A potent mix of human rights, civil liberties, culture and history strongly dominated President Michael D Higgins’s four-day official visit to Cuba this week.
The trip marked the first time an Irish head of state visited Cuba while in office. The fact that it comes during a particularly turbulent time in world affairs, and during Cuba’s historic transition from a relatively isolated state to one cautiously opening itself up to globalisation, appeared all the more appealing to the president.
“Michael D” as he was affectionately referred to by those who had come to join in the carefully co-ordinated programme, is widely known to follow keenly, politics and culture of Latin and South America, the evolution of which he told the audience during his speech at the opening of the Irish in Latin America exhibition, is “close to my heart”.
On Wednesday, he spent four hours with his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, including a bilateral meeting and a dinner at the Palace de la Revolucion. No agenda was set. A range of regional, national and global issues was discussed, including opportunities for greater Irish-Cuban trade and cultural links, as well as enhancing Cuba’s ties with the EU. Another matter close to the president’s heart is the rights of members of the LGBT community worldwide; which he said that he addressed with the Cuban leader.
The links between Ireland and Cuba were strongly portrayed through the two countries’ shared history of revolution, literature and freedom. The rebellious zeal of Cuban hero Ernesto Che Guevara Lynch was directly attributed to his descendants of the tribes of Galway. His father is once said to have commented: “In my son’s veins flowed the blood of Irish rebels.”
The founding father and strongly celebrated leader of the Cuban revolution, Jose Marti was influenced by and wrote often about the Irish struggle for independence; regularly drawing parallels between the two, while admiring some of Ireland’s most influential and expressive writers like Oscar Wilde and Jonathan Swift.
Irish writing was again the focus of heavy praise at the Havana International Book festival, where Mr Higgins launched the printing of Irish writer, Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea novel. It has the honour of being the only Irish novel to be printed in Cuba apart from James Joyce’s epic Ulysses.
Mr Higgins made another reference to the need for balancing freedom and justice during his speech at the University of Havana.
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