Irish Foreign Minister to make first official visit in New Year

Campaign News | Monday, 29 December 2008

By Mary Fitzgerald for the Irish Times

MINISTER FOR Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin will make a historic visit to Cuba in the new year, becoming the first Irish Minister to travel to the island in an official capacity.

The visit will take place against a background of changing international policy towards Cuba.

Earlier this year the EU decided to formally restore relations with the island, five years after Brussels imposed diplomatic sanctions following a crackdown on dissidents that resulted in dozens being rounded up and imprisoned.

US president-elect Barack Obama has said he plans to ease restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba when he takes office next month but he has stopped short of saying he will end the 46-year trade embargo on the island.

The timing of the Minister's trip is yet to be confirmed but The Irish Times understands it is likely to take place the week beginning February 16th.

That will be a particularly significant week for Cubans, who in 2009 will mark the 50th anniversary of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power following the ousting of Fulgencio Batista.

On February 16th, 1959, Castro was sworn as leader.

Cuba's ambassador to Ireland Noel Carrillo described the forthcoming visit as highly significant.

"The visit will no doubt be a historical one, since it will be the first visit of a high-ranking official of the Irish Government to my country," Mr Carrillo told The Irish Times.

"I am sure this visit will strengthen the constructive diplomatic relations existing between our two countries. Ireland and Cuba share a similar vision about the importance of multilateralism to solve conflicts and to maintain peace in the world.

"Our two countries also appreciate the significant contribution that small nations can make in the international scenario, and we are very proud of our sovereignty and independence."

The ambassador said he hoped the official visit would also assist in further developing bilateral ties between the two countries.

"Cuba wishes that the visit also serves to develop relations and co-operation in subjects such as culture, sport and commerce . . . I am convinced that Ireland has enormous potential to diversify and to develop its relations with Cuba and with our continent," Mr Carrillo added.

Details of Mr Martin's itinerary are still being worked out but it is thought likely he will meet Raúl Castro, who took over as president of Cuba following the retirement of his ailing brother Fidel in February.

The reinstatement of relations between the EU and Cuba this year was a largely symbolic gesture as the sanctions Brussels imposed in 2003 had been suspended since 2005.

Since the stepping down of Fidel Castro earlier this year, EU policy towards Cuba has centred on attempts to develop dialogue with Havana in the hope of encouraging reform.

Mr Martin's visit to the region will include a trip to Mexico.

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