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Time to get closer to Cuba
To improve the UK's relationship with Cuba requires more than just words – we must act on this new formal agreement
Dan Smith, The Guardian
Last month Cuba and the United Kingdom signed a formal declaration to strengthen bilateral co-operation. The agreement champions "closer dialogue and economic, scientific, technical, educational, cultural and sporting links between the two countries" and highlights key areas for collaboration including environmental issues, biotechnology, trade and investment, regional security, child protection and disaster preparedness.
The move should be welcomed as a positive step – not just by those supporting the Cuban people, but also by those looking to expand British trade relations in Latin America. In order to make tangible change, however, the agreement must be substantiated by positive action – something which has been lacking in previous UK policy towards Cuba.
The UK is the sixth largest economy in the world and the third largest economy in the European Union. It is the seventh largest importer and the 11th largest exporter in the world. In spite of this, the level of trade between Britain and Cuba is derisory. Exports to Cuba totalled an abysmal $14.4m (£8.9m) in 2009 while imports came to a pathetic $15.8m (£9.8m). Compare this to September 1958 when the UK government exported 25 fighter jets to General Batista's dictatorship. The equivalent value today – at around £40m a plane – would equate to an annual UK export to Cuba of around £1bn.
It is tempting to explain the lack of commercial activity between our two countries as a legacy of the cold war. However, back in 1986, Cuba constituted the UK's fifth largest market in Latin America. Furthermore, UK trade with Cuba is dwarfed by other EU countries including Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands. Indeed, in 2008, the UK was only the 11th largest exporter of goods to Cuba from the EU.
It is therefore more appropriate to view the level of trade as a direct consequence of policy adopted by consecutive UK governments. In particular, the Blair government – as a result of closer ties with the Clinton and Bush administrations – took an increasingly aggressive and hard-line stance against the island. Blair was a keen advocate of the EU common position – which suppresses trade and exchange with Cuba – while, in 2003, the UK was instrumental in blocking Cuba's entry into the Cotonou agreement which gives trade preferences to former European colonies.
According to UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), "the greatest hurdle to doing business in Cuba is painfully slow decision-making which results from all investment decisions being referred to the highest levels of government". However, as indicated in the graphs below, there are a number of other countries which manage to cut through the perceived "layers of bureaucracy". It is ridiculous that UKTI blames restrictions within Cuba for the lack of trade when the main obstacle remains the UK's unwillingness to challenge the ongoing US blockade.