Bubbly but not in a bubble | Daily News

Bubbly but not in a bubble

Ambassador Batista under the historic Mahogany tree planted by Che Guevara in Yahalakele Estate  in Horana during Guevara’s visit to Sri Lanka  on August 7, 1959.

Cuban Ambassador to Sri Lanka Florentino Batista likes to keep a low profile. He prefers the easy going practice of diplomacy which he says is the ‘Cuban way.’ He enjoys simplicity and finds extreme protocol too overwhelming. “Simple, sociable, direct, friendly, engaging and sometimes too direct,” are his own words to describe himself.

This lively and cheerful ambassador is a father of two sons, Camilo and Gabriel, both in the school going age, and who had greatly enjoyed Sri Lanka. A large number of Cuban Embassies are comprised of only one couple, and that’s the case of Sri Lanka, which entails a heavy and varied workload.

Cuban Ambassador to Sri Lanka Florentino 
Batista with his sons

Batista passed out from the Higher Institute of International Relations in Havana. Fortunately or not, he was pushed into the deep end as soon as he started his career when he was posted in the US in 1998 - the first posting outside Cuba after commencing his diplomatic career in 1996.

First posting

“It was the most complex and interesting posting I have ever been for many reasons,” Ambassador Batista claimed. “I was very young. It was my first time outside Cuba. The relations between Cuba and US was most complex during this time,” he pointed out.

The Cuban Embassy in the US in 1998 had been an extremely small embassy for the size of the workload they have had. Since relations between Cuba and the US were almost non-existent at the time, it had been“extremely hard work, extremely long hours and demanding”.

“Sometimes we had to be the reception, or the bartender to make the cocktails!” the ambassador laughed. But it had been the training in the US right at the onset of his career that had shaped the Cuban Ambassador to what he is today. “We did what is needed. I got an intense and heavy training which I consider very lucky,” he added almost nostalgically.

Cubans and Sri Lankans have many things in common. But one thing in particular is the ‘island mentality,’ which Batista claimed is what led him to become a diplomat.

“We islanders have an intense curiosity for the outside world. We dream of going to see the rest of the world,” he said.

On the other hand, Cubans are well-versed in international relations as it has played a pivotal role in the recent history of Cuba. Especially after the Cuban Revolution, foreign relations have been fundamental for Cuba as it was the only way to defend itself, Batista added. Without family members in the field, this major fact that shaped the Cuban way of life had been the motivation for Batista to take up Foreign Service.

Rewarding experience

Batista’s second posting in the volcanic island of the Caribbean - Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, was one that had been most rewarding. With a proud claim to a world class health system, the Cuban Embassy had brought relief to many who had eye diseases in the island. Batista spoke highly of the Cuban healthcare system which was a more preventive system with one doctor for every 120 families. This had been key to controlling dengue; in the way the Cuban health system focuses on the prevention of diseases. Cuba also prides itself to having a bio-tech industry which is “second to none,” according to the ambassador. After 55 years of no relations with the US, it had been the lung cancer vaccine, only developed by Cubans that had brought US personnel officially to Cuba.

Although his experiences in the Caribbean had been the most rewarding, it is Asia that he wants to stay close to, especially after his period in Malaysia.

“That’s when I fell in love with Asia,” he said excitedly. “It’s an entirely different story with many cultures, religions and histories existing side by side,” he said. When his superiors asked him where he wants to go next, he had promptly told them: “Please keep me around Asia!” It was soon after that he arrived in Sri Lanka, first time as ‘Ambassador’ and came to be in awe of the Sri Lankans’ respect for nature “especially influenced by Buddhist philosophy”.

Even his mother, whose first time out of Cuba was Sri Lanka, had according to Batista, been impressed by the “immense respect Sri Lankans had for nature”. She had even been protective of insects, preventing others from hurting them while she was here!

“It’s not that we are not respectful to nature in Cuba, but we cannot be compared to the kind of respect that Buddhism brings into nature,” he said, fondly recalling his mother’s visit.

Exceeding expectations

Sri Lanka seemed to have exceeded all his expectations, in the beauty of nature, the golden sandy beaches of Bentota and the grandeur of the heritage in Sigiriya. But he had not been prepared to the chili level that Sri Lankans seem to tolerate quite easily!

“For me this had been the hardest part being in Sri Lanka! I had some Malaysian training, but here it was over my expectations!” he exclaimed.

Luckily for him, he was blessed with a Sri Lankan cook who had been at the embassy for many years. During his initial months in Sri Lanka, it was this cook who had given the Cuban name to a dish which Batista had tried hard to get her to cook, not knowing that she is already an expert in Cuban cuisine. After explaining vigourously for days about what goes in that particular dish, she had finally asked the ambassador whether he wants her to cook ‘Potaje’!

It seems that his disdain for Lankan chili is compromised only by one thing – the Sri Lankan graduates in Cuba, of whom he is extremely proud. With many Sri Lankans travelling to Cuba for their tertiary education each year, the ambassador enjoys keeping a tab on them and building a good relationship.

“I enjoy hanging around with them,” he added, pointing to a small group of alumni who had gathered at the table nearby to plan a Cuban event, during the time the Daily News was interviewing the ambassador. The youthful ambassador seemed to fit right in with them, laughing with them to a joke told in Spanish.

It is no surprise thus, that Batista seems unrecognizable as an ambassador during official gatherings. Maybe it is due to his simplicity and unpretentious ways that many seem to be often misled. Not once but during two official meetings here, the ambassador had been overlooked as an official from the embassy, rather than being the ambassador himself. But instead of taking offence, he had found this quite amusing!

Although he enjoys life to the fullest in Sri Lanka, there had been more to enjoy back home.

Among the household games of dominoes, cigars and parties, it is dancing that the ambassador misses the most. “Dancing is not my hobby, it’s my passion!” he claimed.

Instead of sports, it is the rhythms of ‘salsa’ that give him a workout! “I’m not a sports guy but I consider myself a very good dancer!” he claimed, adding: “Maybe not a very good ambassador but a very good dancer!” Unfortunately Batista has very rare opportunities to dance here unlike in Cuba where it does not need much effort to find places.

Cuban culture is made up of Cuban music. Most men in Cuba are good dancers, especially because it is hard to find a girlfriend if they don’t dance, Batista quipped. Even if someone has zero talent for ‘salsa’, that does not bar them from taking to the floor! he claimed.

‘Cuban Son’ is the salsa music and added variations make it ‘salsa’, the ambassador explained. Salsa is the name given in Spanish in the US. “To us it’s not salsa but it’s just Cuban music,” he said. A programme is in place to bring the Cuban beats to Sri Lanka very soon.

Missing Cuba

It is evident that he misses his social life in Cuba. “It is impossible to talk to friends due to the time difference.

I can’t wake them up at 2 am!” he pointed out. Yet, it is during late nights that he is most awake, trying to do most of the office work during daytime in Cuba, with espressos keeping him company through the night! “It’s my guilty vice,” he admitted.

During the course of 20 years in his career, Ambassador Batista has learned that the most effective way of building relations is at the people’s level, not just at the protocol level. And it is this strategy that he adopts in Sri Lanka too. “I am doing what I can to build people to people connections,” he said.

Since we are all cultural constructs, the ambassador says he likes people to identify him with his Cuban culture. “I’m trying to bring Cuban art, music and culture here. And I hope people will Identify me with that dancing, that music and that happiness.”

Pictures by Ranjith Asanka


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