My First Blog: Anglo-Cuban collaboration


Blog #1 – 26 September 2016

My First Blog: Anglo-Cuban collaboration

I have had a working relationship with Cuban leaders and their Ambassadors in London for the best part of 40 years. It became closer and always both frank and cordial when I had responsibility for Anglo-Cuban relations as a Foreign Office minister in the mid-2000s.

And closer still when working with their finance institutions to re-instate normal banking relationships disrupted four years ago by a misplaced fear in UK banks of US hostility. They failed to recognise the progress of normalisation and in retrospect they certainly misread President Obama’s intentions.

So a strong relationship flowered. Cuba was changing. Together we began to figure out potential investment flows. With great support from Salamanca Group’s fellow directors and equally sound advice from Cuba’s financial leadership we deepened the relationship. The USA through Presidential Executive Orders began to correct the course of a dysfunctional approach. The Cuban parliament with sound foresight rewrote much of its commercial law and opened for business. They were attentive to their priorities but also outward facing.

Happily, I believe Salamanca Group is within weeks of an historic announcement in its relationship with Cuba. This Blog will try to provide a regular assessment of progress and opportunity as we create, together with the Cubans, a new financial hub.

There’s no better time to take stock and acknowledge the hard work of others. A good time because last weekend we saw two striking, contrasting news stories. The first was about the Donald Trump’s pyrotechnic announcements, straight from a deeply reactionary play list. He would undo everything done by President Obama on Cuba by Executive Order. He would throw back the diplomatic process several decades.

The second was the findings of research at the Florida International University Steven J Green School of International and Public Affairs. Long-term research by Professors Guillermo Grenier and Hugh Gladwin on the attitudes of Cuban Americans showed 70 per cent of Cuban-Americans in Florida support the decision to open diplomatic relations with Havana and 63 per cent oppose the embargo. Support among the young was still more pronounced.

As Dylan once said: ‘The times they are a-changing’. Who has driven change on Cuba in the UK? In another Blog I want to describe the constant work of Lord John Hutton, leader of The Cuba Initiative, Brian Wilson (another former minister) whose commitment to Cuban trade relations is legendary, and Hugo Swire MP, who achieved more in a Conservative government than we ever managed in three Labour administrations. It has been great working with each of them.

Today I’d like to acknowledge an exceptional Ambassador, Tim Cole, who has just left Havana. I first knew him as a dynamic diplomat in Africa, focused on ending conflict. He certainly, with his wife Clare, brought the same energy to Havana. The relentless encouragement of trade and cultural exchanges culminating in the first visit to Havana by a UK Foreign Secretary (Philip Hammond) followed by the Rolling Stones, have built a solid base for the future. He obviously galvanised some fine staff in his embassy.

And it really has been about building the future which motivated a successful mission. Promotion of student exchanges, especially Chevening Scholarships, ensuring women were front and centre particularly in sciences and engineering, and sponsoring other exchanges are all solid investments in Cuba and the UK alike. Over 90 students have held Chevening Scholarships in 24 years. As the minister once responsible it fills me with hope and confidence.

Much as the older Cubans love baseball, Tim also brought them football and cricket. He even played in the football match marking the day in the early 1900s when Britain brought football to the island. In a funny way it has always helped that we are two island people.

So Tim made a real difference. He has just left Havana. Like all ambassadors he had the tricky job of encouraging closer, more amicable relations whilst also carrying the less popular messages from time to time as instructed by their capital.

If our future is outside the EU, if new trade and stronger global friendships are our mantra, then ambassadors like Tim will be invaluable.

In Salamanca Group we have the same inspiration, even the same passion about football. The wider tests will be how others including the London major banks step up. We can’t be trapped by positions which belong to the past and were probably never wise. I can say we won’t be limited in this way and I profoundly hope it will be the approach the UK adopts.