A business round-table in Havana, organised by the Economist and entitled 'Cuba: Open for business', got off to a good start when Canada's Secretary of State for Latin America, Christine Stewart, showed up to announce that her government was in effect defying the US, its partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement, by resuming humanitarian and economic development aid to Cuba after a 16-year freeze.
She said the move would allow Canada's Agency for International Development to fund projects in Cuba via private companies and non-governmental organisations.
'Canada's aim is to promote peaceful and orderly change in the economic and political spheres in Cuba,' she said. Britain's ambassador to Cuba, Leycester Coltman, who attended the conference here, said Britain supported that view, in sharp contrast to the continuing tough US stance against the communist Caribbean island.
The British line is that business dealings with Cuba will encourage peaceful change, while confrontation runs the risk of creating an unpredictable Cuban regime in the event of Fidel Castro's demise. Patrick McLoughlin, junior trade minister, is due in Havana in September on the first ministerial-level visit since the 1970s.
The Canadian move, seen as a dramatic breakthrough in Cuba's efforts to offset the US blockade, came only a few weeks after the private Grupo Domos from the US's other Nafta partner, Mexico, landed a dollars 1.5bn deal to help update Cuba's tattered telephone system. Britain's Cable and Wireless had hoped to get involved in streamlining Cuban communications and may yet play a role.
Cuban officials said they hoped tourism and new oil reserves would eventually take over from sugar as the country's main money-earners. They were at pains to point out that the collapse of the Soviet Union had crushed the Cuban economy virtually overnight. Eighty-five per cent of Cuban trade was with the Soviet bloc. The island's exports plunged from dollars 8.1bn in 1989 to dollars 1.7bn last year.
But Osmany Cienfuegos, tourism minister, said Cuba made dollars 700m from tourism last year and hoped to top dollars 1bn next.
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