CubaNews / December 2006
By Larry Luxner
Trade between Cuba and Jamaica is increasing as the Caribbean’s largest English-speaking island and its largest Spanish-speaking island discover an appetite for each other’s products.
Hard numbers are difficult to come by, though it’s clear that everything from cement and cigars to rum and paint is now being traded between the two Caribbean neighbors, whose relationship has had its share of ups and downs over the years.
Michael Manley, a revered leftist who served as Jamaica’s prime minister in the 1970s, enjoyed a warm friendship with Fidel Castro. Along with Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan, he was considered Castro’s strongest ally in the Caribbean.
But when Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labor Party won elections in 1980, Seaga threw out Cuban doctors, expelled Cuba’s ambassador and broke off diplomatic ties. It wasn’t until 1997 — after P.J. Patterson had been elected — that Kingston sent a resident ambassador to Havana again.
In March 2006, Portia Simpson Miller became the first woman in Jamaican history to be elected prime minister. A member of parliament since 1989, “Sista P” — as she is known — has strong grass-roots appeal.
Despite U.S. pressure against some Jamaican companies that have invested in Cuba, the Jamaican government, through its investment promotion agency Jampro, is in the forefront of boosting Jamaican-Cuban trade ties.
In October, Jampro hosted a 13-member Cuban delegation hoping to partner with Jamaican firms that would import Cuban products.
And in November, Stacy-Ann Holmes, the agency’s Caribbean/Latin American consultant, brought a group of Jamaican companies to Havana to participate in FIHAV, Havana’s annual international trade fair. Each one paid $1,900 for transportation, lodging, meals and other expenses.
“What I found is that Cuba is still pretty new to many Jamaicans in terms of trade,” said Holmes. “People need to understand that trading with Cuba is not like trading with other countries. You have to go through a lot of procedures in order to do business with Cuba. What Jampro is doing is getting companies exposed to what Cuba has to offer.”
Holmes, interviewed by CubaNews at Jampro’s Kingston headquarters, said that besides exporting Jamaican goods to Cuba, the Cuban government sees Jamaica as a potential market, especially for its rums and juices.
“I spoke to the head of Cubalse, and he said the government currently buys paint from Venezuela because of their rock-bottom prices. So in order for Jamaica to compete with that, we’d have to go as low as the Venezuelans do,” she said. “They’re also looking at buying hair-care products. There’s a huge market for that in Cuba.”
Among Jamaican entities attending FIHAV this year were Isoplus, a hair-care company; JHA Associates, which manufactures storm shutters, and Jamaica’s Export-Import Bank. Others are already doing business there; Grace Kennedy Ltd. currently sells fruit juices to Alimport, while Lascelles Group pushes insect repellants.
Next year, said Holmes, Jampro hopes to take at least 15 or 20 companies to FIHAV.
“I think we need to target Jamaican companies a little more” next time around, she said, noting that Cuban officials have specifically expressed interest in Jamaican snack foods.
While it’s true Cuba can buy food commodities from the U.S. on a cash-only basis under the Trade Sanctions Reform Act of 2001, Holmes said “Jamaica is closer and quicker than the U.S., and we don’t have the restrictions that exist between the U.S. and Cuba.”
She pointed out that Air Jamaica offers direct flights Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays between Kingston and Havana, making it easy for executives to shuttle back and forth between the two islands.
“We have explored these possibilities,” said Johnny McFarlene, group development manager at Walkerswood Caribbean Foods Ltd. in St. Ann. “We’re particularly interested in supplying hotel gift shops and restaurants with our seasonings, sauces and preserves. But it’s very challenging. I think the whole process has to be made more simple.”
John Issa is chairman of SuperClubs, a Kingston-based hotel chain that has had its brands in Cuba for the past 16 years.
“Jamaica’s relationship with Cuba has always been beyond politics,” the well-known hotelier told CubaNews. “In the 1960s, even at the height of the Cold War, we never broke with Cuba. Jamaicans have lived and worked in Cuba for years, and Cubans have come here. Our histories are intertwined.”
At present, SuperClubs has two resorts in Cuba: the 166-room Breezes Varadero and the 250-room Breezes Jibacoa; another Jamaican resort chain, Sandals, is also present in Cuba.
Asked about competition from large Spanish chains that are now building resorts on Jamaica’s north coast as well as in Cuba, Issa said he isn’t terribly worried.
“These Spanish hotels could be almost anywhere,” he told us. “Their hotels are very cookie-cutter. It’s a mass business. I can close my eyes and walk into some of their hotels and find my way to the men’s room.”