2 May 2016
Issue number 869
Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has become the latest high level European political figure to travel to Cuba and meet with President Castro and senior ministers.
During an April 28-29 visit, Mr Hammond held talks with President Castro, Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas, and the Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, and signed a number of agreements aimed at increasing trade and co-operation between the two countries.
These regularise outstanding issues relating to Cuba’s medium and long term debt with the UK, as well as four memorandums of understanding relating to education, energy, culture, and financial and professional services.
During his discussion with President Castro and Cuban Ministers, the idea emerged that the UK might support the development of Cuba’s financial services sector.
Speaking about this, Mr Hammond said that President Castro had said to him directly “we lack management expertise in banking services, and this is an area where the UK has something very clear to offer”.
More generally, the British Foreign Secretary said that the main sectors where Britain saw opportunity in Cuba were in financial services, tourism and renewable energy.
However, Mr Hammond said, challenges to doing business in Cuba remain, not least due to the US trade embargo.
“We have had discussions with the US about the challenges for British and other European banks in doing business with countries that face US sanctions,” Mr Hammond told journalists. “There are some problems here but we are working through them with the US and hope to make progress in a way that will enable British businesses to do more business with Cuba,” he was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Cuban reports said that in his meeting with his Cuban counterpart, Mr Rodriguez said that relations with the UK were a priority for the island, just as with the rest of Europe. The Cuban Foreign Minister was also reported to have expressed satisfaction with the favourable development of bilateral relations and progress in the fields of culture, sports, trade, tourism and investment, and highlighted the potential for further expansion.
Speaking to journalists at the British Embassy after his April 29 meeting with President Castro, Mr Hammond said that they had a long and interesting discussion. “He is espousing a programme of gradual change, embracing the realities of the world we live in… Castro is seeking to position himself in the middle between those who are resisting change and those who want much faster, more radical change,” Mr Hammond said.
The British Foreign Secretary also said that he was very struck by the fact that President Castro described the internet as the reality of our world, and that he spoke positively about the benefits the internet could bring.
Prior to his departure, Mr Hammond had said that there was great potential to further improve relations and was quoted as saying that he was looking forward to demonstrating to the Cuban government that Britain was keen to forge new links across the Atlantic as Cuba entered a period of significant social and economic change. It was an opportunity, he said, to hear what Cuba thinks about its present challenges and where it sees its future.
His visit was the first by a senior British Cabinet Minister to Cuba since Cuba’s 1959 revolution, and the first by a serving British Foreign Secretary. In UK terms it was also the first by a ‘political’ minister. Mr Hammond was combining it with the 9th UK Caribbean Forum which took place in Nassau immediately after his visit to Havana.
In EU terms the visit reflected the new policy of dialogue with Havana and the agreement reached in March to sign a political dialogue and co-operation agreement after two years of negotiations. The framework agreement is expected to lead to a closer trade and development relationship.
During his stay, Mr Hammond met with representatives from Cuban civil society and the British business community in Havana.
The Cuban official media described the meeting with President Castro as cordial.
This is an extract from the Caribbean Council’s weekly Cuba Briefing, a leading publication that provides detailed and accurate news on economic, social and political developments inside Cuba to corporate interests with a long term economic relationship with the island.
The publication is available internationally on a subscription-only basis for those in business, government and the academic world who wish to understand on a weekly basis developments relating to Cuba.