I recently returned from a week-long visit to Cuba during which I held discussions with a number of government agencies, the Chamber of Commerce and the United States Embassy. Arising out of my visit is the clear indication that Cuba is serious about its new development agenda, based largely on the easing of some restrictions occasioned by the normalization of its relations with America and the anticipated lifting of the embargo, hopefully in the not too distant future.
This new business environment in Cuba offers, in my view, tremendous opportunities for business enterprises in Caricom member states. These opportunities will come with some challenges which are not without solutions. The Cubans are most appreciative of the role played by Caricom in helping to pave the way for normalization, and moreso that landmark decision 43 years ago by Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados to establish diplomatic relations when other nations were fearful of so doing.
The Cubans made it clear that while trade with and investment in their country is based on a level playing field of polices and regulations, special consideration would be given to the Caricom private sector interested in doing business there. exporTT, Trinidad and Tobago’s export agency already has a trade facilitation office in Havana. I was informed that efforts are currently underway to source large supplies of urea from the twin-island republic and that a St Lucia based food company has begun exports to Cuba.
One of the constraints with supplying Cuba is that the country is looking for credit or payment arrangements that would not require up-front payments in full. In the case of Guyana, perhaps arrangements could be looked into to facilitate short-term credit for the supply of products and services. Cuba is a huge market, and getting a foothold early could bring tremendous long-term success to some Guyanese enterprises. The Private Sector Commission, the Ministries of Business and Foreign Affairs and the local banking community may want to explore an arrangement in this connection.
Among the areas open for trade and investment include agriculture, logistics, transportation, renewable energy, construction, electronic assembly, biotechnology, mining and tourism. The Cuban Chamber of Commerce has portfolios of 326 projects ready for investment.
Undoubtedly Cuba is a country in transition. Cognizant of the need to be fully integrated into the global financial system and to attract massive inflows of capital through investment, the Government of Cuba and the Communist Party have agreed on a series of adjustments or “reforms” to provide for private local and foreign participation in the economy. This, coupled with the enlightened Obama policy of normalizing relations and movement toward the eventual lifting of the more than 50 year embargo, has sparked a new enthusiasm among Cubans, especially its youth. According to US embassy officials, some 27 per cent of the labour force of Cuba is now employed in the private sector while a significant percentage is employed in joint venture associations between the state and private entrepreneurs.
The Mariel Special Development Zone offers a range of incentives as well as clear guidelines for operating in the zone. I was very impressed with the presentation given to me by the zone’s Director, Mr Carlos Mateu Pereira, and his team which included a clear explanation of the steps in the process from application to approval of a project which is guaranteed to be approved in no more than 65 days. I was also very impressed with the efficiency and professionalism of Cuban officials especially Mr Jesus Gonzalez, Director at the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment and Miss Niurka Marsan Morfa at the Chamber of Commerce.
The eventual lifting of the US embargo on Cuba will have an impact on Caricom economies. That impact for most countries can be positive if they begin to work now on the opportunities that are available. The challenges should not be daunting. A market of more than 11 million people should not be taken lightly.
For Guyana, doing business with Cuba should be one of the priorities of our private sector.