to the National Assembly and elected there as a member of the council of states and then the Council will nominate him for post of President. There is no possibility whatsoever that previously chosen people can be. If that guy is not elected from the grassroots he cannot contest any post.

In Cuban democracy, Sosa says Deputies are not paid any salary.
“For instance, if I am a Diplomat and I am working at the Foreign Affairs and my people elect me as a Deputy, I will work as Deputy during my free hours and I receive only the salary as a Minister of Foreign Affairs. I will not touch any resources. You cannot have corruption because nobody touches the money and nobody receives. That is why it is sometimes hard for the people to accept to be elected as Deputy because they know they have to fulfill their duties. Then after that it is not very easy to win the Presidency of Cuba. Of course, the President and the Ministers are paid.”

Cuba and US Relations
The diplomat says his country worked with the Obama administration and there have been positive results. He adds that Obama could not solve all the problems of the embargo. Things have been done but not enough to empty the embargo as a policy.
“Only the Congress of the United States can completely lift the embargo or the prohibitions. Cuba signed 24 agreements with the Obama administration in different areas running from environment to medical collaboration, to many others. We hope that there would be cordial relations on both sides,” Sosa explains.

Cuba and Nigeria: Trade is Low
To Sosa, Nigeria and Cuba governments are not satisfied with the level of trade between the two countries. The commodities of exchange are not many or big. These include cigars, rum and also a little on the pharmaceuticals.
“But we can much more than that. We are prepared and we have been discussing with Nigerian authorities and we are now engaged on how to go beyond the point where we are now. Nigeria is a federation so we have also connections with the state governments that have interest in some areas with Cuba. They need scientific or medical assistance or drug production. I can name more than five states which are interested and we are exploring all the possibilities. You know all these things are not done overnight. It takes some time. Sometimes the governments do not have the capacity and you have to go through a lot of processes.”

Our Culture, Our Tourism: Same as Nigeria’s
Nigeria and Cuba have several things in common, Sosa declares. He says Nigeria’s fabrics are also worn in Cuba since the Cuban population is mixed with African descents.
“We have no pure white in Cuba. Those who claim to be white are not because we all have Nigerian genes and African genes. From the Ashantis, Swahili, Kalabaris, Ibibios, Yorubas and Igbo. We are all mixed. As we have in Africa, we keep most of their traditions particularly Yoruba and Igbo traditions are well kept as in practice.  My neighbour in Cuba is a Babalawo and my Deputy Head of Mission can attest to it.  We have lots of Babalawos and can even export them from Cuba to Nigeria,” Sosa says amidst laughter.

Speaking further, he says: “we have Yoruba and Igbo associations in Cuba which is the Centre for Caribbean Islands and Diaspora except for the United States and Brazil, but goes up to Colombia and others where we have Nigerian descendants. We also have an association of people from Calabar. In Cuba a national poet once said that ‘in this country people who do not have Congo gene, they have Kalabari gene’. That was a poet who passed on 20 years ago. We have Sango, Yemoja, Osun and all of them. We perform and have continued with the traditions same way it is done in Nigeria. The previous Ooni, Late Oba Sijuade Okunade, visited Cuba. The new Ooni, Enitan Ogunwusi, has been invited to come to Cuba. I had him here in my residence in Abuja for three days where we hosted him and mixed with different people. All the Obas came here. So also the Alaafin of Oyo; we have invited him to Cuba. We are also working with the Igbos and the Kalabaris.”

Improving the Relations
Sosa says Nigeria and Cuba have a common interest, adding that Nigeria is strongly placed and we need to strengthen cultural and family relationship between the two sides. He discloses that many Cubans have the same roots to Nigeria.
“It is not possible not to take that into account. We need to strengthen that relationship beyond the point where we are now. Economic crises affect people not only Cuba but Nigeria too. You know where we are about 7,000 kilometres to Cuba and we don’t have a direct flight from here to Havana. We have to go through Europe or America. The direct link has been proposed for a very long time, years ago, and I am still assured there is still an agreement between the two sides to establish direct flight. There are also economic possibilities and we think that could be done. We have many Cubans who want to come to Nigeria to meet or visit their ancestral homes, to see where the places where their great grandparents were born. I had the opportunity as I went to Ife thrice and I was there knowing that I am a descendant from there. My great grandfathers came from there; I was also given a name, Omowale and my wife also by the Kingmakers from the Ooni’s Palace. Our links are getting stronger and we should take advantage of that. The fore-bearers of Cuba were from Africa, mostly Nigeria, and my root is likely here.

In Love with Nigeria
“I love Nigeria,” Ambassador Sosa declares. “I feel at home in this country. I am not a foreigner here. Of course I know I don’t have the right to vote or be voted for. I see myself as a Nigeria. The staffs in the embassy also feel likewise. We have been trying a lot to see that we strengthen the relationship between both countries to a higher level. I am the only so called ‘white’ here, my wife is a mulato; her grandfather was born in Nigeria. My staff are being ‘adopted’ everywhere we go. That is why we want to promote the relationship between both countries so that nobody could be able t break the strong tie.”

Medical Tourism: Cuba Offers Better than Others
Sosa admits Nigeria is spending billions of dollars on the so-called medical tourism.
“In Cuba we provide the highest level in Medicare in any area. Europeans, Arabs and Americans come to Cuba to receive medical treatment because there is a big difference. I received here recently a lady trained in America whose sister had skin cancer. She was treated here and in India, but it was a big failure. She is about going to Cuba.  Mind you, I am not trying to look down on the services in the two countries mentioned. The expenses for one year treatment including feeding and accommodation are very small or minimal than anywhere in the world. We are also working with the Nigerian farmers on ideas on how to bring to Nigeria in the future our specialists to provide assistance.”