The Results from Diaz Canel’s Tour of Allied Countries

A lot of foraging and not a lot of nuts

Cuban president Miguel Diaz Canel. Phojto: Xinhua

Beyond secrecy, which is already a common practice around here, what is known or can be deduced from this media show of a trip?

By Jose Manuel Gonzalez Rubines (La Joven Cuba) 

HAVANA TIMES – One of the strangest trips a leader has ever made in History, was that of Mansa Musa I, the king of Mali, to Mecca. Word has it the king was so rich and generous, that when he passed through Cairo, he gave so much gold out in charity, that he caused massive inflation. President Miguel Diaz-Canel’s recent tour of Argelia, Russia, Turkey and China is the opposite of this story.

His journey, onboard the Airbus 340-600, YV3535, on Venezuela’s state-owned airline Conviasa, has been called an “energy trip”; others have called it the “charity tour” or the “compassion tour”.

An analysis of statements made in each country, allow us to reveal the real motivations behind the trip: to renegotiate Cuba’s debt yet again – which according to the latest report published in 2019, has risen to 19.6 billion USD -; to ask for help to solve the desperate energy crisis and to attract investment in its few half-attractive sectors.

Figuring out exactly what response he received is difficult, as a lack of transparency and preciseness looms over many agreements. According to journalist Arleen Rodriguez, who summarized the tour is five sickly-sweet articles in government media, there is a reason why: “From the times of Jose Marti and the Cuban War of Independence up until these long years of non-stop economic war, “there are some things that have to remain hidden in order to achieve them…”

Beyond secrecy, which is already a common practice around here, what is known or can be deduced from this media show of a trip?

First stop: Algeria (16-19 November)

After traveling 4482 kms and nine hours in the air, the party arrived in Algiers, the capital of the 58th best economy in the world based on GDP. As Head of State, President Diaz-Canel posted a Tweet about his trip to this country to congratulate Cuban students, on November 17th: “we managed to reach excellent agreements for our economy with our Algerian brothers and sisters.”

Some of these agreements come down to restructuring Cuba’s debt with Algeria – the sum of which is unknown -, as well as waiving late interest payments and delaying payments “for another time”, so as to “provide some relief to Cuba’s economic situation,” Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune kindly said.

He also spoke about the donation of a solar power plant to Havana via a joint enterprise; resuming fuel deliveries to supply power plants, increasing medical collaboration efforts and working together on sugar production, with no other details about this last issue other than the announcement.

President Tebboune was pleased bilateral agreements would resume with Cuba, which were “unfortunately interrupted in 2019”, he said without going into further detail. Nevertheless, this interruption clearly coincided with the end of his predecessor Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s two decades in power, who had to give up his ambitions of being reelected for the fifth time, at 82 years old, because of popular protests led by the opposition.

Miguel Diaz-Canel and Abdelmadjud Tebboune, president of Algeria. (Photo: Al Mayadeen Net)

Energy-related relations between both nations date back to 2016. An article published on September 9th that year, in Algeria’s Echorouk newspaper, said that the national oil company Sonatrach would transport crude oil to the island for the first time in history, to compensate fuel shortages produced by the Venezuelan crisis.

It’s also important to put into context – stripped of the usual triumphalism – just how practical the donation of a solar energy plant is, that will be installed in Havana, but “will interconnect to the National Grid and benefit every Cuban, from Pinar del Rio to Guantanamo,” according to the minister of Energy and Mining.

The size of this plant hasn’t been disclosed as of yet, however, one of Algeria’s largest solar energy plants is El Kheneg, which has 240,000 solar panels, with a capacity of 60 MWp. According to Cuba’s Office of Statistics and Information, Havana consumed 3320.6 Gwh between January and December 2021. Thus, if the donated solar power plant is similar to El Kheneg in size – one of the largest in the donor country – the power it generates won’t be a vital contribution to satisfy the capital’s demand, let alone the country’s.

In terms of healthcare agreements, bilateral relations are much older and date back to the 1970s. In fact, there are 882 Cuban collaborators in Algeria’s most underdeveloped areas today, and the revenue Cuba receives is still unknown.

Nevertheless, Algeria’s Official Journal of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria – which is the equivalent to Cuba’s Official Gazette – published the Decree that details Cuban medical collaboration efforts, on May 21, 2020. The article explains how much is paid for these services per year in fields such as maternal/pediatric healthcare, urology, oncology and ophthalmology. The Cuban State should be pocketing 61,7 million euros in total from this agreement.

In light of the above, and despite there definitely being some developments linked to exchanging services and investment, the trip to Algeria was more about resuming economic relations that had come to a halt in 2019, and waiving the island’s payments on its foreign debt with that country.

Second stop: Russia (19-22 November)

Going against the lack of transparency in Cuba’s political discourse, which is taken to the extreme on the succinct Twitter platform, the presidential procession’s trip to Russia had a certain icy air – except for the inauguration of a statue of Fidel Castro in Moscow -, and not only because the dreaded winter had begun in the Eurasian giant.

The Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations, Serguei Riabkov, went to welcome Diaz-Canel at Moscow’s Vnukovo 2 International Airport. He had talked about his country’s military interests in Cuba and Venezuela earlier this year. In fact, in this regard, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, announced that the presidents would look at military cooperation efforts during this visit. Nothing about this has been made public yet.

The Cuban leader had many interesting meetings in Russia, which is being sanctioned by the West after it invaded Ukraine. One of these meetings was with Igor Sechin, the executive director of Rosneft oil company, who he thanked “for the kind gesture it had with Cuba, making solutions possible in tough times.” Sechin, considered a gray eminence behind the Russian throne, and one of the richest men in this country, directs the second largest oil-producing company in the world.

Diaz Canel with Igor Sechin, the executive director of Rosneft oil company

Another meeting was held with Patriarch Kirill. The religious leader – who the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazette, by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, calculated to have a fortune worth between 3.8- 7.6 billion euros in 2019. This included important business stakes in oil, the automobile industry and jewelery. Kirill has been in the spotlight for his support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his homophobic stance.

Regardless of the island’s abstention during UN votes to demand the immediate end to Russian hostility in Ukraine and the condemnation of its “attempt to illegally annex” Ukraine territory, the Cuban President said, “Russia knows that it can continue to count on Cuba.”

During a meeting with Senate President Valentina Matviyenko, Diaz-Canel spoke about the island’s debt and said that it would respect financial obligations “as soon as the economic situation eases a little and this is possible.” It’s important to remember that in 2014, the Russian Parliament ratified an agreement that wrote off 90% of the 35 billion USD Cuba owed Russia, and the same body restructured Cuba’s debt, last February.

In terms of concrete results from this part of his trip, not a lot emerged from just over the two hours the presidents met. Upon his arrival in Turkey, Minister Malmierca pointed out that agreements in Russia had been made to modernize Antillana de Acero, investments in Boca de Jaruco oil deposits, restoring the Mechanical Plant in Santa Clara, and setting up a diagnostic and maintenance center for Kamaz engines in the Mariel Special Development Zone, to name a few.

The interesting thing is that lots of these projects aren’t new, just like some of the matters discussed in Algeria. For example, the investment in Antillana de Acero, initially set at 165 million USD to be made in two parts, dates back to 2018; investments in Boca de Jaruco and the Mechanical Plant in Santa Clara had already been presented at the last International Fair in Havana and setting up centers in the Mariel Special Development Zone by truck-producer Kamaz has been in the works since 2019.

Diaz-Canel didn’t make a statement about this part of the tour, although he said he felt happy about what had been achieved. The President’s farewell on Twitter was a lot less warm than the one dedicated to his previous stay: “Bye, dear #Russia. We’ll never forget your outstretched arm whenever we need it. Nor these short but intense days in #Moscow. Thanks.”

Third stop: Turkey (22/24)

The visit to Turkey seems to have been a lot more satisfactory, in comparison to the Slavic cold. Despite the fact only general matters were made public, we know agreements were made with the Turkish Government, although we don’t know what was said during the meeting with business owners in a meeting organized by the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK), a body specializing in business diplomacy that brings together the private sector.

According to Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has been in power since 2003, first as Prime Minister (2003-2014) and then as President -, Cuba is one of Turkey’s main partners in Latin America and the Caribbean. For that reason, one of the agreements was to increase bilateral trade to 200 million USD per year, in line with its foreign policy which has seen trade between Turkey and Latin America increase from 1 billion USD in 2002, to 15 billion USD in 2021, the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah pointed out.

Six documents were signed with the smiling Ottoman leader. The most mutually interesting areas identified were: biotechnology, renewable energy, tourism and agriculture. Even though very little emerged from the meeting with business owners, we know representatives from Karadeniz Holding – the company that owns 36 powerships, seven of which are based in Cuba -, were present.

The Cuban President with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president. (Photo: Twitter/ @DiazCanelB)

Interestingly enough, many of the places where this company operates are some of the poorest countries in the world: Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone.

Global Ports Holding (GPH), the largest cruise port operator in the world, wasn’t mentioned during the visit, who signed an agreement with Cuba in 2018 so it could run Havana Port for 15 years.

We hope that the implementation of these agreements signed as an act of Turkish love have nothing to do with Cuban telenovelas that appear in the Weekly Package and have dominated cultural consumption in many Cuban homes: pretty and infinite shop windows with empty shelves.

China (24-25 November)

It’s very interesting that the shortest stop on this presidential tour was with the very country that is considered Cuba’s second most important trade partner in the past 15 years. Ankara and Beijing are separated by 6,833 kms, so the Airbus 340-600 that transported the presidential delegation would have taken approximately eight hours to cover the route, for them to stay just under 24 hours.

In a meeting with the Chinese President, Diaz-Canel admitted that they had failed to make debt repayments due to the country’s economic/financial situation, especially since 2019. He also pointed out that even though there had been communication, “it isn’t the same thing when you can talk it out, when you can explain in person.”

In the face of these statements, it’s important to remember that ICBC Standard Bank Plc, based in London, sued the National Bank of Cuba and the Cuban Government back in May 2021, for approximately 224.8 million USD, which includes interest on a 1.12 billion USD debt. The plaintiff is none other than the London branch of the state-led Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the largest bank in China.

With such a hefty sum of money and a lawsuit in the middle, it’s likely the Cuban president’s sentimental explanation fell on the pragmatic Chinese leader’s ears with attention and appreciation.

Xi Jinping and Miguel Diaz-Canel pose for photos, alongside their wives. (Photo: Infobae)

Conversations led to twelve documents being signed, including one about trade exchange and cybersecurity, the latter having been identified as a top priority by Cuba due to the well-known context of unconventional war. It also included donations of 100 million USD in food and medical supplies, as well as school uniforms and kitchen utensils.

According to the minister of Economy and Planning, resuming old investments on standby was also discussed: a 34 million USD investment in a floating dam that arrived in Cuba in October 2019; modernizing the press, which began in mid-2018 and was expected to take a year; and the wind farm in Herradura, north of Las Tunas, with works beginning in early 2018; to name a few.

In relation to these agreements, the Cuban president warned: “we need to stand by our commitment, assure we do things properly, make the most of opportunities, be efficient, and how not to waste resources…” If these are the conditions, the omens are bad given our history.

Returning home

Reinforcing the symbolism of the Head of State’s trip, his return coincided with elections for local representatives of People’s Power Assemblies. The result of these elections would reveal a paradox: the Cuban Government is trying to relaunch its ties with the world, while it turns a deaf ear and throws out the demands of a growing group of its citizens. Showing itself as a begging David to the world, while it behaves like Goliath with its fellow Cubans.

Despite the monastic faith of state media and uncritical Government supporters who believe these agreements will result in something; the fact that most of them boil down to reactivating old investments on standby or delays in Cuba’s eternal debt repayments, which we have with so many countries, most people are disbelieving or indifferent.

“You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus says in Matthew. Following this logic, and between permanent domestic errors and the impact of the US blockade, Trump’s measures and the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems our tree is artificial, and that only excuses and incorrect strategies flourish.

While these trips, negotiations, agreements, and memoranda don’t translate into concrete improvements in Cubans’ quality of life, the widespread sensation of anxiety and the need to escape no matter what the price from the sinking ship will remain. People can’t live in a constant state of precarity and resistance, no matter how creative they are in spinning this story; a country doesn’t develop with handouts and breadcrumbs, no matter how well-intentioned they are.

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