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Nigel Baker

Ambassador to the Holy See (2011-2016)

Part of UK in Holy See

21st September 2015

Cuba and the Church: from cocktail wars to a common future

19-09-2015 Cuba

Just over ten years ago, the European Union embassies in Cuba, including the United Kingdom, were involved in a stand-off with the Cuban government in Havana that became immortalised as “the cocktail wars”. Despite the seemingly frivolous impression given of the spat (which concerned the invitation to embassy receptions of dissident Cubans), there were deadly serious principles at stake. It was a dispute about freedom of speech, the right to disagree with your own government, and the right not to be imprisoned for your beliefs. And it led to over a year during which the Cuban government refused to engage with European diplomats based in Havana.

I was posted to the British Embassy in Cuba at the time. I had a dilemma. If I could not speak to Cuban officials – and almost all Cubans were employed by the state – with whom could I engage? One of the answers was the Catholic Church, and I got to know well many Cubans working for and with the Church as lay volunteers or in ministry in dioceses and parishes from Pinar del Rio in the west to Guantanamo in the east. The conditions in which they lived and worked were never easy, and often extremely tough. But I remember with great affection their enthusiasm, their welcome, and their firm gaze towards the future.

What I learned then has been reinforced by my impressions of the Pope’s visit now. That, outside the Communist Party, the Catholic Church in Cuba remains one of the few national institutions and networks to survive the 56 years of revolutionary government intact, despite severe persecutions and tight controls over its freedom of manoeuvre. That it retains credibility in a way that other national organisations, where they exist, do not. That it contains many brave and determined people, from dissidents to others who have made their accommodation with the regime without losing their faith. And that it will without doubt play a significant role in Cuba’s future.

That ten year old insight was one shared with the Holy See. It is no coincidence that successive Popes sent many of their best people to be diplomats in Havana. Nor that Cardinal Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, is the only Archbishop ever to have received visits in his diocese from three successive Popes (in 1998, 2012, and now 2015). The necessary process of reconciliation, of recovery and of rebuilding over the next decades in Cuba will be slow and difficult. But the Catholic Church will certainly play an important role in that process (as the Holy See did in the diplomatic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba last year). Pope Francis’ visit is another essential stepping stone on that journey.

About Nigel Baker

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as…

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba (2003-6) and then as British Ambassador in La Paz, Bolivia (2007-11). In July 2016, Nigel finished his posting, and is currently back in London.

As the first British Ambassador to the Holy See ever to have a blog, Nigel provided a regular window on what the Embassy and the Ambassador does. The blogs covered a wide range of issues, from Royal and Ministerial visits to Diplomacy and Faith, freedom of religion, human trafficking and climate change.

More on Nigel’s career

Nigel was based in London between 1998 and 2003. He spent two years on European Union issues (for the UK 1998 EU Presidency and on European Security and Defence questions), before crossing St James’s Park to work for three years as The Assistant Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. At St James’s Palace, Nigel worked on international issues, including the management of The Prince of Wales’s overseas visits and tours, on the Commonwealth, interfaith issues, the arts and international development.

Nigel spent much of the early part of his FCO career in Central Europe, after an initial stint as Desk Officer for the Maghreb countries in the Near East and North Africa department (1990-91). Between 1992 and 1996, Nigel served in the British embassies in Prague and Bratislava, the latter being created in 1993 after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

Nigel joined the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in September 1989. Between 1996 and 1998 he took a two year academic sabbatical to research and write about themes in 18th century European history, being based in Verona but also researching in Cambridge, Paris and Naples. The research followed from Nigel’s time as a student at Cambridge (1985-88) where he read history and was awarded a First Class Honours degree, followed by his MA in 1992.

Before joining the Foreign Office, Nigel worked briefly for the Conservative Research Department in London at the time of the 1989 European election campaign.

Nigel married Alexandra (Sasha) in 1997. They have one son, Benjamin, born in Bolivia in September 2008.

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