With the United States lifting a 50-year-old ban on commercial air travel to Cuba in February this year, the Caribbean island nation is of growing interest to travellers, both business and leisure. Soon there could be a hundred flights operating daily between the US and Cuba. Moreover, South Korea and Cuba holding their first foreign ministerial talks in Havana, breaking decades-long absence of formal diplomatic exchanges between the two sides were concrete reasons to speak to Ambassador Oscar I. Martinez Cordoves of Cuba in New Delhi. THE BLUE MOON Editor Amit Mittal had an interesting dialogue with the new Cuban Ambassador. We bring to you the excerpts of the interview.
It appears to be good news that soon there will be 90 flights daily between the United States and Cuba after a gap of over five decades. What is your opinion?
There will be a hundred commercial flights daily between America and Cuba, but unfortunately American tourists will still be prohibited to fly to Cuba while all others will be free to use these flights. US laws have permitted only 12 categories of American travellers to travel to Cuba, tourists are out of this ambit. Most Americans will want to travel to Cuba as tourists provided the US Congress allows them to do so. Interestingly, in spite of the law prohibiting American tourists, over 150000 Americans visited Cuba in 2015 and in this year the number is expected to reach a million.
Yesterday South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se arrived in the Cuban capital. Korea and Cuba held their first foreign ministerial talks in Havana. Will this bring some sea change in diplomatic ties?
We don’t know what has been the content of discussions so far. But we have ties with North Korea.
During 1980s, trade between India and Cuba stood around USD 300 million annually, it has gone down drastically after the break-up of the Soviet Union. It is down to USD 38.8 million as recorded in 2014-2015. What is the reason behind this fall in trade although the relations between the two countries are as good as ever?
We had gone into deep financial crisis at that time, so there was no money due to the American blockade against Cuba. Before 1959, seventy per cent of the sugar produced in the island which was being exported to the US got a jolt. Not only this, international financial institutions, 80 per cent of which were controlled by America, were not allowed to give credit to Cuba after the triumph of the Revolution. At the time of the sixties when USD 20 billion were given out as credits to Latin American countries by credit institutions, Cuba was not given a single penny. The situation was grave. Eighty five per cent of our trade was with the Soviet Union which protected 85 per cent of our economy from the blockade.
At the end of the 50s Cuba refused to bow down to the US policy of letting go its sovereignty; Cuba decided to be an independent country. This was the reason which led the US take drastic measures against Cuba. There was no credit from India at that time. However, in 2012 the government of India decided to waive a debt of USD 30 million. It also gave a line of credit under which we are running five economic projects that include fertiliser production, manufacture of milk products and products from sugarcane. We were producing 8.5 million tons of sugarcane per annum, but now we have shifted the focus to industrialisation. Today we are strong in the service industry. From a total population of 11.1 million Cubans, over 1.2 million are professionals. We are specialising in export in the service sector.
What other sectors is Cuba strong in other than the famous COHIBA cigars and the Havana Club rum?
Our nickel production is highest. We export nickel and cobalt. Tourism is a growing industry. In 2015, 3.5 million foreign tourists mainly from Canada, Europe and Latin America visited Cuba. We hope good numbers from India will also come in near future. Also when the US Congress permits, we expect substantial tourists from the United States.
Tourism is the mortar of the development of economy.
We have also made strong inroads into biotech industry. After the fall of USSR, we began building this industry. We have well educated professionals and large numbers in healthcare.
We can collaborate with India in the field of healthcare where we have lot of experience. We have one doctor to attend to 130 Cubans. The infant mortality rate in Cuba is four in a thousand. The average age for women is 80 years. Our primary and secondary healthcare could be interesting to India. Cuban companies can collaborate with India in biotechnology. We can complement each other.
Cuba has developed very important vaccines against lung cancer and diabetic feet which can lead to cure rather than amputation of the foot. The results are 70 per cent positive. We make 30 different types of medicines which are known over the world.
Is there any Indian investment in Cuba today?
No, at the moment there is no Indian investment. India has concentrated in other regions. As far as the Latin American region is concerned, India has been slow in responding. Cuba has large potential in many fields, for instance the tyre industry. We are expecting a visit by a delegation of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) this year end. This will be the first Indian business delegation to the Caribbean region.
What about visa regulations between India and Cuba?
Travellers from both sides require a visa except for official passport holders. We are not included in India’s e-visa list so far. Less than 10000 Indians travel to Cuba. Now 20 flights will start. Chinese airline already started a flight from Beijing to Havana via Canada last year.