In Dialogue With Ambassador Jorge Soberon.
CUBA is on the move. Business opportunities are opening up in many of its semi-untouched markets – and international business leaders are seeing dollar signs as the Obama administration moves to restore economic and diplomatic ties with the island. From airlines, hotel chains and telecommunications firms – to business consultants, exporters and retailers, private capitalists are all jostling for a piece of the pie.
Since the Cuban government loosened restrictions on private enterprise – reflecting changing times – hundreds of thousands of small enterprises have been started by Cuban nationals. For its part, Cuba’s Communist Party, which held its Seventh Congress this month, appears to be moving cautiously towards increased trade and private enterprise. In an interview with His Excellency Jorge Soberon, Cuba’s Ambassador to Saint Lucia and the O.E.C.S, I asked about the economic and political future of Cuba and the impact of the normalization of U.S/Cuba relations on CARICOM economies.
CWS: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for agreeing to sit with me and talk about the economic and political intrigues of Cuba at this historic juncture, and the implications for Caribbean economies. What’s the exact nature of the economic evolution taking place in Cuba presently?
AMB: I would first like to extend fraternal greetings to the dear people of Saint Lucia and to thank them for the expressions of support and sympathy for Cuba which I have witnessed since I took up duties on this beautiful island. Cuba is working to build a prosperous and sustainable socialism. To achieve this goal, we are updating our economic and social model and a 2030 development plan has been launched, having taken into account the popular opinion. Essentially, the development of the economy is our fundamental goal. We have decided that no one will be left behind in Cuba as a result of this process, and that we will not apply any “shock therapy”. Thus we will not privatize social services, or apply any measures that will harm the unity of the people or which will generate instability or uncertainty. We will advance on the basis of consensus and national organization, and not in an improvised or desperate manner. The resources that determine the development of the nation will remain in the hands of state enterprises. Until now, we have managed to restructure our foreign debt. We will never depend on either a market or a product. At the same time, we have put in place a new “Law on Foreign Investment” which protects the environment and allows for the efficient use of our natural resources. We recognize the market’s role in the functioning of our economy, particularly in terms of planning and private enterprise. However, we also wish to protect our history, our identity and our culture. In this process we have considered the idea of our national hero José Martí that “to govern is to foresee”.
CWS: Cuba is a market of 11 million people. As its economy grows and the purchasing capacity of its population increases, its attractiveness as a place for investment will rise correspondingly. What are the implications for Saint Lucia and the wider Caribbean of U.S. President Obama’s visit to Cuba and the opening-up of the Cuban market?
AMB: Cuba will work towards the sustainable development of its economic and trade relations with its neighbours. The new “Law on Foreign Investment”, the Economic Zone of Mariel (west of Havana) as well as the development of the Cuban economy, offer important opportunities for Saint Lucia and the Caribbean. We are interested in the increased presence of Saint Lucia and the wider Caribbean in our relatively huge market of 11 million people that sees more than 3.5 million tourists per year. Our relations have their own dynamics and the gradual elimination of U.S. economic, trade and financing restrictions, which have cost us more than 121 billion dollars since the U.S. severed ties in 1961, will definitely facilitate closer economic ties with Saint Lucia and the Caribbean and will promote peace in the region.
CWS: According to the Peterson Institute of International Economics, U.S. exports to Cuba totalled $360 million last year. If the trade embargo were to be eliminated, that number could increase to as high as $4.3 billion. If the trade embargo is fully rescinded, could Cuba be the new emerging economy in the Caribbean, and should CARICOM be worried?
AMB: The lifting of the U.S embargo can contribute significantly to the sustainable development of Cuba in the economic, social and cultural spheres, and would therefore help raise the living standards of our people. As our Government has stated, even if the U.S. embargo is lifted, the expansion and diversification of economic and trade relations with CARICOM will remain a priority. Of course, we won’t forget those who have accompanied us in all these difficult years. Cuba is an emerging opportunity for the Caribbean, not a threat. Saint Lucia and the Caribbean have demonstrated their ability to compete successfully with regional economic actors greater than Cuba. We will always defend the legitimate economic and environmental interests of the Caribbean nations, including Haiti. Our approach is not to advance at the expense of any other country or group of countries, but to work with all for the good of all. We need to continue to strengthen our co-operation in order to address our vulnerabilities and to broaden our economic and trade relations.
CWS: Sir Ronald Sanders, a respected Caribbean diplomat, has said and I quote: “The game has changed. The rest of the Caribbean should have seen this coming and prepared themselves to cope with it. There were certainly enough warnings…Caribbean countries will have to improve their own competitiveness and create better and smarter conditions for business. They should waste no time in doing so. The challenges will come in two crucial areas: Tourism and investment from the U.S.” Is he right?
AMB: I have always read with great interest the approach and perspectives of Sir Ronald Sanders. Just allow me to say this: Cuba believes that the Caribbean as a whole needs to move forward together to achieve its rightful place in the world. Let’s work together to turn these challenges into opportunities.
CWS: An event last year at Havana’s Panorama Hotel provided a unique view into the future of Cuba. Some 50 would-be business owners attended Cuba’s first-ever Startup Weekend, listening to presentations, holding workshops and refining business models. Is it reasonable to say that venture capitalists seeking an opportunity that could rival the type of explosive growth seen in Vietnam need look no further than to Cuba?
AMB: We recognize that foreign investment should play an important role in the development of our country and therefore we offer significant incentives and legal certainty to investors, needless to say that the updating of our economic policies offers plenty of advantages to potential investors: stability, qualified personnel, a favourable location, natural resources, a new port and economic zone at Mariel, ten international airports, the investment protection agreements signed with different countries, the existence of an Investment Promotion Agency and a Chamber of Commerce. Information about foreign investment can be found at camaracuba.cu.
CWS: Cuba is known to have one of the best health care systems in the world. Of course, Cuba’s contribution to health care in Saint Lucia is well-documented. How do you see this relationship developing with the eventual commissioning of two new hospitals in Saint Lucia?
AMB: As a starting point, let me mention that Cuba has been cooperating with Saint Lucia on health for fifteen years now. During that period, our medical staff in Saint Lucia have treated more than 164,000 patients and performed more than 17,000 surgeries, including eye surgeries. More than 240 Saint Lucians have completed programmes in the health sciences through our scholarship programme. Cuba is willing to expand the presence of its medical services and products in Saint Lucia. One example is the possible use of the Cuban product Heberprot-P, an effective therapy for diabetic foot ulcers that reduces the risk of limb amputation by 70%, and this has been used in 180,000 patients in 26 countries. Cuba is willing to further strengthen relations with Saint Lucia in the health sector, both through technical co-operation and through economic partnership that brings mutual benefits.
CWS: How can Saint Lucia and Cuba better co-operate in the area of education?
AMB: Let’s look at the effective and low-cost Cuban adult literacy programme known as “Yes I Can”, which is recognized by UNESCO and has been used successfully in about thirty countries. “Yes I Can” has resulted in more than nine million people becoming literate, from the Caribbean to New Zealand. Also, we see great opportunity in a potential language learning initiative, whereby Cubans learn English and Saint Lucians learn Spanish. Further, Cuba supports the promotion of teacher exchange programmes and other cultural exchanges between our countries.
CWS: Finally Mr. Ambassador, with the eventual opening up of Cuba, do you see the Cuban economy eventually transforming into a (hybrid) state-led market economy like China or a social market economy based on the Scandinavian model?
AMB: We want a sovereign, socialist, democratic, prosperous and sustainable nation. Our economic model must take into account our history, our culture, our internal conditions and the international situation, and crucially learn from the experience of countries like China and Vietnam. Our socialism has been sufficiently democratic to successfully combat unemployment, to guarantee the livelihoods of people unable to work and to ensure access for all to health care, education, culture and sports. That notwithstanding, Cuba will become more democratic and will ensure that the citizens increasingly participate in the fundamental decisions in the society and economy.
CWS: Thank you, Your Excellency.