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Tim Cole

Former British Ambassador to Cuba

Part of UK in Cuba

20th November 2014 Havana, Cuba

Diplomacy: time for a revolution?

A lot of people call me ‘Your Excellency’. Some do so nervously, clearly uncomfortable as they shake my hand, unsure how they should greet me. On one occasion a guest to a reception, perhaps confused by my regal bearing, even curtsied to me! All this comes with the job. And calling an ambassador ‘Your Excellency’ is rooted in history when ambassadors used to mingle in receptions rooms with Kings and Queens, when no-one used first names and everyone addressed everyone else formally, curtsying and bowing away until their knees and necks were stiff.

But ambassadors aren’t actually particularly excellent. Some days we are perhaps, but most days we are probably no more than fairly average. And we are all very normal people. You might have met some stuffy diplomats in your time – I certainly have – but most are friendly, down-to-earth and fun. A snap survey of the diplomats working in the British Embassy here in Havana is revealing; none speak Latin, 80% would prefer to listen to Jessie J than Tchaikovsky and only one claimed he could tell the difference between French and Australian wine in a blind-tasting (no, I don’t believe him either). Just like you, they worry about paying off the mortgage, how to make ends meet, how the kids are doing at school. Honest, hard-working folk.

But our tradecraft – diplomacy – is fairly stuffy. Wrapped in layers of protocol it involves strange rituals and relies on the subtlety of language, quite often someone else’s. We communicate through ‘Note Verbale’ – an official missive in which the Embassy expresses its esteem for the host government before informing them about a forthcoming visit by a dignitary or complaining that the pavement outside needs fixing. The rules determining how diplomats operate change from country to country; some governments impose multiple layers of bureaucracy, make it difficult for you to meet decision-makers or complicate your visits to towns outside the capital.

In his excellent blog ‘the Naked Diplomat‘, my colleague in Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, breaks all this down and argues for a much more streamlined, modern diplomacy where the layers of protocol are stripped away and communication is more direct and more personal. Diplomacy for the 21st century. Diplomacy for the digital age. I concur with Tom’s ideas and would love to see them applied in Cuba. Here, diplomacy is ritualised, communication very formal and bureaucracy reigns supreme. In fact I’m going to start applying his ideas myself. No more notes verbales please; send me an email instead. Or send me a text. DM me on Twitter. Or just call me. And when you do, please call me Tim. Or, if you forget my name, ‘Your Fairly Averageness’ will do.

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About Tim Cole

Hi! I’m Tim Cole, the British Ambassador to Cuba. I arrived in Havana in August 2012 and presented my credentials as British Ambassador the following month. I’ve been a diplomat…

Hi! I’m Tim Cole, the British Ambassador to Cuba. I arrived in Havana in August 2012 and presented my credentials as British Ambassador the following month. I’ve been a diplomat since 2001; before Cuba, I spent 5 years in London where I worked on Pan-African policy and global economic issues and 6 years in southern Africa as Deputy Head of Mission in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Most of my career has been in Africa as before joining the FCO I ran humanitarian aid programmes in Central Africa for the British NGOs Christian Aid and Save the Children. I’m married to Clare and we have 2 children – Jonathan and Zea.

The idea of this blog is to tell you what the British government is doing in Cuba and why. If you enjoy the blog and want to read more, please follow me on Twitter.