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Trinidad & Tobago seeks to expand trade links with Cuba.

Commercial relations between Cuba and the twin-island republic of Trinidad & Tobago--long a supporter of the Cuban revolution--appear to be strengthening, following the recent visit of a Trinidadian trade mission to Havana.

In addition, 71 Cuban doctors and nurses have arrived in Trinidad in the last few months, assigned to hospitals in Arima, Sangre Grande, Princes Town and Couva. Another 50 Cuban health specialists will arrive in January to help alleviate the country's serious shortage of medical personnel, according to Trinidadian Health Minister Colm Imbert.

The warming ties come as Cuba negotiates a free-trade agreement with the 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom), which includes Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados and the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean, as well as Suriname and Haiti.

A joint council meeting on those trade talks will take place later this month at Caricom's headquarters in Georgetown, Guyana.

CURRENT BILATERAL TRADE IS NEGLIGIBLE

With 1.3 million inhabitants, Trinidad--the land of calypso, carnival and steel bands--is the most populated English-speaking country in the Caribbean after Jamaica.

Its status as an oil exporter has always given the nation a relatively high per-capita income, and its trade with other Caribbean countries as well as with the United States and Great Britain is well-established.

Yet trade between Cuba and Trinidad is still relatively negligible. In 2002, Trinidad's exports to Cuba came to TT$79.3 million ($12.5 million), and consisted of ammonia, (TT$71 million, or $11.3 million); steel and wire rods (TT$7 million, or $1.1 million) and petroleum products (TT$1.3 million, or $200,000).

Cuban exports to Cuba totaled only TT$1.5 million ($240,000) and consisted mainly of cigars and corrugated paper products.

Boosting that trade was the main objective of a Jun. 24-27 mission to Cuba that included 72 executives from 28 Trinidadian companies (see box at right for list of participating firms).

The mission was co-sponsored by Republic Bank Ltd., the Trinidad & Tobago Manufacturers Association (TTMA) and the Trinidad Industrial Development Corp., and also included Diane Seukeran, minister of state in Trinidad's Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Delegates flew to Havana on the first direct flight from Port of Spain by BWIA, Trinidad's flag carrier (see related story, page 7).

One week after the mission, Geneva Enterprises Ltd. said it had shipped a small order to Cuba. H. Williams Bookstore now has a link to Cuba's largest printing operation, while MDC-UM has promising leads to government agencies interested in metal school furniture.

Likewise, Electrical Industries Ltd. has leads "which are expected to materialize in the near future," and chemicals manufacturer SCL (Trinidad) Ltd. reports that its negotiations since 2000 have resulted in "orders and shipments" for the past year.

A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

"We think the possibilities are vast," said Natasha Mustapha, the TTMA's chief executive officer. "What is difficult for us to understand is Cuba's way of doing business. It's not what we are accustomed to. It's a bit of a cultural shift for us. Cuba is still a communist state, you need a license to import everything and all that is controlled by the government."

In addition, Trinidadian companies face repercussions from the United States for trading with Cuba under the Helms-Burton Act.

"Local [Trinidadian] companies have to decide which is more important," Mustapha told CubaNews. "As long as the embargo is in place, if they're trading with the U.S., they can't trade with Cuba. If they do, they could lose their American business, including the shipment of raw materials and exports. It's sort of a double-edged sword."

David Roger Poon is CEO of Agostini Industries Ltd., a maker of disposable diapers and sanitary napkins.

"There's a potential market because Cuba has 11 million people and is the biggest consumer market in the Caribbean. That's why everybody is watching it," said Poon. "Cuba is trying to fight a very big country and has not been very successful."

At the same time, he said, "we're also fighting the Mexicans and the Colombians for that market. They're probably salivating too."

At present, 90% of Poon's production is exported to nearby markets like the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Belize and Jamaica.

"People have been trying for years to do something with Cuba, hoping they'll get lucky," he said. "European governments understand that they have to keep trade going, so they offer their manufacturers good credit facilities, and I suspect that Mexican manufacturers are getting something too."

Poon adds: "I think there is business to be had, but the availability of relatively cheap credit definitely has to play a part. To say there's demand is a lie, because demand has to be backed by money."

REPUBLIC BANK OFFERS TO FINANCE TRADE

That's where Republic Bank comes in.

The bank, founded in 1837, is Trinidad's largest financial institution, and has assets of over $3.1 billion. Republic operates subsidiaries in Barbados, Grenada, Guyana, St. Lucia and the Cayman Islands, and recently established a representative office in Havana.

Gavin Ottley, a management associate in the bank's trade finance division, said Republic's Cuba portfolio stands at around $30 million.

"We conduct our dealings as a bank would from a credit standpoint," he said. "Our office in Havana offers trade finance lines, which we extend to Cuban government entities. We're looking to see if we could possibly establish facilities for foreign investors. It's something we're considering right now."

Ottley said Trinidad is looking to develop trade with the entire Caribbean Basin, including the Spanish-speaking islands.

"We are very optimistic," he said. "The buying potential is certainly there, so we don't have a problem with Cuba's ability to purchase. We also have financing arrangements in place that Cuban companies can benefit from. We take the risk away from suppliers by financing them up front, and then getting paid directly by the Cuban companies afterward."

How quickly Republic Bank collects its debts from the Cubans depends on the nature of the companies themselves.

"We deal mainly with Cimex and Etecsa," Ottley said. "We have stayed away from smaller companies."

T&T COMPANIES HOT ON CUBA

Agostini Industries Ltd.

Carib Glassworks

Caribbean Packaging Industries Ltd.

Consolidated Appliances Ltd.

Electrical Industries Ltd.

Erin Meat Packers Ltd.

Geneva Enterprises Ltd.

Global Marketing Enterprises Co. Ltd.

H. William Bookstore Ltd.

Hakim Juman & Sons Ltd.

Hilton Trinidad & Conference Centre

MDC-UM Ltd.

Misons Industries Ltd.

Naisa Brand Products Ltd.

Radica Trading Co. Ltd.

RBTT Bank Ltd.

Republic Bank Ltd.

Richcare Industries Ltd.

Sacha Cosmetics Ltd.

SCL (Trinidad) Ltd.

Sissons Paints Ltd.

S.M. Jaleel & Co. Ltd.

The House of Paper Products Ltd.

Trinidad Brushware Ltd.

Trinidad Industrial Development Co.

Unicom Ltd.

Vemco Ltd.

Details: Natasha Mustapha, CEO, Trinidad & Tobago Manufacturers Association, CIC Bldg., 122-124 Frederick St., Port of Spain, Trinidad. Tel: (868) 623-1029. Fax: (868) 623-1031. E-mail: gm@ttma.com.
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Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:CubaNews
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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