Now Serving the Pueblo:President Funes Leads Delegation to Cuba

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On Monday, October 4, accompanied by a delegation of onehundred ministers, party and business leaders, President Mauricio Funes began athree-day official state visit to Cuba. The historic visit marks the first time a Salvadoran head of state hasbeen to the country since diplomatic relations were severed in March of 1961,following the 1959 victory of the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro.  Until Funes re-opened relations afterhis inauguration on June 1, 2009, El Salvador was the only country in theAmericas other than the United States without diplomatic ties to Cuba.  The visit, which has been scheduled forsome time, was planned to sign important cooperation agreements and to stimulatetrade between the countries.

            Onthe first day of the visit, President Funes and his Cabinet members signedcooperation agreements with Raúl Castro and Cuban counterparts in health,education, sports, economy and culture.   Following the new bilateral agreements, Cuban medicalspecialists will advise Salvadoran officials in the implementation of the newhealth care reform, which is sending mobile medics to rural areas.  Cuban experts will also advise the Ministryof Education in the implementation of a nationwide literacy program.  Cuban athletes and trainers will alsovisit El Salvador to share their expertise.  Trade and cultural changes will also start up between thetwo nations.

            Thisimportant cooperation from Cuba, enjoyed by many other Latin Americancountries, has never existed on this scale with El Salvador.  For many years, the leftist FarabundoMartí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) party has directly coordinatedresourceful, cooperative agreements with Cuba that demonstrate the vision of people-centeredgovernance, held by both cooperants. A shining example of FMLN-Cuba cooperation is “Operation Miracle”, aprogram that provides free air transport to Cuba and eye operations for low-income Salvadorans with vision problems, thereby preventing blindness. Cubaalso offers scholarships for Salvadoran students to attend Cuba’s LatinAmerican School of Medicine, where over 400 Salvadoran doctors have graduated.

            Funesvisited the Latin American School of Medicine, using the opportunity to thank theCuban government and the institution for the solidarity it has offered toSalvadoran students.  He also laidflowers at the national monument to José Martí, the revered hero of the Cubanstruggle for independence from Spain and the US.  Upon arriving, he applauded Cuba’s impressive socialprograms, noting that El Salvador has much to learn from them.   Funes also criticized the USembargo on Cuba, calling it, “anachronistic.” Previously, US Ambassador Apontesuggested that Funes use the trip to, “share with the Cubans the benefits ofthe democracy you have here in El Salvador.”

            Thetrip to Cuba sparked harsh criticisms from the right-wing NationalistRepublican Alliance (ARENA) party as well as the leaders of private businessorganizations like the National Association of Private Business (ANEP) and theChamber of Commerce.  ARENA refusedto give their votes in the Legislative Assembly to approve the essentialbilateral cooperation agreement, previously signed by the Salvadoran and CubanMinisters of Foreign Relations to create the framework for the specificagreements to be signed on the trip. In a legislative session full ofanti-communist rhetoric, ARENA deputies were unable to convince otherright-wing parties to withhold their votes and the agreement was approved. Inthe end, ARENA was the only party without a delegate on the visit.

            Despitestrong denunciations by the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce and ANEP,many members of these organizations accepted Funes’ invitation to join the Cubadelegation. The one hundred-person committee traveling with Funes included morethan thirty-five representatives of the private business sector.Representatives of the Cuban government met with Salvadoran business leaders toexplain possibilities for foreign investment. Salvadoran representatives ofindustries including tourism, air travel, hotel and pharmaceuticals returnedhome excited about the potential for a new market.

            ElSalvador’s state visit to Cuba marks a change in El Salvador’s foreign policy,begun with the March 2009 presidential victory of FMLN candidate, MauricioFunes. Under Funes, the new Minister of Foreign Relations Hugo Martínez hasre-opened diplomatic relations with Cuba and Vietnam, expanded Venezuelanrelations and initiated dialogue to open relations with China.  This new trend reflects a paradigm shiftby the Funes Administration, and a clear departure from theirpredecessors.  The newadministration is choosing to build the country’s diplomacy on theinternational relationships that will most benefit the Salvadoran people,rather than on strict ideology.

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