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Tim Cole

Former British Ambassador to Cuba

Part of UK in Cuba

31st August 2016 Havana, Cuba

Hasta la vista, Cuba!

That’s it. I’m off. It’s been four years. Four fascinating, complicated, frustrating, perplexing, wonderful years. Is Cuba the only country in the world where it’s simultaneously fast and furious and time stands still?

There’s been change. Obama came and went. In El Vedado, a Maserati now parks alongside a Moscvich. People now IMO their Miami cousins from the local park. The Pope was here, then Madonna. Four million tourists flood in to bask on beaches or chug along in a Chevy. Meanwhile cigar-scented, pastel-coloured, charming, intriguing Havana suffers. Will it survive the combined pressure of population density, climate change and tourism? Or will houses crumble, pavements crack and ugly, new hotels deface the picture postcard façade?

The economic and social model’s still being updated, Socialism 2.0 still being developed. There are some green shoots – biotech, pharma, IT start-ups. Casas & paladares of course. You can buy a private sector pizza on most street corners of every Cuban town. El Paquete and Revolico point to the creativity and dynamism of the country’s entrepreneurs. If there’s a gap in the market, a Cuban will find it and fill it. If something’s broken, an ‘invento’ will be found. The only bounds to inventiveness and ideas are the mountains of regulations and red tape (where is that not the case?).

However, much of this change still feels surface-thin. Underneath, the currents move less quickly. Whirlpools form; down deep, the dark waters slow. Peering through the gloom, forming a clear picture, understanding the subtle shifts and changes is daunting. Getting past the gatekeepers even more so.

The challenges are huge; an ageing population, youth emigration, a trade embargo imposed by the world’s biggest economy and economic strife in your most faithful partner would test any government. To unify the currencies – one of the toughest asks – the government needs reserves but how can it attract resources without currency unification? Foreign investment is vital but the profitability of state-owned enterprises, potential partners in a joint venture, is masked by an artificial peso-CUC exchange rate. Government investment, urgently needed to improve infrastructure, is restricted by low revenues. Consumers need to spend more but jobs aren’t being created quickly enough and pay is low.

What’s the solution? Finding oil? Export more cigars? The US? JetBlue? Unleash the entrepreneur? Cut the sky-high car, phone and internet costs? Cut red tape? Cross your fingers and wait and see? Cross your fingers and cross the sea? More internet? More taxation? More ideas? More change? More updates?

It’s not for me to say. Cubans will find the answers. To these questions and to the others I haven’t posed. Cubans will work out how to move the country from the analogue to superfast broadband age. How to develop a dynamic, connected, modern, job-creating country (whilst retaining the ride-in-a-1950s-Cadillac version loved by tourists). How to provide stimulating, fulfilling jobs for young people and comfortable retirement for pensioners. How to ensure everyone can achieve their ambition without having to look elsewhere. How to have a national debate that allows everyone to have a say without fear or sanction. How to ensure the shops are full, prices are affordable, people are educated and healthy, children are happy and the cousins visit from Florida or Spain. How to make sure their country doesn’t get left behind.

And what do I leave behind? Four years of BritWeeks, BritTalks, British boats and British bands. Business delegations, government ministers, sports organisations, choreographers, playwrights, actors, professors, experts, DJs and NGOs all flew in to share their experiences and learn. A British Foreign Secretary visited Cuba for the first time since the Revolution. The Rolling Stones rolled in and rocked. The Embassy moved to the Oriente for a week to show we really are here for all of Cuba and not just Havana. I travelled from Cocodrilo in Isla de la Juventud to Pinar del Rio to Punto de Maisi, visiting every single one of the country’s provinces and its only special municipality along the way. I watched umpteen baseball games, played cricket in Guantanamo (the town, not the Bay), played in a football match to mark the day when the British first brought the game here in the early 1900s, said goodbye to Cubans heading off to British universities on Chevening scholarships and welcomed others back after their year away.

Will I miss it? Of course I will. I’ll miss the country, culture and ‘Cubania’. I’ll miss the sun – too little of that in grey London where I am headed and the music and salsa – although I’ll have Alexander, Leoni, Maykel and El Niño on a loop at home. But most of all, I’ll miss my Cuban friends: the conversations, the laughs, the good times, the jokes, hearing about people’s fears and ambitions, their daily struggles, their hopes for a better future, their stories of the past. It’s always difficult leaving; I’m sorry to have to go. But one day I’ll be back.

Hasta pronto!

17 comments on “Hasta la vista, Cuba!

  1. Hello Mrs Shaw,

    We know little, but you have sold yourself short. There were many cogs to the wheel that gave us the Stones in Havana. Conservatively, 750,000 people are eternally grateful. You know the street banter here…. The Pope and Obama were just the warm up acts.

    In Scando speak “Toppo Loppen”.

    You set the standard by which many will be judged.


  2. Tim you have been an excellent ambassador to this country which I also love dearly. If you are ever in Camaguey, come and visit the Creole Choir of Cuba who I have taken all over the world as music ambassadors, and who I hope to bring back to the UK again. And if you and your ever need a bed for the night there, mi casa es su casa.

    Meanwhile I will keep plugging away at promoting music and shows and the modernisation of oceanography here which has been at a standstill for the last 25 years. Its a long haul.

  3. What a wise, caring summation!
    Thank you, Tim, for your annual hospitality over the last four years, and your generosity in helping us us to stand back and reflect on this, I can only say, extraordinary country.
    Best wishes to you, Clare and the children, e buena suerte en Londres. It’s raining here at the moment!

  4. Tim: Your hospitality has enriched many of our visits to Cuba over the years. You and your wife are delightful hosts, articulate representatives of your country and insightful speakers on the complexities and beauty of Cuba. Best of luck to you and your family back in London, and I hope your new residence is as beautiful as your current one – may our paths cross again.

  5. What a lovely farewell!
    So elegantly and eloquently summed up – I’m very glad you’re not my competitor as a journalist..!
    All the very best for the future.

  6. Thank you very much sir for being for four years part of my country I salute you from Miami Fl Cuba is a beautiful country with beautiful people is just the politic of Miami that haven’t allow us to be united The best to you sir

  7. Thank you Excellency, for the insightful words and all the fantastic work you did while here on the island shedding a different light on the image of the UK here; you bridged a long and winding road. You and your family will be sorely missed! Regresen pronto!!

  8. So much hasn’t changed since I left La Habana in 18 years ago. The magic is still there though and the Cubans’ humour and invention will continue. Hasta La Victoria Siempre!
    Will you be back in west London?

  9. I so enjoyed reading this, Tim. Hope to catch up somewhere, sometime. All best to you and yours.


  10. Tim,
    If I were eloquent, this is what I would have written last year on my departure (with a few tweaks – more baseball, less Britweeks). Captures the complexity and the joy of the diplomat’s job in Cuba the past few years. Really appreciate it and thank you for being a good friend in Cuba. I will track you down in London soon!

  11. Beautiful, informed and evocative. Nice work Tim.

    What a fantastic chapter in your life.

    Looking forward to seeing you in London.

    Andy x

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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.