As a preamble, His Excellency Dr. Antony Stokes started his interview explaining that “the circumstances that characterize current relations between Cuba and the United Kingdom, in the diplomatic sphere as well as in commercial exchange are full of potentials: both countries have embarked on a period of strengthening ties. The background is also one of improving relations between Cuba and the European Union (EU). Right now we are in the process of ratifying a new Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement (PDCA), which symbolizes a new stage between the Union and Cuba to make future relations better and more fruitful. The British, who are still EU members, support this very positive step.”
“However, we are about to leave the EU, in late March 2019, a rather complex process that doesn’t mean in any way an exit from Europe. We remain proud to be part of that continent and have excellent links with the other countries of the community. We will support the rapprochement between Cuba and the Union, and at the same time we will increase bilateral relations with the island.”
In that new scenario, the Ambassador reflected that as part of the EU they must follow their regulations, norms and agreements, but in the future, “as a country out of the Union, sovereign and independent, with a freer trade policy, we can strengthen even more our ties with other countries, as is the case with Cuba; I believe the Cuban government shares that aspiration. The United Kingdom’ s former foreign minister, during his visit to Cuba in 2016, opened the road to extend links in several ways, not only in the commercial sphere, but also in others, like culture.”
The United Kingdom doesn’t have a large representation on the island, according to the Ambassador in Havana: “we do not have unlimited resources, but we have decided to make a greater commitment here in order to support more projects, more activity, more scholarships. We are focused on several priorities, areas in which we can offer something a bit special, different, unique; areas in which both countries can create added value.”
There are five or six issues in which the European nation is focusing its efforts, according to its Ambassador, “special opportunities in the context of bilateral relations with Cuba, something different than other countries… very specific cooperation programs where we see a common opportunity.”
He highlighted among those the sphere of financial and banking services: “it is evident that London has great experience and capacities; I consider this to be an opportunity for us both as Cuba strengthens its economy and banking systems, and shares its challenges, modes, systems, successes and efforts. This is a specific sector, in which there is a coincidence of interests.”
The Ambassador highlighted cooperation in the teaching of the English language. He affirmed: “It’s not as if we can teach Cuba something, but rather that we can share the challenge which the country is facing, support its ambition to achieve the aim of raising its people’s ability in this need of modern life to speak and understand the English language.”
With respect to this, he explained that the British Council has an intense program, backed by the ministries of higher education and education, working “side by side” – as he says – to collaborate in Cuba’s intention of modernizing the teaching of the English language and raising the students’ command of the language, mainly university students.
He said that many had viewed the Cuban educational system as “a jewel of the Revolution” He commented that the United Kingdom also provides free education for all the population, which is why “it is interesting to share the experiences of how we have implemented our respective systems.”
Other spheres of reciprocity include biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry, in which he considers that “the level achieved by Cuba in the world sphere is remarkable”. Another one is energy, about which he emphasized his country’s ambitions in the oil, gas and alternative energy industries. He commented that some nine months ago the Embassy organized an event in Havana on oil and gas, and they are going to organize another in early December. In regards to renewable energy, in which the Caribbean country has the ambitious goal of increasing its proportion for 2030, he underlined the joint solar power and biomass project in Mariel and in Ciego de Avila.
Visibly captivated, the Ambassador paused to refer to a phrase of his preference: We are two creative islands. “I like it a lot because it represents something real, they are not just diplomatic words. Cuba has a great power and impact in the cultural world with its brand, which is a very powerful attribute; that is to say, it has a much bigger profile than its size. Cubans are a very creative people, energetic and innovative… they have dance, music and culture in their blood, it is a wealth that can make things happen.”
“And, to be honest”, he continued, “I am of the opinion that we also have remarkable creativity epitomized by our music’s impact in the world. Theater, cinema, the British Council and world-leading science are other examples of the universally recognized culture which transcends our borders.”
Among his arguments, he added that four of the 10 best universities in the world are British, just like many global inventions, such as computation, jet engines, the electric motor and the World Wide Web (WWW). Thus, “its impact is also much greater in proportion to the size of our island, which is why I like to celebrate “two creative islands.”
“Cuba is a source of creative ideas. From my point of view, as Ambassador of the United Kingdom, it is obvious that we must make good use of that coincidence of wealth; we are diverse, in fact Cuban culture is Latin and very different from the English and that can stimulate us further.”
Returning to the joint projects, he continued: “there is another in process, let’s say that it’s a symbol, led by the British Aberdeen Standard Investments Company (ASI), one of the world’s biggest investors, which has decided to position itself in Cuba and is opting to manage Ceiba Investment. ASI is aiming to grow this fund to £ 300 million in coming years, and on 9 October it became the first direct Cuban Fund to be listed on the famous London Stock Exchange.
Ceiba is making investments in big offices, like the Miramar Trade Center, and several hotels – Meliá Habana and another three in Varadero. No doubt “this represents something new that is going to support Cuba’s growth, and particularly tourism.”
“And tourism is very important for us. We are one of Cuba’s principal sources of tourists, and last year, according to the Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR), more than 200,000 British visitors arrived, representing a growth of more than 30% in two years.
“The figures shift, and right now tourism is suffering from the impact of Hurricane Irma, which was a disaster for the country. What impressed me was the preparation and organization, especially of the Civil Defense, in the evacuation of around a million Cubans, but also thousands of tourists, including more than 4,000 Britons who were mostly staying on the northern coast, precisely the area through which the hurricane passed; they were evacuated, mostly to Varadero and later outside the country, efficiently organized by the Cuban authorities. I am grateful to the Cuban government, MINTUR and the Civil Defense for their mobilization and support to ensure our compatriots’ safety.”
It should be emphasized that after the hurricane the United Kingdom was involved in the recovery process. “We have contributed around two million pounds sterling in support through the office of the Cuban Red Cross and the Ministry of Public Health so that the communities can recover, fundamentally in reestablishing the roofs: the goal is to rebuild better than they were before. I believe we are the country that has most contributed to this program; we are very proud to have worked once again ‘side by side’ with the Cubans in this reconstruction of homes and infrastructure, so that Cuba can return to its normalcy, and we hope that this hurricane season will be more tranquil than the last one.”
Indispensable in this interview is the reference to the tourism megaprojects associated with the development of real estate involving companies from the United Kingdom, at different stages of execution.
His Excellency Dr. Stokes argued that these are large investments, important for a high-level tourism. “They aren’t that easy since they are the first projects of that type in Cuba and everything has to be approved step by step by the involved parties; I hope they will advance as fast as possible.”
Still on the subject of tourism, he thanked MINTUR for having declared his country the guest of honor at FITCuba 2018: “it was a very useful opportunity for us and for the British tour operators who operate in Cuba, from the biggest like Thomas Cook and TUI, to other smaller agencies like Virgin Holidays, Holiday Place and Captivating Cuba; and we received the backing of MINTUR, especially that of Manuel Marrero, a very energetic minister.”
Those companies operate vacations mainly in the all-inclusive modality, which is the preference of the majority of the British tourists in Cuba. “I am confident they can continue working together to keep on improving year by year the value of the sector and the partnership between British companies and their Cuban counterparts.”
Further on he reflected that “the volume of the market in Cuba is lower than in other Caribbean destinations, but, in proportion, it has great potentials. The challenge is to exchange more with foreign companies, in our specific case with British agencies, to determine how to add more value to the tourist product and encourage its growth. That dialogue is very important.”
He affirmed that there are British cruise operators that include Morella (TUI); he is aware of that industry’s growth in Cuba, almost 10-fold in a few years. Regarding this he said: “I hope our companies increase their presence”. He announced that the Virgin Voyages cruise line is going to start its operations in the Caribbean in 2020, although he said he cannot confirm if it is going to incorporate the Cuba destination on the route of its first operations.
In relation to the airlines, “the growth will depend on the amount of visitors; we have two regular London-Havana direct weekly flights on Virgin Atlantic Airways, plus the charter flights operated by Thomas Cook and TUI, which also depend on the tourist flow. The secret to catalyze more flights is, of course, identifying the measures to raise the standards and improve tourism’s environment, service and value for money so that more tourists from the United Kingdom come to Cuba.”
“It’s a question of seeing how Cuba wants the tourism system to function, for example how to optimize the use of the private sector, not just in terms of room rentals, but also in its presence in the services provided by the state-run hotels; how to assimilate more know-how from foreign companies, work more with international services… It’s a challenge for the Cuban government; we cannot say how to develop the sector, but we are here to support that growth. We have experience and we are ready exchange knowledge with the Cuban authorities for greater progress”.