Caspian Energy (CE): Mr. Ambassador, Cuba and Azerbaijan are not very close to each other geographically, but in Baku the huge palm tree presented by Fidel Castro to National Leader of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev in the days of the former Soviet Union has always been carefully guarded from the cold and is still there in the city center. Which vectors in the relations between the two countries deserve special attention today?
Alfredo Nieves Portuondo, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Cuba to the Republic of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Georgia:I would like to say the following – during my staying here (since November 2016 – editorial note) at all official meetings, including the meeting with the President of Azerbaijan, it was noted that the Azerbaijan-Cuba political relations are at the very high level. At the same time our trade and economic relations should develop and reach the same level. That is why all my diplomatic efforts will focus on addressing this problem. One of my first meetings at the post of the Ambassador was devoted to participation in exhibitions and we were invited to take part in the tourism exhibition in Baku. If we can confirm our participation in this exhibition, it will be the first ever in the Cuban history participation in a tourism exhibition in Azerbaijan. You might know that tourism is one of the leading industries in Cuba. 4 million tourists visited Cuba last year. Like Azerbaijan, we are developing the tourism industry and started doing this about 20 years ago. We realized that we can show the world how beautiful Cuba is both geographically and culturally. Today Azerbaijan also has the great potential for the development of tourist exchange.
We can also talk about cooperation in the field of medicine, healthcare services and pharmaceutical industry. I was informed that the healthcare system is a prioritised sector in Azerbaijan. That is why it is possible to conduct exchange in the field of pharmaceuticals production and development biotechnology, and Cuba already has such experience with other countries. Our scientists, doctors and researchers invented a number of pharmaceuticals helpful for cancer diseases, skin diseases, diabetes and other diseases.
Also, I would like to mention the ways that could improve our relations. In particular, we can talk about investment cooperation through Azerbaijani investments in Cuba. Azerbaijan has always been famous for its variety of agricultural crops. Both USSR and Cuba were well aware of the agricultural products of Azerbaijan. We know that the Government of Azerbaijan is making great contribution to the development of the agricultural sector. Creation of a joint venture in this area could contribute to the development of relations in the tourism sector.
CE:Mr. Ambassador, what kind of production can be talked about in this case?
Alfredo Nieves Portuondo: This is about conservation of products, supplies of exotic tropical fruits to Azerbaijan and other countries across the region through Azerbaijan. I believe this is the very sector that should be developed successfully. For example, Belarus supplies dairy products to Cuba, and we supply it with fruits. We also have the trade exchange with Russia. Some European countries can be mentioned as well. I see a big potential in the field of tourism because geographical conditions of the two countries are very different and when it is winter in Baku, it is summer in Cuba, namely the famous white sand beaches, transparent clear waters and tropical landscapes. We are happy to share our unique world-renowned culture with tourists. For example Cuban music, emotional dances are the school for very many countries worldwide. Our artists, theaters, actors are the epitome of the Latin American style. And, of course, our revolutionary history which has proven that it is possible to survive even under the onslaught of the empire. This is one of the common points and here we have something in common with Azerbaijan. It is now very convenient to fly to Cuba from Istanbul to Havana. This flight was opened in December last year.
CE: Cuba is famous for sugarcane production …
Alfredo Nieves Portuondo: For over a century the sugar industry has been the major industry in Cuba. The Spanish Colonial period in Cuba and the U.S. neocolonial domination over Cuba has made Cuba a country of the sugar industry. And in the Soviet times Cuba used to supply sugar to the socialist countries. Of course, when the USSR and the socialist camp collapsed, we faced the very difficult situation because we continued to produce sugar, but did not know what to do with it. Currently we produce sugar, but in much smaller volumes. In particular, we produce famous Cuban rum from it. TECNOAZUCAR company is engaged in export of sugar products. The tobacco industry is also one of our developed industries.
Trade and economic embargo badly affects the Cuban economy…
CE:What is thetrade turnover between Cuba and Azerbaijan?
Alfredo Nieves Portuondo: Unfortunately, it is still low due to the economic crisis and still continuing financial blockade against Cuba. France, Spain and several other countries are contributing investment into our economy now. This area is developing.
CE: Mr. Ambassador, what is the Cuba’s opinion about the recent decision of the US President to erect a wall with Mexico? Are not you concerned about so radical economic methods?
Alfredo Nieves Portuondo: If you ask my opinion, I think we should wait. As far as our relations with the United States are concerned, all Cuba wants today is the respect towards the path Cuba has chosen and will continue going that way. Of course, Cuba respects the policy of the United States and any other country in the world as well, but the blockade continues. It has not been lifted yet. During Barack Obama’s administration some elements have been removed partially, but in general it continues. At the last year’s session of the General Assembly of the United Nations 191 countries voted in favor of lifting the blockade and the two countries - Israel and the United States - for the first time in history chose a neutral position unlike all the previous years when they voted against lifting the blockade. Financial restrictions still remain in force. The trade and economic financial embargo still exists, badly affecting the Cuban economy and our development.
CE: Could you pleasetell about your plans for this year?
Alfredo Nieves Portuondo: In the next 6 months we intend to provide Azerbaijani businesspeople with maximum information about the exhibition in Havana. The exhibition devoted to foreign trade will be held in November. We would like to see large national companies of Azerbaijan participating in it. Here Azerbaijan can show its potential in the energy sector.
Also on my agenda is a meeting with AZPROMO. At the same time I intend to take part in the Caspian Ambassadors Club meeting on 8 February and in the business forum of the Caspian European Club and Caspian American Club to be hosted on April 12 in Baku. We will provide all the information about these events to Cuban entrepreneurs. We plan to take part in various topic-based exhibitions in the field of medicine, healthcare, education, oil and gas to be hosted by ITECA Caspian in Azerbaijan. We also would like to see Azerbaijan participating in our exhibitions to be held in Cuba.
CE: Mr. Ambassador, what exhibition is going to be hosted in Cuba in the near future?
Alfredo Nieves Portuondo: In Maywe are hosting the tourism exhibition in Havana and invite the Ministry of Tourism of Azerbaijan as well as tourism companies to participate actively in this event.
CE: Mr. Ambassador, what do you think about a potential for cooperation in the oil and gas sector?
Alfredo Nieves Portuondo: More and more exploration work is currently underway in Cuba. We are exploring the north of the Gulf of Mexico within our sectoral triangle. Geological surveys in the deepwater area, which are conducted by the companies from Vietnam, Norway, Russia, France and Brazil, have confirmed the presence of large hydrocarbon reserves there.
Certainly, Azerbaijan has the richest experience in this area, with more than a hundred years of oil and gas production. In the past a lot of students from Cuba got education at the Baku university now called the Azerbaijan State of Oil and Industry University. Today they are the highly-skilled professionals in executive positions, who successfully work in this field in Cuba.
Thank you for the interview