Adios, Bajan amigos
Cuban envoy ending tour
Over the past four years, her face has been a very familiar one, not only in Barbados diplomatic circles, but at most –– if not all –– major cultural and social events.
From the moment she arrived back in September, 2010, up until now, Cuba’s Ambassador Lisette Perez Perez has totally immersed herself in the Barbadian culture and way of life; so much so that the Spanish-speaking diplomat now has her own top ten list of Bajan favourites.
This includes the names of her favourite places in Barbados to visit, her favourite food and her number one Bajan writer and calypsonian. Quite unlike many of her colleagues in the diplomatic community, the Cuban diplomat and her husband Orestes Hernandez have been sending their daughter to public school here for the last four years. It is thus no idle boast when she says ten-year-old Carolina in now “50 per cent Bajan”.
“I am very proud that she attended public school in Barbados . . . . It was a good experience I think she will never forget,” Ambassador Perez Perez said of the Luther Thorne Memorial School student, who is fluent in both English and Bajan dialect.
In fact, Carolina helps out her mother with translations of both from time to time.
During a relaxed interview in her Edgehill, St Thomas home –– which doubles as the Cuban Consulate Office –– the ambassador, whose tour of duty is nearing its end, expressed her gratitude to the staff and students of Luther Thorne for their warm embrace of Carolina.
She also reflected on her Barbados journey that saw her retracing the footsteps of the famous Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, whose 1958 chronicles of his life and work here had helped to form her impressions of the island ahead of her arrival in Bridgetown.
Carpentier’s biographical novel of French politician and colonial administrator Victor Hugues’ sought to present a detailed picture of Caribbean life during the French Revolution.
In those days, the Empire Theatre in Bridgetown was alive with artistic expression, and Carpentier, who wrote in the late 1950s from his Coral Reef hotel room on the west coast –– no doubt overlooking Barbados’ beautiful turquoise sea –– presented a romantic picture of an island with polite people, orderly traffic, clean roads.
Despite the passage of time, Ambassador Perez Perez says Carpentier’s portrayal of this “island paradise” is as vivid today as it was back then. “I know that the time changed, but I can identify with what he said,” the Cuban diplomat told Barbados TODAY as she sat in the spacious living room of her imposing home. “Barbados is still a safe country; clean; with friendly people,” she said.
Ironically, the island’s artistic community have had no place to call home since the Empire Theatre was abandoned in the 1970s. But they have been warmly embraced by the Cuban ambassador from the time she arrived, none more so than her favourite Barbadian artiste Gabby.
In fact, it would be no exaggaration to say the ambassador has sat at the feet of the “Bajan maestro” on the several occasions she and her husband have visited his home and rested on his floor for hours listening to him play Emmerton and his other Barbadian folk compositions.
The Cuban ambassador, who was also a regular visitor to the Oistins Fish Market and the popular Browne’s Beach, also reveres the renowned writer George Lamming, and has made a point of delivering a gift basket to his home every year on his birthday. “I don’t think Barbadians know how well respected and recognised he is in all of Latin America,” Perez Perez said, describing Lamming as a “deep, wise thinker”. “Being with him and Gabby has been the greatest privilege for me. I cry with Gabby’s songs, and I cry with Lamming’s books,” she told Barbados TODAY, while also singling out Barbadian Kamau Brathwaite as “one of the most sensible living poets of the Americas”.
Coming from the land of baseball, the ambassador says it has also been “exciting” to see Barbadians express a similar passion for cricket and other sports.
But just as it was in 1958 when Carpentier completed his masterpiece Explosion In The Cathedral, it is now in terms of the language barrier.
While there is greater cooperation in terms of the number of Barbados students going to Cuba to study and participating in Cuban health care programmes, she admits this obstacle is something both Barbados and its Spanish-speaking Caribbean neighbour of 11 million people still have to overcome.
The career diplomat, whose previous postings were at the United Nations, in Angola and Argentina, acknowledged that Barbados was her first “total immersion” in an English-speaking country.
“Barbados has been a learning experience in terms of language and other things.” And as her tour of duty comes to an end, Ambassador Perez Perez is taking with her many precious memories and indelible impressions, including a greater sensitivity towards the October 6, 1976 downing of the Cubana Flight 455 just off Paynes Bay, St James, in Barbados.
The ambassador, who has revisited the memorial site on every anniversary of this air tragedy, believes it is important to recognize the occasion.
“This is a sad story that we share,” she said, noting that “Barbados, Cuba and the entire Caribbean were victims of terrorism almost 25 years before [the deadly] 9/11 [bombings in the United States].
“From our perspective, we can’t lose this memory because we can’t allow it to happen again,” she added, noting that of the 73 people who died, 57 were Cubans, including the entire Cuban fencing team who had won gold medals at a regional competition in Caracas, Venezuela. The other victims were 11 Guyanese and five Koreans.
“[The remains of most of them are still in your deep waters and with all of these families, each October 6, we remember the speech in the Revolution Square by our commander-in-chief. We look out to the sea at midday.
“We feel that justice will come some day. You can’t say to the victims, ‘Forget that’.” Cuba has also been seeking justice on behalf of the Cuban Five, regarded as anti-terrorist fighters.
The Spanish-speaking Caribbean island has a sad story as a victim of terrorism, including the bombing of the Cubana airliner in 1976, and the suffering of such acts that caused more than 3,000 Cuban deaths and more than 2,000 injuries.
“That is why there is a mantle of silence around the Cuban Five because they only tried to prevent Cuba and other nations, including the United States, from these kinds of actions,” Ambassador Perez Perez said.
Another emotional chapter in the history of the Cuban story has been that on the United States economic embargo.
The ambassador notes that “every year your Government supports Cuba in the United Nations resolution and votes against the US blockade, which is very, very important to Cuba”.
“In fact, this is the island’s most important struggle, which has cost it more than $1 billion in resources.
“As the island’s authorities continue to call on the US, in particular President Barrack Obama to use his executive powers to remove the blockade,” the diplomat said, “we value the support of Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean.”
In the very recent past, Cuba and Barbados have also had the Raul Garcia matter.
The ambassador remains tight-lipped on this, which she acknowleged was “complicated”; but she said “this sort of thing happens [and] at the end of the day, our spirit is to try to facilitate”.
The Cuban diplomat, who was recently toasted at a “farewell” reception as “the best Cuban ambassador Barbados has every had”, offered: “We have a different type of democracy –– participatory democracy. Military people are part of our life.
“We don’t want to say that we are the best; but look at Cuba, what we have been doing without loans, with our own efforts.
“How can you say freedom when the people don’t read, or don’t have access to culture. My people can go to the theatre, see masterpieces, and hardly pay anything for that.
“Our people are very well informed, and the debate is very healthy. The people know what they want, and they don’t want to lose what they have. I don’t feel our people want to renounce those principles. We want to continue being independent.”
Ambassador Perez Perez, expressing satisfaction with her accomplishments in Barbados, has advised the island to protect its culture and ideals.
And as her tour of duty comes to an end,
the ambassador tells Barbados TODAY this island will always have a special place in her heart. She will especially miss the view of the “blue sea, the wonderful weather and the safety”.
“Barbados is very safe. Besides the buses and taxis ––which are crazy everywhere –– your island is a paradise,” she says.
Perez Perez is also leaving with a “good feeling” about Cuba/Caribbean cooperation, and intends to use her next job to help even more in that relationship. “I hope to continue reading your news and keeping up with Barbados,” the diplomat has pledged.
“I will do my best to continue highlighting the link with Barbados and the Caribbean,” promises Perez Perez, who is heading back to Havana to work directly at the Government’s Caribbean affairs desk.