Since 2010, the Republic of Cuba has initiated several social and economic liberalization policies that have stimulated the country’s dynamic growth and sustainable development. The Times recently had an opportunity to learn more about these initiatives during an exclusive interview with His Excellency Andrés González Garrido, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Cuba to the State of Kuwait.
In a wide-ranging discussion that covered the strong and friendly bilateral diplomatic ties that were forged in 1974, to opportunities for Kuwaiti investments in Cuba’s new Mariel Special Development Zone, the ambassador was upbeat in his assessment of his country’s future, as well as in further entrenching the existing firm and friendly relations between Cuba and Kuwait.
“Subsequent to presenting my credentials to His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah in August 2013, the embassy and I have been working diligently to consolidate existing good relations and transform them into tangible trade and economic ties between our two countries,” said Ambassador Garrido. He added, “I would like to mention here my utmost appreciation to the leadership and government of Kuwait for the warm welcome accorded to me, and for unstinted support and cooperation extended to the embassy, since I assumed office.”
Prior to his arrival in Kuwait, His Excellency was for four years Cuba’s ambassador to the Republic of Suriname and before that he held two tenures in Italy, first at the embassy in Rome and then as Consul General at the consulate in Milan. Interspersed between these overseas postings were services at various sections of the Cuban Foreign Ministry in Havana, including in the Protocol Division. The diplomat clarified that his overseas diplomatic career really began with a short stint at his country’s consulate in Spain’s Canary Islands, which was followed by three years at the Cuban Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Saying that high-level visits by dignitaries from both countries have further helped cement the already strong relations between Cuba and Kuwait, the envoy added, “The visit to Cuba in 2010 by Kuwait’s Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah heralded a new chapter in relations between our two nations. The depth of our relationship was reflected in numerous visits to Kuwait by Cuban dignitaries, including the visit in early 2012 by His Excellency Roberto Morales Ojeda, the Cuban inister of Health and in the middle of last year by His Excellency Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz, the Minister of External Trade and Foreign Investment.
During these visits, the ministers and their accompanying delegations met with Kuwaiti Cabinet ministers and top government officials to exchange views on issues of mutual interest. Also, during these fruitful visits, numerous agreements and memorandums of understandings aimed at boosting economic, social and cultural ties between the two countries were signed. In agreement with Kuwait’s sports club a Cuban boxing coacher will come to the country from early 2014. Coaches for different sports discipline, including basketball, volleyball, tracking and field, are expected to have a bearing on Kuwaiti sports in the coming year.
Pointing out that more than 40,000 trained Cuban doctors currently work in Venezuela and thousands more are employed in the Brazilian health sector, the ambassador noted with pride that Cuban doctors and other specialized medical personnel are well-received around the world. He revealed that one of the agreements signed between Cuba and Kuwait calls for increased cooperation in the health sector, especially in the field of ophthalmology and in the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes.
Elaborating on the two-way trade between the two countries, the diplomat said there was plenty of scope for further growth: “We are extremely appreciative for support from state institutions like the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED,) which has been extending soft loans since 2003 for various infrastructural projects in Cuba, such as the water rehabilitation projects in the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Holguín, as well as a loan agreement signed in 2012 for reconstruction of water and sewer lines in Havana. While these financings on the state-level are much appreciated, we also welcome more Kuwaiti investments in the Cuban economy.”
“Other than in the traditional import of Cuban cigars, there are many areas in which Cuban and Kuwaiti businesses can enhance their cooperation for mutual benefit. Cuba is leading producer of sugar, coffee, fresh fruits and sea-foods; in addition the country also has a robust pharmaceutical production base and a lucrative mining industry. Moreover, we have a vibrant tourism industry; over three million travelers from around the world visit Cuba each year and there is a huge potential for catering to the needs of these visitors, including investments in tourism infrastructure,” noted the envoy.
Expanding on the ambitious Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM), the ambassador said that the project is expected to increase foreign investment to the island and bring about significant structural changes to the regional economy. He added, “Kuwaiti entrepreneurs and businesses will find the strategic location of the zone especially attractive as it will give them direct access to the large markets in South and Central America, as well as to the wide grouping of Caribbean nations.” Hailed as being for the “present and future of Cuba,” by the Cuban President Raúl Castro, the Mariel Zone, covering 470 sq km just west of Havana, will eventually add port terminals, logistics facilities, distribution and warehouse facilities, as well as industrial and service parks.
At the core of ZEDM is a $900 million container terminal that is being built mainly from a US$ one billion investment from Brazil. The first phase of the terminal is slated to begin operations in early 2014, and, once completed, the terminal will replace the Port of Havana as Cuba’s main port of entry for goods. The terminal is eventually expected to be at the forefront of shipping hubs in the region, especially with the widening of the Panama Canal expected to be completed in 2015.
Describing economic model of his country as updating, Ambassador Garrido said that non state workers and cooperative ownership of the Cuban economy is expanding at a phenomenal rate. Since October 2010, when the enlargement process started work on their own, the number of non state workers , increased from 157 000 to over 442,000. It was confirmed the validity of this opinion as a source of employment and production and services for the population, liberating the state from such activities. ZEDM aims to build on this initiative and to motivate foreign and domestic investment through incentives, stimulating technological innovation, and implementing industrial clustering in the zone. Companies setting up in the ZEDM will have access to the Cuba’s educated and experienced workforce and be able to provide goods and services in an efficient and cost-effective manner to the Cuban and international markets.”
Among the incentives being offered to entrepreneurs and businesses setting up shop in the zone is the prospect of 100-percent foreign ownership, as well as allowing foreign companies to import and re-export goods with little red tape and duty-free, while enjoying special tax structures. The ZEDM also offers reduced bureaucracy with companies in ZEDM going through single-window clearance at the ‘Oficina’ a special office set up by ministerial degree to facilitate activities in the zone. The ‘Oficina’, will evaluate applications and make recommendations directly to the Council of Ministers or to the general director of the Oficina, and a decision will be taken within a month of receiving an application.
Speaking about cultural exchanges, the diplomat said, “We strongly believe that cultural ties between countries help to foster and strengthen bilateral relations on the popular level. On this basis, we consider our main export of Cuban cigars not only for their economic value but also for the goodwill it generates for our country. In Kuwait, there is appreciation for the fine handmade Cuban cigars and every year a contingent of cigar aficionados from the country travel to the International Cigar Fair in Havana.”
“In early 2014, the embassy, along with cigar importers in the country, is looking to hold a cigar exhibition in Kuwait. During the exhibition, visitors can witness the torcedora’, or the cigar roller, crafting some of the finest handmade cigars in the world. As part of our cultural engagement we are also working with Kuwait’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters to bring to Kuwait, probably in the middle of 2014, La Colmenita, the renowned theater and music group comprising of talented Cuban boys and girls.”
Revealing his experience in Kuwait during the few months he has been here with his wife, Ambassador Garrido said, “I have thoroughly enjoyed my stay here and it is not an exaggeration to state that Kuwait has been like a home away from home. Kuwait is a very friendly country and we have been made most welcome here by everyone concerned, including the government, the people and of course, you people from the media. I thank everyone for this courtesy and hope the existing good relations between our two countries will continue to increase in the coming months and years ahead.”