Cuba and Mexico are living an “exceptional moment” in their bilateral relations. This is the opinion of the new Mexican Ambassador to the island, Miguel Díaz Reynoso, who argues that the turn to the left of the Mexican government with the arrival to the presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has opened a new range of opportunities strongly rooted in historical and cultural links.
“It is not only about the temporary coincidence of two new administrations: that of López Obrador and that of Miguel Díaz-Canel, but also the coincidence of visions and objectives, the interest of each government in improving the living conditions of its people, to meet their daily needs and promote their well-being,” says Díaz Reynoso in an exclusive interview with OnCuba.
For the diplomat, appointed last March and who still hasn’t presented his credentials before the Cuban authorities, a convergence “also of politics” is now added to the “long centuries of relations” between the two nations.
“It cannot be overlooked that next to López Obrador on the day of his ‘Taking of Protest’ in Mexico was President Díaz-Canel, as a clear sign of the link between the two countries and the two new governments. And that marks from then until today very good relations at the political level, demonstrated in visits and governmental exchanges,” affirms the Ambassador, who says he has never ceased being near to Cuba since serving as a cultural attaché in Havana in the complex 1990s.
Now, at the head of the Embassy, his purpose is to “find the way to improve collaboration” and contribute to “taking advantage of the closeness between the two governments and peoples so that we can move forward and take a leap in the historical relations we have.”
What potentials exist for this leap in the economic field, based on the fact that Mexico is currently one of Cuba’s main economic partners, both in Latin America and worldwide?
In the economic field we have enormous possibilities. In Mexico, the changes implemented in the Cuban economy have been observed with great interest, based on the laws to promote investments and the provisions of the new Cuban Constitution. Currently, the trade balance between the two countries greatly favors Mexico, which in 2018 exported between 450 and 500 million dollars (USD) to Cuba, while Cuban exports to Mexico were between 10 and 20 million. However, these figures can improve.
The geographical proximity is an advantage that we haven’t been able to take full advantage of, because my country is only one day away from the port of Havana or other Cuban ports where products can be unloaded at a good price, because if there is a saving in freight costs that can benefit the consumer. There are opportunities to increase the list of products that Mexico can export to Cuba, and there are processes for the realization of new projects in this regard. We are working precisely on that: in identifying the items in which Cuba would have more interest to boost their marketing.
On the subject of investment, it is good to remember that there are two Mexican companies approved in the Mariel Special Development Zone, although in different stages of implementation, and, in addition, we have other companies waiting for the corresponding authorizations, as well as two projects that are already very advanced. I hope that we can soon announce their formal start-ups and we can also talk about the goals and contributions they can make. They are clearly Mexican companies with a very interesting aspiration to grow in Cuba and I think they will be the ones that encourage others to invest here.
But in addition to investment and trade, there is the possibility of cooperation not only from Mexico to Cuba but also in the opposite direction. The recent visit of the Cuban minister of health to my country confirmed that there is a real and very interesting possibility for Mexico to benefit from advances in biotechnology and the production of medicines in Cuba, and also in terms of technical assistance and that is, undoubtedly, good news.
Precisely about the health sector, in recent months there have been rumors about the possible arrival of Cuban doctors to Mexico, which have been denied by your government. What can you comment on this and what are the projects that exist between the two countries in this direction?
I reiterate the official denial on this subject: there is no plan of Cuban doctors in Mexico. That is false information promoted by those who want to create doubts and unease, and who continue to repeat it deliberately despite the fact that the Secretariat of Health issued a newsletter denying this news. It’s been a topic very followed by the media because it sells well, but it is totally false.
What the two governments have talked about is technical assistance, a cooperation in which Mexico would gain from Cuba’s great experience in this sector, with advances that are recognized worldwide. We would be interested in benefitting from that knowledge, to implement improvements in the doctors’ work models, which is not the same as hiring Cuban doctors. There is also a very big expectation about very successful Cuban medicines, which can be a source of benefit for Mexican patients. Medicines such as Heberprot, for the treatment of diabetic foot and whose application in Mexico would be excellent news for those who suffer from this disease.
In 2018, more than 170,000 Mexicans visited Cuba, which represented a 26.5% growth. What can be prefigured in the tourism sector, which Cuba considers key to its economy and which has been hit by the recent measures of the Donald Trump government?
For Mexicans, Cuba has always been an attraction. It isn’t just more sun and beach, but much more than that. Mexico has sun and beach, it has a huge offer in that regard in the Caribbean and the Pacific, so that product is not the main incentive for the growth of tourism towards Cuba in recent years, a trend that we consider will continue in 2019. The incentive is that plus that only this country has, a world that attracts and that includes culture, history, music, the Cubans’ character. It is to come to live Cuba and its culture in its broadest sense, beyond its iconic products such as tobacco and rum.
That is an experience with many potentials, also because of the geographical proximity, which Mexicans are increasingly betting on, not only tourists, but also agencies, airlines. And in search of favoring it, the number of flights has been increasing. Today we have flights from Monterrey and other cities such as Cancun, Merida, Guadalajara, and for many tourists it is easier to come to Cuba without necessarily going through the capital, not just for the businessman who comes to explore, or for groups of friends, but also for couples, families. That may be the key to the growth we are seeing, not only in new tourists but also in repeaters, and the intention is to continue growing, to increase advertising campaigns and promote not only Havana but also the rest of the island. There is already talk of direct flights from Mexico to eastern Cuba, to Santiago, and in general the forecasts are very positive. Everything indicates that this year the figures for 2018 will be surpassed and that’s good for Cuba, because we know the importance of tourism for its economy.
In what other sectors is your government interested in terms of the development of a bilateral agenda?
First, the culture. Mexico and Cuba have many coincidences in this direction. The cultural bridge has always been the one that approaches, the one that makes it possible to grow, and we know that in spite of the exchange that the two countries have always maintained, we still have many potentialities that we can exploit together. Not only in the arts but in a more comprehensive cultural sense, and thinking of the public, especially young people, in what they are seeing of Mexico in Cuba and vice versa. To think about what we can do with Cuba beyond the Mexican music programs that exist in many Cuban radio stations, something that gives us much satisfaction, but that is not enough.
We are interested in fostering the understanding of culture not only as a symbolic field but as a source of work, of income, which has an incidence in the improvement of the living conditions of the population. Working on its links with other sectors such as tourism, or in fields often seen outside the artistic field such as fashion, in which, for example, there is a huge interest in Mexico on the new Cuban proposals.
We are also interested in education. This is a field in which there are previous agreements between the two countries’ government entities and centers, and we are identifying what are the specific issues in which we could increase the exchange. We have centers of excellence in Mexico interested in receiving Cubans at levels of specialization, masters, doctorates, and there are also more Mexicans greatly interested in coming to study in Cuba, especially in areas such as medicine, biotechnology, physical education, all issues related to sports. Fortunately, we have the possibility of distance study, through the virtual university, which implies that physical presence is not necessary as it traditionally has been, and that opens up new opportunities for this exchange.
What is the state of migratory relations between the two countries, taking into account the growing presence in Mexico of irregular Cuban migrants?
The migration issue is a point on the bilateral agenda that is being reviewed very openly, with a lot of opportunity. There is a joint working group that has been addressing this issue for a long time and there are agreements implemented between the two countries, whose compliance is reviewed periodically. This new Mexican administration has a special interest in making it very clear, first of all, that we have to communicate to solve problems together, and we are focused on preventing and discouraging irregular migration.
A few years ago the risks for irregular Cuban migrants were sharks, storms, because many traveled by sea. Now that they travel by land, they suffer the constant risk of organized crime. I’m not talking about coyotes, but about professional criminals, about gangs involved in human trafficking. Those are the new sharks, and it’s not just about extortion, kidnapping, blackmail, but also the risk of being murdered, of losing their lives. There are many experiences suffered by migrants from several countries, including Cubans, who confirm this.
I believe that the best testimonies, better than those that I or a Mexican immigration authority can give, are those of the same irregular migrants who have returned from Mexico under the existing agreements between the two countries. I’m referring to what they have said. And it seems to me very meritorious that Cuban television has made very impressive interviews with people who have returned after those long crossings that are a terrible ordeal, in which they have narrated their sufferings, their hardships, and the risk of losing their lives.
We are very sorry that something like this is happening in Mexican territory, and that crime has become an inseparable actor in migration. But along with the direct police confrontation with these criminals, we promote a preventive strategy, something we are talking about clearly with Cuba, as with other governments involved in this phenomenon, and I think there is a shared perception about the existing risks and that all efforts that are within our reach must be made. That is the task of the moment: to prevent, alert, deter that dangerous adventure; we are working on that.
What is the incidence in this scenario of the recent immigration measures of the United States government, which complicate the entry into that country and the asylum process of migrants?
In the particular case of Cuba, it has an impact on the new political strategy of the U.S. government to remove from its territory those who are applying for asylum and that includes Cuban migrants, who no longer have the same privileges to enter the United States as they had years ago. As a result, we have reports of more than 1,000 Cubans who in the last days have left the United States to remain in Mexico for as long as necessary to wait for the decision. It would be necessary to see if this decision will remain mostly negative or if that trend will be modified. But meanwhile, they will be in Mexican territory.
This is a scenario that must be observed, followed, both because of the way in which it can develop in the United States, in the political lobbying, and because of the challenges it poses for Mexico. It is a great responsibility, because the number of applicants, and not only Cubans, is going to increase especially in the north, in the border area, and that means a challenge in housing, food, education, health, work, and also in security, to minimize episodes of confrontations and complaints of migrants such as those we know have occurred. But our government is committed to offering everyone, including migrants from Cuba, what is within its reach and the best treatment.
How is the granting of Mexican visas from Cuba marching today, with a view to guaranteeing a regular migration and taking into account the high demand that exists among Cubans to travel to your country and the problems reported long ago in the processing of these visas?
Mexico signed the Marrakech Global Compact Migration, which seeks to enhance safe, orderly and regular migration. That is the approach our government defends and to materialize it we aspire to have better consular services to facilitate the regular flow with the visas, which, in turn, could contribute to further deterring irregular emigration.
The line of work is to privilege the transit from Cuba to Mexico by legal means. In 2018, around 23,000 visas were issued to Cubans. Many applicants do it for family reunification, something that Mexico has always favored; another important group is going to carry out procedures in the consulates of Canada and the United States, given the current impossibility of doing it in Cuba; others are looking for a job and even already have an offer, and there is another group that goes shopping, which include self-employed workers, artisans, who are going to buy raw materials, tools, as they also go to Panama and then return to Cuba. That is a very clear flow.
Mexico is open and attentive to continue sponsoring, supporting, facilitating that process in the best way. It is true that there have been problems with some procedures and we have to modify practices that can complicate access to procedures and visas. We are working on this, with the intention of perfecting the existing mechanisms, such as online appointments, and I hope that soon we can have a stronger legal process that avoids nonconformities and allows deterring those who opt for the irregular route.
What is Mexico’s position on the rollback in relations between Cuba and the United States, as well as on the recent measures of the Donald Trump government, such as the full activation of the Helms-Burton Act?
Mexico’s position is very clear: that of condemning the application of unilateral and coercive measures against any nation. We defend the principle of the self-determination of each country as a pillar of our foreign policy. In the case of Cuba, this translates into the condemnation of recent U.S. measures, such as the activation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, as we have historically condemned and continue to condemn the blockade, which we have denounced at the United Nations and other multilateral spaces.
On the specific issue of the Helms-Burton, Mexico has its own law that shields Mexican companies in case actions are taken against them for this cause. Fortunately, it has not been necessary so far; Mexican companies that are negotiating or working with Cuba have not been prosecuted or mentioned, but the law exists in case it happens. We are prepared. The Secretariat of Economy and the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs have a publication that explains the steps that should be taken in the event that any of our companies were mentioned. And we continue to encourage Mexican entrepreneurs to invest in Cuba. We feel that there is a good spirit and our government’s position is very clear, to accompany, advise and defend those who do so in the face of any possible retaliation based on this unilateral law.
Based on your experience as a diplomat in Cuba, first as a cultural attaché and now as an ambassador, how do you perceive the country’s current scenario?
I have the advantage of having known Cuba at the most complicated moment in its recent history. I was a cultural attaché at the Embassy for six years during the Special Period, so nobody can tell me. I lived it. After that, I never stopped being near to Cuba from my position as Ambassador in other countries of the region and as director of Latin America and the Caribbean of the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, so I have been able to continue taking the pulse of the country, society, the government. And I find it very interesting to come here as a witness of this new stage for Cuba, in which we have seen a change both internally and with respect to the previous U.S. administration and the repercussions this has brought about.
The current situation is certainly complex, but in it, however, I see a stronger Cuba with respect to previous moments, because of the internal authority the people, the country has to reinvent themselves, to survive, to appeal to all their resistance and continue being creative. I find it remarkable that things like the constitutional reform have happened, with a social debate included, with issues that years before nobody thought were going to be discussed and they are there now. And I think these are the signs of a new Cuba, to which I return today with great interest and enthusiasm to see how things will develop in this new scenario. That is the objective of every diplomat, to know in situ how the processes are taking place. Personally it is also a great opportunity, a reunion with many friends, with a country very close to me, and what better way to do it right now.