Trinidad and Tobago is Cuba’s biggest trading partner in the Caricom region — and fifth overall in Latin America — and both countries are looking forward to exploring new and bigger opportunities with each other.
“There is a commitment from Cuba to develop that relationship with the Caribbean as part of foreign policy for trade and integration in Caricom. We are working to try to facilitate trade, (whether it is) transportation and trade agreement to reduce tariffs, that will help trade activity between our countries,” Ruben Ramos, vice president of the Cuba Chamber of Commerce told Business Day last week. Ramos was the head of a 27-strong delegation of Cuban businesses showcasing their products at the TT Manufacturers’ Association (TTMA) annual Trade and Investment Convention at the Centre of Excellence in Macoya.
Among the Cuban participants were companies from sectors including biotech and pharmaceuticals, trade, food and agriculture, energy and petrochemicals, and culture. Being at TIC is “very important” for Cuba, Ramos said.
It’s part of the country’s own plans for economic and trade diversification. Foreign investment is a vital part of the country’s development strategy to 2030, Ramos said, especially in sectors like tourism, renewable energy, construction, agriculture, forestry, food, sugar, mining, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology — all of which Trinidadian businessmen are welcome to take advantage.
“The most recent trade statistics show that our trade does not reach the depth and stability that we are expecting and that the current international situation demands,” Ramos said.
Cuba, famous for being a socialist republic, has been subject to an economic blockade from the United States — the world’s biggest and most influential economy — since the early 1960s. This has complicated the country’s ability to develop its international trade.
Cuba’s total exports were US$2.535 billion, while imports were $10.28 billion. Its primary exports partners are Russia (22.9 per cent), Venezuela (15.4 per cent), and Spain (10.3 per cent), as of 2016. Cuba’s exports to TT were US$5.6 million, or 0.23 per cent. Its primary import partners are China (29.2 per cent), Spain (14 per cent), and Italy (5.1 per cent). Cuba’s imports from TT in 2016 were approximately US$68 million, or 0.66 per cent.
But current trends in international trade, including the announced trade wars between the US and China, as well as some of its European Union and North American Free Trade Agreement partners, complicates the international environment. So, Ramos said, Cuba and its Caribbean neighbours need to increase their ties for regional integration.
“When we are facing that kind of trade restriction from the US we are finding new opportunities with the Caribbean where the business community are opening its door for Cuba to diversify its export market. We have challenges but opportunity. We know it’s important to diversify the trade relationship despite the unfair blockade against my country by the US,” Ramos said.
TTMA president, Christopher Alcazar said TT also needs to expand its trade horizons in the Caribbean.
“When (TT exporters) look at the Caribbean, people tend to leave out markets like the Dominican Republic, which has 10.65 million, or Haiti with 10.85 million people, and Cuba with 11.5 million people. Instead they focus on Barbados, with 300,000 people, or Grenada, with 100,000 people. Sure, it’s easier for us to penetrate there since there’s no language barrier, but we have to be able to go beyond that into these big markets,” Alcazar told Business Day. It might take a while to overcome the language and even political and socio-economic barriers, he said, but once that’s done it can be a very worthwhile investment.
Several local companies have already established a footprint in Cuba. State-owned Caribbean Airlines in January launched twice-weekly flights to Havana, averaging flight loads of at least 90 per cent. Carib Glass just last week signed a sales agreement with rum producer, CubaRon SA, to provide bottles, and Sacha Cosmetics provides make-up for Cuban National Television broadcasters, and Trinidad Tissues provides high grade products for chain retailer Tiendas Caribe.
The US embargo does not stop local exporters from exploring the market. “I don’t think the embargo poses a problem for us. It’s not like the US has said (it’s one or the other.) It’s something that is put aside,” Alcazar said.