A first-hand account of the recent Cuban President’s visit to the UK


It would be hard to overstate the importance of the visit of President Miguel Diaz-Canel to the United Kingdom in mid-November. A trip originally scheduled as a stopover forming part of a more extensive global journey, developed into a significant visit not least because Diaz-Canel is new Cuban President, but he was also the first ever Cuban President to visit the UK.

The Far Eastern leg of the delegation which included Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas among other senior Ministers focused on trade, diplomatic and sporting relations. The visit took in China and President Xi Jinping, Russia and President Putin, Laos and President Bounnhang Vorachith and Vietnam and President Nguyen Phu Trong. Understandably, we focus this account on the visit to the UK and the development of the relationships which can be achieved here and in Cuba and that route of travel is now mainstream.

Diaz-Canel had meetings with the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Prince Charles. Earlier this year, Philip Hammond took a significant step as Foreign Secretary as the first top leadership Minister to visit Cuba in over half a century. The other dates with UK Ministers were directed at normalising trade, cultural and sporting relationships. I was fortunate to spend almost the whole time with the President on his main day of the visit.

He started the morning with a visit to the Abbey Road Recording Studios, a small homage to the Beatles including the obligatory photo on the zebra crossing. From there to a full meeting of the Cuba Initiative – an independent, bi-lateral body that supports trade and investment between UK and Cuba – which I have the honour of chairing for a detailed discussion of his priorities for the economic growth of his country. The business audience of course had their advice and perspective and it was a positive discussion. I had agreed in advance with Vice President Cabrisas on the need for a relaunch of the Cuba Initiative in the first half of next year, a proposal enthusiastically endorsed by Diaz-Canel. I was particularly pleased to hear his explicit support for the formation of the new investment bank, a joint venture between Salamanca Group and Havin Bank, in Havana and which will steer many of the major projects central to economic growth. Everyone was conscious that however much interest there is in Cuban business development, it will take careful advisory and structuring work to succeed and the Cubans have decided that a shared joint venture with London know-how is the place to start.

From the Cuba Initiative, we went to the first of several meetings in Parliament involving about 200 parliamentarians from all parties as there is no ideological difference about the value of the approach to both countries. There was once again sharp interest in the plans Cuba are making and the joint venture designed to help make them a reality. President Diaz-Canel set out the proposal once more to this large political audience and it was good to see the level of agreement among them. In subsequent days parliamentary colleagues have told me they see a new mood and much improved mood music.

Our second meeting was a discussion with three of the sectors the President is eager to engage in part because of his personal interest. The University sector was represented by Baroness Val Amos and two colleagues providing strong insights to the joint projects on which we all could build. Sir Hugh Robertson, a former Sports Minister and current Chairman of the British Olympic Committee expressed both his welcome for deeper sporting relationships and delivered a message from Seb Coe that he would meet the Cuban Olympic Committee in Havana in the spring. Baroness Deborah Bull, now a pro-Vice Chancellor at Kings College London and a former Prima Ballerina who has worked with some of the most eminent Cuban dancers, set out a vision of further shared projects and art education. All were warmly received by the Cuban delegation and we agreed that the themes of education, sport and the arts should play a far greater role in the future of the Cuba Initiative.

Diaz-Canel then had a meeting with Jeremy Corbyn before a round of evening engagements. Of course, meetings are simply the prelude to doing the real things. It is clear Cuba needs to develop in several areas where it has skills and resources. The meetings discussed green energy, climate protection, tourism, food security, the growing successes in pharmacology especially in cancer treatments and diabetes. We covered the changes in Cuban commercial law and taking the burden out of start-ups and regulation. As might be imagined there was a good deal of discussion of the new investment bank now nearing its first operational input.

If the UK does leave the EU, if the discussions on the Customs Union prove fruitless, if we stumble into a no deal conclusion with all its consequences, the issue of new trading opportunities will become ever more pressing. The paradox is surely that the good sense of generating better trading is in any case desirable. Cuba is a market which is transforming and whilst small is a leading opportunity across central and south America. So, the effort makes complete sense and this Presidential visit demonstrates Cuban appetite for modern trading relations. The USA doesn’t seem to appreciate this; but we do.

Lord David Triesman has over 40 years’ experience working with Cuban leaders and their Ambassadors in London, strengthened relationships when responsible for Anglo-Cuban relations as a Foreign Office Minister in the mid-2000s and deepened these with time. The development of such a trusted relationship with partners in-country, aided by a long term vision and presence, has allowed Salamanca Group to be part of the opening of Cuba to foreign investment.

Lord David Triesman is leading this initiative and has developed a blog to provide an assessment of progress and opportunity as we create, together with the Cubans, a new financial hub.


This article is part of our December 2018 Group Newsletter

To read the PDF version online, click here, or to read another article online, please follow one of these links:
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