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January Saturday

Josefina Vidal: “We are Constructing a New Type of Relationship”

josefina vidalJosefina Vidal Ferreiro has been closely linked to culture, language and the US political and academic events since she left to study in the former Soviet Union in 1979.

She does not exaggerateeven if she expresses herself in a strong manner at times. Josefina explains the most complex issues in a comprehensive way. Her communication abilities have served her well during her conversations with US government representatives during the past year, first in the establishment of diplomatic relations and later towards normalizing the ties with our country.

We arrived to her office at the Foreign Ministry in search for answers.
-Are you still optimistic after a little over a year of December 17th, 2014?

-I continue working with a high dose of impulse and optimism but I am also realistic because there is currently an electoral process in the United States; we do not know what will happen.

"There is only a year left to work with the current administration and on Cuba's part there is a commitment to continue advancing and we see a lot of possibilities of achieving our objective. But in reality it will be less than a year for the presidential elections to be held in the US; speaking politically it is only until the summer"

"There are many things out of our control, but we will continue with the conviction that Cuba and the United States have no other destiny but to live together with respect, because life has demonstrated that confrontation does not benefit anyone".

-Can the process be reversible?

-I have read what academics and intellectuals have written with interest, even members of Congress who categorically say that the process is irreversible. I would not be absolute. There are some aspects that are irreversible.

"I cannot image a new president, whomever it may be, saying that he or she would break diplomatic relations with Cuba and shut down its embassy. There are other issues that can change like cooperation in different areas, repeal some of the instruments adopted by an executive order or by means of inaction".

"As long as Obama takes quick steps in the economic-commercial areas he will be assuring, if not totally, the irreversibility of issues, because the business world is one of the essence of the US system".

-A while ago you were speaking about relating in a respectful manner, how can we achieve this and what are the main challenges for Cuba?

-President Raul Castro said: living together in a civilized manner on the basis of respecting our differences. This is a pending issue. Cuba has never had a civilized relation with the US and we want: respectful and on an equal basis.

"That is why I say that we are constructing a new type of relationship, a route never seen before, offering joint working opportunities in issues that affects us both but at the same time these are challenges because we are coming from a stage of very harsh confrontation".

-Despite the difficult relationship we have had some kind of cooperation. Remember the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 or the fight against Ebola in western Africa in 2014.

-Even before that. What happened was that these were not accompanied with the political will of cooperation in its broad sense. For example we have relations with the US Coast Guard since the 1990's. They were centered in the issue of illegal migration.

"With time we realized that we had to go much further, because we are geographically close to each other and maritime accidents can occur and we included search and rescue issues. They realized that it was important to cooperate in fighting drug trafficking at least in prevention, competence of the Coast Guards. But there was no legal instrument regulated in the obligations of both sides which is still pending".

"Once the diplomatic relations was established we began looking for instruments to design formal cooperation guidelines. We adopted a joint general declaration in areas like the environment; now we must make adjustments. We have done the same with the fight against drug trafficking, have exchanged different draft proposals in order to reach an agreement".

"We pretend to have high level meetings early this year between the Cuban Health Ministry and the US Department of Health and Human Resources to iron out cooperation actions on the basis of joint interests".

-However, the issue of health is a contradiction with the Parole Program for Cuban Medical Professionals created in Washington.

-They know about it and wepermanently remind them. Not only is it a contradiction with the specific aspect of cooperation, but with the general bilateral issues that Washington is allegedlyin the interest of moving forward with Cuba.

-This program –as the case of the dry foot wet foot policy- can be changed by President Obama because they are not laws.

-It is a policy, a program. He can announce an end to this unjust policy. In the current context the Parole Program is out of date as the case of the dry foot wet foot policy which not only stimulates illegal migration but encourages irregular exodus of Cubans because the majority of the people that are now attempting to cross the borders in Central America have legally left the island.

"Beyond the dry foot wet foot policy there is the Cuban Adjustment Act. Although it's in the hands of Congress to repeal the law what is stipulated is that the Attorney General has discretionary powers to adjust the status of the Cuban citizens that are found in irregular situations".

"It does not say its obligatory, but the executing agency of the law, in this case the Justice Department can discretionally decide to adjust the status or not of a person or can deport someone to its country of origin. The US government has the possibility of implementing the decision or carrying out what is said in the text".

"If its repealed, a huge problem can be resolved. Homogenize its own immigration policy, eliminate the encouragement of illegal migration and can eradicate human trafficking. There are bandits attempting to benefit from the policy and submitting our brothers and sisters to atrocities due to extortion, mistreatment and abusing women at times. It is a regrettable situation".

-One of the main issues: the blockade is affecting bilateral relations. Obama introduced measures last January and September. What more can he do to empty the blockade?

-He can do a lot. It is true that we are in an electoral year but the steps taken by Obama since December 17th, 2014 has barely had a political cost for him. With exception, like Senator Jeff Flake which said, with an exception of a small group that are resisting, the majority of sectors of US society have expressed satisfaction over the diplomatic ties with the Caribbean island.

"There are conservative Republicans that have expressed in favor of opening to Cuba but are looking at their economic interest but not because it's an Obama policy and are opposed to the President's ideas in general".

"The President has the authority to maneuver and it is in his favor to take more steps because those taken up until now are limited. They are positive, but there is still more for him to do. They have not even solved obstacles that soften the implementation of those that are currently in place".

"According to the new measures Cuba can purchase specific types of supplies, equipment, materials in the US. How?, if according to current regulations the island is prohibited to have access to private credits. How can we purchase if we have to pay cash in advance? This is not the traditional way the world trades.

"The other issue is the US dollar. We assume that there should have been a direct bank transaction between both countries to use the dollar for authorized operations".

"Any measures that might dismantle the economic blockade will benefit both sides that is why the issue is a priority because it is currently an obstacle in our plans of development".

-What can happen in 2016? In the case of the bilateral commission, what actions of agreements are expected?

-We have follow-up issues like the agreement for regular direct flights which includes comparing texts, translations and once concluded sign the accord. Then US airlines must establish contracts with Cubana Airlines and the Cuban Civil Aeronautics Institute.

"This is a complex task because it includes a lot of technical issues and several steps must be taken in the US, because there are a lot of airlines in the country and all have the same rights regarding the market. There is not an exact date to begin these flights but some airlines spokespersons have expressed mid 2016".

Another of the outcomes is the beginning of flights for postal service. We both agreed on a pilot plan for the reestablishment of the service but we are still working on logistical details".

"We aim at also agreeing this year in an instrument for cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking. We must continue discussions in the application of a law to begin in Washington and must define specific areas and decide what to do in terms of terrorism, fighting human trafficking, immigration fraud and legal assistance".

"We will continue to talk on compensations which is a very complex issue that will take time because there is no recipe to follow. When we take a look at experiences in other countries, they have been solved in different ways with particularities in each case".


Josefina is a simple Cuban woman, but elegant and flirtatious. She told us to stop for a minute when she saw we were to photograph her and took out her hair brush and lipstick; behind her desk she has photographs of Raul, Fidel, the Cuban Five and even Barack Obama.

I asked her about the smiling expression of the US President when she greeted him; she smiled and she said that they both joked about their ages, because both were born the same year and he talked about the grey hairs that have grown since he entered the White House on January of 2009.

Vidal confesses that she does not have enough time, she will be commemorating 10 years as Director General of the US Division of the Cuban Foreign Ministry: "two terms", she jokes.

Although the objective of the interview was to talk about bilateral ties, she shared some stories and even confessed a challenge every time she faces the press:

-Whenever an American comes to visit I talk to them about the humor of the Cuban people regarding the new stage like the Cuban comedian called Panfilo when during a recent TV program spoke to his neighbor named Josefina; or an actor screaming to the other side of the theater: "Roberta and Josefina, please agree on such issues".

"One day I went to my neighborhood pharmacy and a young man got off his bicycle and entered; I had my hair up, sandals, with regular everyday informal street clothes. He looked at me and said: "You are the undersecretary aren't you". And I was laughing so hard. "No, the undersecretary is the other one". He knew who I was but was a bit confused, he thought I was Roberta Jacobson. I took him by the arm and said: "Yes, it's me, and his girlfriend came right away to say hello and after the pharmacy technician gave me the pills I requested she looked up and said to me: Hey girl, who are you?

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