What now appears to be an emerging trend towards a modest breakthrough for the local rice industry on the Cuban market is a sign, albeit a modest one, that some inroads are being made to attempt to compensate for what was once a considerable market in Venezuela. Without dwelling on the PetroCaribe Agreement it would not be inappropriate to mention, particularly at this time the successful negotiation of a market for rice in Venezuela was unquestionably the high point of relations between Guyana and Venezuela during the Hugo Chavez presidency and that since then the re-emergence of ‘noises’ in Venezuela regarding its ago-old territorial claim and the recent United Nations ruling that the matter will now engage the attention of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has eroded the status of relations between the two countries, compared with at least part of the period of the Chavez presidency. What the PetroCaribe deal did accomplish, however, was to demonstrate that it is possible for the two countries to ‘do business,’ the persistence of Venezuela’s territorial claim notwithstanding, so that selling rice in the future might not be exactly a pipe dream.
Our immediate concern, however, is with the new opportunity provided by the Cuba market which we understand is ‘good for’ upwards of 500,000 tonnes annually. First Nand Persaud and Company sent representatives to Havana to talk with ALIMPORT, the state-owned entity responsibility for rice importation. These sorties into Cuba by local private sector officials – again a relatively new development in relations between Georgetown and Havana – were, as we understand it, followed by return visits here by ALIMPORT officials who then had the opportunity to conduct their due diligence on the facilities of the two companies in Guyana. From all that we know the movement of shipments of rice from both local companies to Cuba has gone well and when last we heard Nand Persaud was in the process of tying up a new deal with Cuba.
Those developments apart, one gets a sense that the various visits to Cuba by local private sector officials over the past year and developments like the “shopping tourism” associated with large numbers of visiting Cubans and the services that attend this development are themselves signs of a growing familiarity between Cuba and our private sector officials. In every instance where we have engaged our private sector officials on their Cuba trips, they have unfailingly ‘talked up’ the role of the Guyana Embassy in Havana. They have made the point, particularly, that our Embassy in Havana has been instrumental not only in facilitating meetings with Cuban state officials but in helping them to understand “how to do business in Cuba” and facilitating reception in Georgetown. In two notable instances, private sector visitors to Havana have made a point of saying to this newspaper that their trips to Cuba would probably not have been successful as they eventually turned out to be, without the support of the Embassy in Havana.
We note that these developments have occurred against the backdrop of a very public focus on the “economic diplomacy” focus of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – a term which we feel is yet to be adequately explained/clarified for the purpose of public enlightenment. While economic diplomacy can hardly be limited to our overseas missions serving as chaperones for business travelers to countries in which there are Guyana diplomatic missions, there can be no question than that it smooths the way for the individual businessman or delegation, faced as they could well be with language or logistical challenges or with a need for various other support services that might not be easily (or inexpensively) secured in a foreign capital.
So that while we are told that economic diplomacy is high on the list of priorities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that the Guyana diplomatic and consular missions abroad are among the tools that can be deployed in pursuit of that effort, there may be something to be gained (despite what we are told about the discretion associated with diplomacy) for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be a good deal more forthcoming than it usually is inclined to be on the pursuits of our missions abroad in the area of economic diplomacy. Meanwhile, we believe that it is not without significance that a private sector, sections of which had not too long ago appeared to see diplomacy purely from the perspective of cocktails and meaningless conversations is now prepared, without the least prompting to recognize and value the nexus between their own business pursuits and the economic diplomacy role played by our diplomatic missions abroad. That, at least, appears to be the case with our Embassy in Havana.