We meet José Luís Robaína García, Cuba's ambassador to New Zealand, for the first on our new series on diplomacy. We also look at the "diplomatic pouch", that slightly quaint method of shipping secret documents.
Preface In the first of our ambassador series, we visit the Cuban embassy in New Zealand, an unlikely, windswept outpost for a Latin American diplomat.
In 2007, a modest white villa in Wellington’s sleepy Embassy Row became a most unexpected addition to New Zealand’s diplomatic scene. Cuba had established its first embassy in Australasia.
It was uncharted territory. “I didn’t know anything about this region,” admits His Excellency José Luís Robaína García, a former journalist and Asia scholar. The offer of the posting had come during his tenure as head of an institute of Asia and Oceania studies, but his real interest was in China. “But my wife told me, ‘This place is very, very nice. Accept’.”
Diplomacy is about deepening relationships and sometimes creating them. “New Zealand geographically, historically and politically is one area. We are totally different,” says Robaína in a sun-drenched reception room decorated with posters of Fidel Castro and Cuban ballerinas. He believes New Zealand and Cuba share some common values: a pacifist streak and a particular concern, as island nations, about climate change.
There’s also a significant trade link – the export of NZ$100m (€53m) of milk powder a year to fulfil Cuba’s guarantee of a daily litre of milk to under-fours. Aside from that, the canvas is blank. There are vague Cuban aspirations to fill it with medical exports, and baseball and rugby exchanges. But Robaína is a realist. “This is a process. It won’t happen overnight.”
Despite the lack of historical or cultural ties (New Zealand’s Cuban community numbers 25), Robaína’s far-flung home resonates with surprising echoes of his homeland. Cuba Street, the city’s premier café district, was named after a British settler ship, and its left-wing associations have been embraced by the city’s bohemian set, resulting in a slew of cafés bearing the names and visages of revolutionaries. Robaína’s posting ends this year. He will miss Wellington, he says. “New Zealand is another galaxy. Clean, safe, friendly, open-minded. Perfect – except for the wind.”
The Cuban Embassy to New Zealand is based in Thorndon Wellington (left, middle), and is also accredited to Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands. A major part of the embassy’s work is overseeing its humanitarian medical programme, involving 40 doctors working in the Pacific, and administering scholarships for Pacific trainee doctors to study in Cuba. New Zealand’s diplomatic links to Cuba are maintained through its Mexico City embassy.
As ambassador, Robaína occupies the embassy’s sole diplomatic post. There are three other staff: consular attache Marisel Salgado La Rosa, a secretary and a driver. The embassy’s work includes processing visas for about 2,000 New Zealand tourists to Cuba every year and occasionally fielding mercy requests from the sick for access to Cuba’s health system. Last September, a delegation of high-ranking Maori medical professionals travelled to Havana to explore the possibility of cooperation in the health sector.
Robaína reports easier access to key government officials than in comparable postings and says New Zealand’s warm relationship with the US has been no impediment to growing ties with Cuba. “New Zealand and United States good? Perfect. Enjoy it. We would also like a good relationship with the US.” The main obstacle to implementing programmes such as a planned exchange of baseball and rugby coaches has been securing funding for initiatives that are strategically peripheral, at best.
Many countries prefer to use the internet for passing missives to and from their embassies. But for some, the low-tech ‘diplomatic pouch’ is still the method of choice.
Writer: Sophie Arie
The embassy official runs a twisted steel cord through the eyelets of a blue pouch and seals it with a metal lock engraved with the words “Diplomatic Pouch España”. “It’s a special kind of lock,” she says, cutting the protruding wires back to the edge of the lock with heavy clippers. “There’s no key or code and you can’t pull the wire back through the lock. So no one can tamper with this without us knowing.”
The diplomatic pouch, which the Spanish embassy in London sends to Madrid every two weeks, is going out of fashion thanks to a combination of more advanced encrypted internet systems and the cost of shipping hundreds of large packages across the world. Most countries see digital encryption as more likely than a reinforced canvas bag to protect their most sensitive documents. That is unlikely to change, despite the WikiLeaks saga.
“Kids and underground groups always learn to use new technology first,” says Dr Leon Hadar, an international relations expert at The Cato Institute in Washington. “But countries will learn in the next decade or so how to master it and then they will be the ones in control.”
Until the internet learns to teleport objects, however, diplomatic bags will always have a role. Wealthier nations still have their own full-time couriers who accompany the bags for the entire journey and have diplomatic immunity themselves. In countries in conflict or where communication systems are unreliable, they are pretty much the only lifeline an embassy has to its home country.
Foreign ministries often send standard furniture and computer equipment to all their diplomatic missions through this secure channel. Mexico has even shipped lumps of Mayan ruins in the past for use in cultural exhibitions. This internal mail service for diplomats has often also been used to ship paintings, personal belongings and things hard to find in foreign lands (such as alcohol in certain Middle Eastern countries).
Since the rules were set down in the 1961 Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations, countries have been able to send objects and documents of any shape and size between their embassies and their foreign ministry without them being checked or X-rayed at customs. They must be clearly labelled and they must only contain materials relating to a country’s diplomatic activity. It is a system based on trust – customs officials are only allowed to open up another state’s bag if they suspect it contains a human being, a dead body or explosives.
The pouch may be one of the safest ways for countries to have private communications, but ultimately it is no more secure than the internet or a phone line. “There are no secrets these days,” says Mexico’s ambassador to London, Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza, a former intelligence chief in his country. “The only way to keep a secret is not to send it.”
Over the years, all sorts of illegal items have been discovered in diplomatic bags – people, drugs and weapons. Last year, a cable leaked by WikiLeaks revealed that in 2008, US diplomats in Burma who suspected Rangoon of aspiring to develop nuclear weapons sent a uranium sample to Washington by diplomatic pouch on a commercial flight.
“The diplomatic bag will always have a role,” says Hadar. “It’s one way to send secrets. But it also allows countries to do things they shouldn’t. Everyone wants to keep that option open.”
- Farewell: The British consulates in Durban and Geneva were shuttered in 2010.
- Hello: Following the second Gulf war the UK opened a new Baghdad embasssy and offices in Arbil and Basra.
- We’re moving: In 2006, the UK moved its Kazakhstan embassy to the nation’s new capital, Astana.
In May, after 600 years, the UK is closing its consulate in Florence as the country cuts costs and refocuses on the rising BRIC and Gulf nations. British consul David Broomfield will turn out the lights.
Why is the consulate closing?
A wider European review was conducted on how best to offer our consulate services and it was recommended that operations should be focused in Milan, Rome and Naples. Florence is too close to both Rome and Milan and we couldn’t shut either of those.
How did the British expat community react?
We don’t see much of the community for business nowadays because of the change in communication. There are up to 15,000 British citizens living in Tuscany, but with Italy part of the EU there’s also significantly less paperwork to fill out than before. The general flavour here, however, is a sad one because of the consulate’s long history and it’s symbolic status.
How did the Florentines react?
The reaction was quite marked. I’ve had many people call and write in. They were quite wedded to the consulate and its history, so they feel quite strongly about it. As consul, their great flow of warmth is comforting but they understand that things are changing. It’s a great tradition that will sadly end when I depart.