“Please don’t grow tired. Cuba still needs you” interview with Bárbara Montalvo Álvarez about her time as Cuban Ambassador in Britain

Campaign News | Thursday, 9 May 2024

At the tail-end of a 50-year career in the Cuban diplomatic service, in early 2020 Bárbara Montalvo Álvarez found herself posted in London.

Born in a small village near Havana called San José de las Lajas, Bárbara studied journalism and, after a few years working in a steel works, she joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) as a secretary. “It was very important for me, because I had the opportunity to meet and work with people who had a lot of experience and a lot of them had been involved in the struggle to topple the Batista dictatorship.”

Bárbara worked her way up at MINREX and eventually became head of the cabinet for Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla. In her role on his team, she came to the UK in 2018, when President Miguel Díaz-Canel visited London.

Beyond that trip, Bárbara knew about Britain via her colleagues in the diplomatic service. “I know all the previous ambassadors and most of them are good friends, so I had the chance to speak with them before I came,” she explained. She recalled her surprise at learning about the strength of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. “I thought, ‘oh my God, what CSC is doing in Britain to secure the freedom of the Cuban Five is amazing’,” she said.

However, her initial time in the UK as ambassador was severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was a little while before she could fully engage CSC members and the public. “I wasn’t able to carry out my programme as I had planned and I lost valuable time, which I had to recover afterwards… but I’ve always looked at problems as things to be solved, rather than to complain about.”

Despite the initial difficulties of carrying out diplomatic work during lockdown, Bárbara soon got out on the road, meeting CSC members, local groups, trade unionists and MPs. Going beyond the official institutions, she feels that “an ambassador’s mission is to establish relations with all of society.” She said that her “experiences have been positive in every case.”

All those up and down the country who have met her, or seen her speak, will recall the passion that typifies her. “In all of my interactions with people, there is that emotional component to it, which has been good.” She describes how the “affection, love and support” she has witnessed in Britain for Cuba has been “inspiring.” However this passion, she says, has its downsides. “The worst defect that an ambassador can have is the one I have. I get very emotional.”

On current Britain-Cuba relations, Bárbara recognised that while the respective governments see things differently, “we can discuss the problems and our differences in an environment of respect.” She wondered, “if two countries like ours can have this kind of relationship, with one not attacking the other, why can’t this become a reference for a country like the United States?”
While Bárbara was naturally excited to return to Cuba and her family, there’s plenty she’ll miss about being in Britain. She’ll miss walking in London’s parks, which she thinks makes the capital a “much more human city” and eating fish and chips. But most of all, she says, “I’m going to miss so many wonderful people that I’ve met here. And this includes people who don’t necessarily support Cuba!”

Bárbara sent a heartfelt message to all CSC members as she bid farewell to Britain. “It’s not easy to say goodbye to you. Sometimes words get worn out. But I leave here with a feeling that I owe you a big debt of gratitude. You’ve been part of the most outstanding experiences I’ve had here, and I’ve had many of them. Please don’t grow tired. Cuba still needs you.”

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