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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Cuba after Obama’s visit


BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Cuba after Obama’s visit

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AN EXPERIENCED CAREER DIPLOMAT who is accustomed to using measured tones, protocol and precise language to express herself, Donna Forde didn’t hide her feelings about what’s happening in Cuba these days.

“These are exciting times as the pace of normalisation between Cuba and the United States (US) moves ahead,” said Forde, Barbados’ Charge’ d’affaires in the largest Caribbean country in the Western Hemisphere. “In the five years I have been in Havana as head of our mission I have seen remarkable changes.”

Forde, who has represented her birthplace at the United Nations and in Washington where she routinely sat around the table at the Organisation of American States, exuded positive vibes as she commented on two things. The first was this week’s historic visit by US President Barack Obama to the Cuban capital. The second was the upcoming Barbados trade mission to Cuba led by Donville Inniss, Minister of International Business.

“The visit by Obama was exceedingly positive and was welcomed by the average Cuban,” said Forde who attended the baseball game between the Cuban national team and Tampa Bay, a US major league which won the match. “It was quite exciting. Both Obama and Raul Castro, Cuba’s leader, were in the stands watching the contest.”

As Forde sees it, there is considerable potential for Barbados to do profitable business in Cuba, either by exporting some of its products, buying Cuban goods or making tourism linkages.

“I am not afraid that normalisation would damage the flow of tourists to Barbados, not at all,” she said. “We must be creative and keep on improving our tourism product and we will do just fine.”

The Barbados mission is due in Havana on May 3 for three days of talks and negotiations with the Castro government and potential trading partners and its members will seek to do what other foreign trade groups have done: seek profitable deals with a nation that is slowly emerging from a half century of diplomatic and economic isolation that can be traced to its bitter conflict with Washington that began in the 1960s.

“Some Caribbean countries, notably Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have already undertaken missions to Cuba in recent years and with the normalisation of relations, Cuba’s new investment legislation and the removal of some of US economic barriers, Barbadian firms believe there are profitable opportunities to export goods and services to Cuba and also to buy from Cuba,” said Forde. “We are looking forward to the mission coming here. Some companies have already started the process of getting Barbadian products into Havana.”

Indeed, a prominent unidentified Bajan firm may be on the verge of securing Government greenlight to export a popular Barbados product to Cuba by the end of the year.

“It’s a major manufacturer which has been negotiating with state agencies and ministries in Havana for about three years,” explained the Barbados representative. “The prospects look exceedingly good and we expect that by December the product should be on the shelves of supermarkets in Cuba.”

Another firm with a long history in the import-export trade is negotiating to buy Cuban goods destined for Bridgetown.

What the firms and the others on the trade mission are hoping is that Inniss would be able to use the Barbados Government’s political influence to accelerate the pace of approvals for the island’s companies to export goods and services to Cuba.

“Quite unlike Barbados, the state plays a formidable and direct role in international trade and the process of securing approval from government agencies can be slow,” said Forde. One Barbadian firm wants to import Cuban meat products to Barbados.

But if the direct hand of the Cuban government in business is like a big elephant in the room, another is the lack of shipping “access” to Cuba. With no direct sea or air links to transport goods, Forde told BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY that Barbadian exporters and importers might have to use other Caribbean and Latin American ports as trans-shipment points in and out of Cuba.

“Jamaica, Panama and even Puerto Rico are being looked at by some Caribbean firms to solve the problem of access to market,” she explained. 

“Whatever we do the role of the Cuban state will be key.”

Forde, who heads what is essentially a three-person diplomatic mission with a heavy workload, said she has witnessed significant changes in the country. For example, cellphones are everywhere; foreign tourists are coming in droves; and small private business enterprises have become a fact of life.

“Tourism is mushrooming, privately-owned restaurants are being opened, hotel accommodation is expanding and Cubans have positive feelings about President Obama,” Forde noted in a telephone conversation.

“The American leader is exceedingly popular here and Cubans love American-made goods.”

However, she struck a note of caution about operating in Cuba. As American firms and Obama are learning: “the rapprochement is going to be on Cuba’s terms, not on any other country’s.”

Yes, she added, Cuba wants large amounts of foreign direct investment but it also sees that influx of money as a way of strengthening socialism, not weakening it, insisted the diplomat.

She argues that tourism in Barbados is unlikely to suffer any immediate damage from the rising interest in Cuba because of the high level of service.