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Former Vanuatu Prime Minister and the country’s first Roving Ambassador, Barak Sope, has expressed his personal tribute to the late Fidel Castro of Cuba who died late last week.

Speaking from his home on Ifira in a telephone interview with the Daily Post, Barak Sope, who was one of the young political activists for Vanuatu independence during the New Hebrides colonial era, related how Cuba was the first country in the world to support political freedom from the two colonial powers, Britain and France.

“In 1977, [founding prime minister] Father Walter Lini and I were present during a UN Committee of 24 on Decolonisation in New York.

“This was the first time that the Vanuatu cry for political independence was heard by the UN Committee.

“It was through the Cuban President Fidel Castro at the time that Cuba became the first country in the world to sponsor the then New Hebrides application to the UN 24 Committee in 1977.

“So, Father Walter Lini, who was the president of the Vanua’aku Party, and I made a trip to New York to be present during the UN Committee of 24 on Decolonization to listen to the debate for our freedom,” Sope recalled.

“It was timely too, because Cuba did not only sponsor Vanuatu’s application to the UN Committee, but it so happened that at the time Cuba chaired the committee, and so we knew with hope that our political freedom was eminent, with the Cuban Ambassador appointed by President Fidel Castro to chair the UN Committee,” he said.

Two roles
Sope said it was through the two roles that Cuba played at the time that the UN Committee of 24 on Decolonisation shepherded Vanuatu’s application through.

Sope said other countries that supported the then New Hebrides in its initial stages for political freedom through the UN were Algeria and Tanzania.

“After Independence in 1980, I was appointed by Vanuatu’s first Prime Minister, Father Walter Lini, as Vanuatu’s first Roving Ambassador and Secretary for Foreign Affairs, because Foreign Affairs at the time was under the Prime Minister’s portfolio.

“In August 1981, Prime Minister Father Walter Lini appointed me as a Special Envoy to travel to Havana, Cuba, to deliver Vanuatu’s Special Message of ‘thank you and appreciation’ to President Castro, and at the same time formalised diplomatic relations with Cuba that saw Vanuatu flag raised in Havana.

“I could not travel through the US at the time, so I had to make a long trip via UK and Canada and then to Havana, Cuba where I was accorded a high level welcome personally by President Castro in his Presidential Palace.

“I extended to him on behalf of the government and the people of Vanuatu, deep appreciation for the support that President Fidel Castro and his country paving the way from Havana to the corridors of the United Nations and finally to the Committee of 24 on Decolonisation that released our colonised country and people from Britain and France to become the independent state and the new Republic of Vanuatu,” Sope said.

“Port Vila tied diplomatic relations with Havana in August 1981 before becoming a full member of the United Nations (UN) in September of 1981 – the same year, but we recognised Cuba first because without Cuba and President Fidel Castro, it may have taken longer or never for this country to become an independent state from Britain and France,” Sope recalled.

Independent state
“In 1977, Father Walter Lini and I attended the UN Decolonisation Committee in informal clothing but in 1981 we attended the UN General Assembly for the first time after independence where Father Walter Lini as the first Vanuatu Prime Minister addressed the UN General Assembly for the first time as an independent state and as the UN welcomed Vanuatu as its full member.

“Today, I am sad to say that Vanuatu has lost its first political pillar of our political freedom, the late President Fidel Castro.

“Personally, and of course the country has lost a man that stood up for the right of the political freedom of our nation and people in international forum and the United Nations. We truly miss him,” Sope said.

The former Cuban President Fidel Castro handed over his responsibilities in 2006 to his brother Raul.

He died at the age of 90 last Friday.

Relations with Cuba were enhanced further when the country provided scholarships for ni-Vanuatu to attend medical school to become doctors.

Godwin Ligo is a senior journalist on the Vanuatu Daily Post. This article has been republished with permission.