This post first appeared in Opera Mundi.
Conversations with Jean-Pierre Bel, President of the French Senate
President of the Senate since 2011, Jean-Pierre Bel is second in line in the French governmental hierarchy by virtue of the constitution. A close associate of President François Hollande, he is the first socialist to hold this upper house of Parliament position since the inception of the Fifth Republic. Fluent in Spanish, Bel is a true connoisseur of Latin America, including Cuba.
Jean-Pierre Bel was born into a family of communist resistance fighters in the south of France in 1951. In the early 1970s, he joined the networks of solidarity with the Spanish opposition in the struggle against the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, welcoming refugees and providing material assistance to the antifascists. During one of these operations, he was arrested by Franco's police and spent several months in Spanish jails.
Elected mayor in 1983 and senator in 1998, Jean-Pierre Bel chaired the Socialist Group in the Senate from 2004 to 2011 and served for more than ten years at the National Office of the Socialist Party before being elected to the nation's number two post. Jean-Pierre Bel is a strong advocate of rapprochement between France and Latin America - notably Cuba - for reasons not only political, but also personal. Indeed, an admirer of the Cuban Revolution since his teens, he was charmed by the remarkable intelligence of the people of José Martí. The President of the Senate married a Cuban and a daughter was born of this union.
During conversations conducted on the island, the President of the Senate discussed the relationship between Cuba and France, the policy of the European Union vis-à-vis the government of Raúl Castro, the bilateral conflict between Washington and Havana and prospects for normalization in Barack Obama's second term in office. He also discussed the distinction granted Eusebio Leal, Historian of the city of Havana, who in the name of the President of the Republic, received the Commander's Cross of the Legion of Honor. The dialogue ends with a reflection on the figure of Maximilian Robespierre, hero of the French Revolution.
Salim Lamrani: Mr. President, what is the current status of relations between Cuba and France?
Jean-Pierre Bel: The relations between our two countries are at a critical turning point. At the end of January, the meeting between the European Union and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Santiago, Chile, provided a forum where leaders from both continents were able to exchange their views and their ideas about the future of our world and the model of society we want to build. Cuba assumed the presidency of CELAC, an organization that includes thirty-three Latin America and Caribbean nations, something that was indeed no small achievement. French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, was in attendance in Santiago and I can assure you that there is a strong desire on the part of our country, France, to expand our relations with Cuba. I spoke personally with the President of the Republic, François Hollande, and it is clear that there is a sincere determination to strengthen our ties with Havana.
SL: What are the links between the two nations?
JPB: There are many links, both historical and cultural. The French revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man significantly influenced Cuba's greatest thinkers, especially the Apostle and Cuban national hero, José Martí. The French Revolution also influenced the Cuban Revolution in its struggle for independence. La Bayamesa, the Cuban national anthem, was directly inspired by the Marseillaise and there is considerable similarity between our two flags. Important French figures also participated in the organization of the country. For example, a French architect was responsible for major infrastructure projects in and around the capital city of Havana. The city of Cienfuegos was founded by French from Bordeaux. Cuba is a country that has long fascinated French people. My generation was highly influenced by the epic revolutionary struggles of Fidel Castro. We all had a portrait of Che Guevara in our rooms.
More than a symbol, France and Cuba share a common history. We have a responsibility and we, the present generation, should take this responsibility to heart and ensure that our two countries, our two peoples, reestablish a solid and fraternal friendship.
SL: What about today?
JPB: Today, the time is different and, given my special ties to Cuba, I hope to be able to help forge a path that leads to friendship and the sharing of views. France has a role to play in Cuba and, indeed, large French companies are already present, for example Bouygues, an enterprise that has built several resort hotels and has a number of ongoing projects on the island. There is also an extraordinary marriage between Cuba and France with the Havana Club brand and the Pernod Ricard company, which brings to the world the excellence of Cuban rum. Air France also occupies a special place in Cuba. We all want to deepen our relationship with this country and develop cooperative ventures, but to achieve that we must respect this country, its identity, its system and its way of functioning. The future offers significant room for improvement.
SL: What is this trip to Cuba for you?
JPB: I am responsible for bringing a message of friendship and brotherhood from France to Cuba, and this trip has a special emotional dimension for me because my second family is here in this country. My wife is Cuban and Cuba occupies a special place in my heart. But I am here as President of the French Senate, that is to say as the second in charge of the French Republic, to testify to the importance my country attaches to its relations and dialogues with Cuba.
SL: Since 1966, the European Union has imposed a Common Position on Cuba, officially because of the human rights situation, making the island the only nation on the continent to be so stigmatized. Far from being a constructive policy, it has proved to be the main obstacle to the normalization of relations between Havana and Brussels. Would it not make sense for the EU to change its approach vis-à-vis the Cuban authorities?
JPB: The European Union certainly must evolve and in fact it is already beginning to change its approach to Cuba. The Common Position dates from a different political era and France would like to be the interlocutor of this reality and convince the rest of Europe that dialogue with Cuba is essential. We are aware of the difficulties because we do not all share the same vision. Our political systems are different. Nevertheless, we are clearheaded and aware of everything this country has endured in recent years. For the Cuban people, the reality has been difficult. I happen to live with the Cuban people and share their daily life and I am always struck by their ability to cope with the difficulties involved in living well, eating better and building a better life. But it is above all a struggle for dignity. For we French, Cuba is a land of free spirits, synonymous with intelligence, dignity and beauty. From this point of view, we feel very close to the people and the values that we both share.
SL: The United States has imposed economic sanctions on Cuba for over half a century. They affect adversely the most vulnerable groups in this society. The vast majority of the international community - 186 countries in 2012 - is in favor of lifting them immediately. Has the time not come for Washington to normalize relations with Cuba?
JPB: Far be it from me to meddle in the relations between two sovereign countries, but if I must give my opinion, I would say that the time is now, more than ever, to regain a sense of the realities involved. Only 170 kilometers separate these two nations that, throughout the course of history, have always regarded each other face to face. Now it is time for these two peoples to begin to walk side by side, the one next to the other. It would be in everyone's interest if they were to set aside their differences and view the future collectively, through a peaceful lens. It is time to end the economic sanctions that have been in force for fifty years and that cause so much suffering to the Cuban people.
SL: On behalf of the President of the French Republic, François Hollande, you recently awarded Eusebio Leal, Historian of the City of Havana, the Cross of Commander of the Legion of Honor. This is the oldest and highest distinction awarded by our nation. What criteria motivated this decision?
JPB: For us, Eusebio Leal is a great man. I met him several times in Paris and Havana and we have come to share strong bonds of friendship and affection. I have always been struck by his immense talent, his extraordinary level of culture and his insatiable curiosity. Eusebio Leal has the distinction of knowing our own history better than we. He has studied it with great passion and attention, particularly the Napoleonic period. I will never forget a meeting with him in the Luxembourg Palace, home of the Senate of the Republic. We were in front of the seat where Napoleon was crowned, listening to the remarks of several specialists of that period. Eusebio Leal, Historian of the City of Havana, quite to our surprise, filled in the gaps in the presentations of these historians. He was highly informed of certain details and aspects of our history that we ourselves did not know. Moreover in Havana, there is one of the largest museums in the world dedicated to Napoleon. This is the work of Leal, and it is an extraordinarily rich achievement. It was inaugurated in 2011 in the presence of the Princess Napoleon.
SL: In your opinion, what are the values that Eusebio Leal represents?
JPB: Eusebio Leal represents the values of France, the principles embedded in our Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. He shares France's struggle for the freedom and emancipation of mankind through the conquest of new social rights. He shares our spirit of resistance and solidarity with the weakest among us. He is the link between the France of Victor Hugo and Aimé Césaire and the Cuba of José Martí. He is the link between our two converging cultures. Leal is also the symbol of the extraordinary Cuban culture, a culture that is so close to us. Eusebio Leal is also a great ambassador of Cuba both in France and abroad and I think this particularly important distinction is well deserved. There are very few foreign personalities who have received the Commander's Cross of the Legion of Honor, an award established by Napoleon Bonaparte on May 19, 1802. To my knowledge, apart from Nelson Mandela, no other foreigner has received such a distinction.
SL: Maximilian Robespierre, our liberator, the defender of popular sovereignty, was probably the most faithful representative of the aspirations of the people during the French Revolution. When will a statue in his honor be erected in Paris?
JPB: Many French are aware of the history of Robespierre but, as in Cuba, we in France also have our great debates. The way in which Robespierre dealt with our Revolution and the reasons why he was guillotined in the midst of the Terror are still subjects of controversy. It is true that there was also the White Terror of the royalists. I come from a political jurisdiction where the President of the Committee of General Security, during the Terror, brought down Robespierre and cut off his head.
SL: Is not defending the legacy of Robespierre the same as defending democracy?
JPB: There is a certain historical perspective that should be brought to bear on these events. I share the ideas of the Revolution. I share Robespierre's ideals. No doubt I would share today the manner in which power was exercised at that time. Still, this is another day, another time. Because we did not personally experience this revolutionary period, it is difficult to make a posteriori judgments. Who knows how we might have acted had we been in power and were faced with a civil war and the onslaught of all the monarchies of Europe united against our country and our Revolution. I can offer a historical judgment certainly, but not a political one.
Translated from the French by Larry R. Oberg.
Docteur ès Etudes Ibériques et Latino-américaines at the University of Paris Sorbonne-Paris IV, Salim Lamrani is Maître de conférences at the Université de la Réunion, and a journalist who specializes in relations between Cuba and the United States.
His latest book is The Economic War Against Cuba; a Historical and Legal Perspective on the U.S. Blockade; prologue by Wayne S. Smith; foreword by Paul Estrade; translated by Larry R. Oberg; Monthly Review Press, 2013.
Contact:firstname.lastname@example.org ; Salim.Lamrani@univ- reunion.fr
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