Havana seeks foreign investment

Cuba US SummitHAVANA, 10 April It may have been hard to imagine in Fidel Castro’s heyday, but Cuba’s trade minister made a high-profile pitch for foreign capital at a meeting of corporate executives on Thursday as the island nation sought to reap the economic benefits of improved relations with the United States.

Following Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and the bosses of Walmart, CocaCola and Citibank on the podium of the CEO Summit of the Americas in Panama, the Cuban foreign trade and investment minister Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz called on international investors to assist Cuba in the construction of a socialist society.

“Today we can say that we are witnessing a new phase of the insertion of Cuba in the international economic scene, which introduces opportunities for trade and investment,” the minister told summit delegates.

“We recognise the importance of international economic integration to further diversify our foreign trade, expand access to external finance and increase the participation of foreign capital in the Cuban economy.”

Since Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced plans in December to end half a century of cold war hostility and normalise diplomatic relations, there have already been a number of business delegations to explore the possibilities of better ties.

American Express and MasterCard have begun moving to end restrictions on the use of US credit cards in Cuba. American Airlines, United and Delta have expressed an interest in running direct commercial flights, and US telecom firms have explored ways to upgrade the island’s communications infrastructure. Foreign tourist numbers have also surged more than threefold in the first three months of the year as US travel restrictions have been eased.

More improvements are likely if – as is widely expected – Obama announces at the political summit that the US will remove Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism.

Malmierca Díaz said the changes were of a “historical nature for the entire region”, though he said they did not yet go far enough and called on the US to completely lift sanctions – something only Congress can do.

He noted that Cuba has suffered extreme hardship from US restrictions, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when trade fell 75% and GDP declined by 35% in the space of just four years.

In the later years of Fidel’s presidency, Cuba opened its doors to tourists and widened the scope of its foreign trade. “The participation of foreign capital in the Cuban economy is nothing new,” the minister said.

But since Raúl Castro replaced his brother as president, the government has introduced several reforms aimed at fostering private enterprise. In the past decade, Cuba’s GDP has grown by 4.9% per year, according to Malmierca Díaz.

He urged corporate delegates to read a glossy 182-page promotion booklet that Cuba has published for potential foreign investors, with information about opportunities in tourism, energy, transport, construction, biotechnology, mining and sugar production.

It notes that tourism currently accounts for 42% of inward investment, followed a long way behind by industry with 10%. The government is keen to promote higher-value businesses and is developing a free trade zone at Mariel Port, which is undergoing major development with support from Brazil construction companies and Singaporean port operators.