Wednesday 28 June 2017

Cigars, trad and a meeting with Farc - all in a week's work for President Higgins

President Michael D Higgins visits Escuela Nacional de Danza, Havana, where he was entertained by Irish and Cuban performers on the last day of his state visit. Photos: Maxwells
President Michael D Higgins visits Escuela Nacional de Danza, Havana, where he was entertained by Irish and Cuban performers on the last day of his state visit. Photos: Maxwells

Ryan Nugent

It took off with a whirlwind trip to meet rebels in the Colombian jungle and ended dancing a Cuban jig to the voice of Liam Ó Maonlaí - dinner with Cuban President Raul Castro was lodged in between.

President Michael D Higgins - a campaigner for human rights - had been under pressure to relay his concerns in Latin America, particularly regarding Cuba, following the widely criticised eulogy he wrote on the passing of Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro. This only passingly brought up human rights.

Mr Higgins is said to have built up a rapport in the historic meeting with Fidel's brother, Raul, at the Plaza de la Revolucion on Wednesday night.

The three-hour dinner with Mr Castro - which followed a bilateral meeting lasting one hour and 20 minutes - saw the two heads of state enjoy "warm, long and comprehensive" discussions.

Mr Higgins is said to have "skilfully and intelligently" brought up the issue of human rights with Mr Castro.

Meanwhile, acclaimed Irish author Joseph O'Connor - whose novel 'Star of the Sea' was launched in Spanish at the Havana International Book Fair during the week - even managed to light up a cigar in the front of the revolutionary palace following dinner.

President Michael D Higgins visits Escuela Nacional de Danza, Havana, where he was entertained by Irish and Cuban performers on the last day of his state visit. Photos: Maxwells
President Michael D Higgins visits Escuela Nacional de Danza, Havana, where he was entertained by Irish and Cuban performers on the last day of his state visit. Photos: Maxwells

"I didn't think I'd be having dinner in the revolutionary palace, smoking a cigar on the steps (when writing the novel)," Mr O'Connor told the Irish Independent.

Whether Mr Higgins managed to do likewise, we'll probably never know.

Despite a four-day stint in Havana, ultimately no opportunity was afforded to quiz the President on the nitty-gritty of the meal with Mr Castro or what his feelings now were on human rights in the communist country.

Since then, an Irish trad group consisting of Hothouse Flowers frontman Liam Ó Maonlaí, fiddle player Aoife Ní Bhriain, Gaye McKeown and Brendan and Cormac Begley made some history of their own.

President Michael D Higgins visits Escuela Nacional de Danza, Havana, where he was entertained by Irish and Cuban performers on the last day of his state visit. Photos: Maxwells
President Michael D Higgins visits Escuela Nacional de Danza, Havana, where he was entertained by Irish and Cuban performers on the last day of his state visit. Photos: Maxwells

They stole the show in the Cuban capital on Friday night and were the soundtrack for the dance performance on Saturday morning.

Mr Higgins's final official piece of business before jetting off back home that night was a meeting with representatives from civil societies, including independent journalists, interested in the advancement of civil and political rights.

An hour-long chat gave a number of NGOs the opportunity to voice their concerns.

Earlier in the week, the take-off into the Colombian jungle to meet with the notorious Farc rebels was a little more tricky.

President Michael D Higgins watches a performance during a visit to Escuela Nacional de Danza, Havana. Photo: Maxwells
President Michael D Higgins watches a performance during a visit to Escuela Nacional de Danza, Havana. Photo: Maxwells

The President became the first foreign head of state to visit a fully demobilised camp last weekend in the jungle on the outskirts of Medellin - but it was moments from being cancelled due to foggy weather.

Instead, he jumped into a Black Hawk military helicopter, wearing his best walking shoes and flanked by reporters, to fly into the mountainous Anorí region for a chance to meet Farc commander Pastor Alape in the aftermath of the Colombian peace agreement.

The process ended a conflict that lasted more than 50 years and claimed the lives of close to 250,000 people.

With the 128 Farc members living in the camp yet to give up their weapons, Garda Emergency Response Unit (ERU) members were flown in specially for a recce of the camp.

The ERU had swept through the camp, including the area where the guns were stored, to ensure the safety of Mr Higgins and Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar.

It was eventually decided that the President wouldn't go directly into the Farc camp. Instead, Mr Higgins was taken to meet Pastor Alape one kilometre away in the jungle, where the Farc has begun its education in a number of practical issues such as how to mend motorbikes.

Read more: 'We are so delighted to have the President of Ireland here' - Michael D Higgins' travelled by Blackhawk to FARC rebel army in Colombia jungle

The welcome to Mr Higgins was genuine, with Pastor Alape even suggesting that the giving up of arms during the peace process in Northern Ireland could be a template for his own army to adopt.

Mr Higgins wished him luck and was swiftly back in the chopper - not wanting to risk a potential fog issue and an awkward wait alongside the rebels, no matter how friendly they seemed.

The idea of Black Hawks going into the jungle was so surreal that it dominated a chat in the Dáil bar last week, even with the Government in crisis.

In Peru, Colombia and Cuba, the red carpets were rolled out at each palace for Mr Higgins, who - beaming ear to ear - spoke eloquently in English, Irish and even Spanish during his addresses in each.

While Peru built up trade relations and Cuba offered rum and cigars, perhaps Colombia just about edged it, being a frontrunner for the new Irish embassy in the region.

Irish Independent

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