MONTREAL—Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States is creating a window of opportunity for Canadian business to invest in the island country, its ambassador said.
Ambassador Julio Garmendia Pena said that despite decades of friendly relations between Canada and Cuba, the lengthy U.S. “blockade” has made many Canadian companies reluctant to invest so as not to risk American sanctions.
But he said the more than 50-year-old relic of the Cold War will eventually slide into “the dustbin of history.”
“When that happens we’d like to see many Canadian investors,” Pena said during a speech to the Montreal Council of Foreign Relations.
He said Canada has underinvested in Cuba’s tourism sector even though more than 1.3 million Canadians vacation on the Caribbean’s largest island each year.
Currently, Canada is Cuba’s fourth-largest trading partner. Among its biggest investors is Sherritt International, which has extensive oil and power operations there.
Pena said Canada has a “moral advantage” over other countries seeking to do business because it has worked with Cuba in difficult times. But he said there is no financial advantage when competing for business against foreign rivals.
The communist government is looking to secure billions of dollars in foreign investment in the coming years and hopes to tap into Canada’s expertise in clean energy, agriculture, mining and biotechnology.
In addition, the two countries are enhancing sports and cultural ties. Cuba’s national baseball team will visit this summer for about 20 games to be played in Ottawa and several Quebec cities.
Pena said the recent state visit to Cuba by U.S. President Barack Obama has fostered unprecedented interest from potential foreign investors.
Delegations from Europe and elsewhere have helped to fill Havana hotels while a growing number of American congressmen and senators have visited for a first-hand look.
“Cuba is in fashion,” Pena said. “My suggestion is (investors) come today or tomorrow and not to wait until the embargo is over.”
Cuba has changed some laws to encourage investment. No taxes are paid on profits earned in the first eight years and are set at 15 per cent in subsequent years. There is also a free transfer of corporate dividends.
However, investors must have some level of ownership partnership with Cuban companies, often 50 per cent. The government also vows to preserve its socialist policies and defend its sovereignty and independence.
While relations have improved through Obama’s executive actions, normalization can only follow the ending of the embargo by the U.S. Congress and the occupation of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, said Pena.
He said such dramatic change is inevitable although he wouldn’t say how long he thinks it will take.
“The genie came out of the bottle and to put it back would be very difficult for anyone in the United States,” he said. “I even think the visit of Obama helped a little bit to make this process irreversible.”
The ambassador declined to weigh in on the impact of the U.S. presidential election, saying Cuba hopes to work with whomever is elected this fall.
Meanwhile, Cuba hopes to build upon its strong relationship with Canada by enhancing ties with the new Liberal government and rekindling the historic bond that existed between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Pena said he hopes state visits will take place soon, although no dates have been confirmed.