BY PAUL GABRIEL | [url=http://www.thestar.com.my]http://www.thestar.com.my[/url]
THE Caribbean island of Cuba has been experiencing steady economic recovery since the severe economic recession in the early 1990s.
The communist regime of Fidel Castro, still grappling with economic sanctions imposed on it by the United States in 1961, has been taking measures to increase enterprise efficiency in a bid to overcome the shortage of food, goods and services.
When the Cuban constitution was reformed in 1992, new articles were introduced where the Cuban state acknowledged the rights of and gave guarantees to foreign investors.
The multiplier effect of foreign investments has been evident. Up to 1999, 497 international economic associations were created in Cuba, of which 374 remain active.
Despite the US trade embargo, Cuba is doing well to keep on its feet, according to Cuban Ambassador to Malaysia, Pedro Monzon Barata.
“There is no one living in the streets in Cuba. Education and medicine is provided free to our citizens. My country is even providing scholarship aid to students in poor countries like Timor Leste.
“Despite the US blockade, our economy has been growing steadily,” he said.
Located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, 150km south of Florida, Cuba is counting on its close ties with countries like Malaysia to push forward economically.
Cuban products have begun to weave their way into the Malaysian market, and Monzon Barata, a former university professor, has been at the forefront of efforts to promote his country’s business profile here.
Besides the famous Cuban cigars, other products being made available here include Cuban wines, beer, rum, coffee, cosmetics and music CDs.
“Two months ago, we brought in a consignment of Cuban wines and the response was very good due to the taste and attractive pricing,” the envoy said.
Cuban cigars are an established product in Malaysia, and Monzon Barata said demand here was growing rapidly.
The establishment of Havana Cigar clubs at hotels and nightspots here is a testimony to this, he added.
“Our cigars may be expensive, but I assure you that you are paying for real quality,” said the ambassador, who brought out a case filled with expensive cigars of the Pinar del Rio and Cohiba varieties, which he priced between RM30 and RM60 each.
He said the Trinidad group of companies here had been involved in the cigar industry for over a decade, describing it “as the driving force in developing the cigar market here.”
The group is the official distributor for Cuban cigars in Malaysia, and also distributes other renowned brands such as Montecristo, Romeo & Julieta, Bolivar and Partagas.
Apart from Cuban cigars, Trinidad’s cigar portfolio includes Nat Sherman from New York, Monsenor from Colombia and Malaysia’s very own Borneo Cigars from Sabah.
Monzon Barata said the Trinidad group, which operated a distribution network throughout Malaysia, was the exclusive supplier of premium cigars for most hotels, F&B and retail establishments here.
Recently, the group also secured distribution rights for several other Cuban products, such as San Cristobal wines, Coppelia ice-cream, Varadero rum and Cubita coffee.
“The appointment of the Trinidad group as the official distributor in Malaysia is sound testimony of its reputation in Cuba. For some of these products, Malaysia will be the first country in Asia that the manufacturers are exporting to,” he added.
Pernod Ricard is also selling another brand of Cuban rum, Havana Club, in Malaysia.
The ambassador said he had been informed that the group planned to expand its area of distribution to cover other countries in the region with Malaysia as the hub of operations.
Apart from local distribution, the Trinidad group is also involved in exporting locally produced merchandise and was recently appointed as the buying agent for a chain of retail stores in Cuba, for electronic products and garments.
Monzon Barata expressed confidence that the group would play an important role in expanding the trade volume between Cuba and Malaysia.
“Their goal is to make Malaysia the regional hub of Cuban products as well as to act as a conduit in exporting Malaysian-made goods to Cuba and eventually to the greater Latin American markets,” he pointed out.
Posted here in October last year, the envoy said the delicious Coppelia ice-cream was being produced in Ipoh under a joint-venture with Jawala Corp.
“Coppelia is a new product in Malaysia but we are optimistic that the product will sell very well,” he added.
Those looking for variety in cosmetics, take note. Cuban cosmetics and fragrances for men and women will be finding their way into the local market.
“Cuba has a good range of cosmetics and we are having talks now on developing trade with Malaysia in this sector,” said Monzon Barata.
In the field of biotechnology, he said Cuba had active links with Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas), adding that discussions with institutes dedicated to biotechnology in Malacca were currently underway.
“We are also dealing with some private companies that are working with us on the introduction of several biotech products in Malaysia, and to develop joint-ventures for sales here and in the regional market.
“Where biotechnology is concerned, development in the initial stages is usually slow but once things take off, there would be significant results,” he noted.
The envoy cited health, education and computing software as the other sectors with potential in Cuba-Malaysia relations.
“We are very interested in Malaysian computer software, palm oil and rubber and we are making deals with you.
“There is frequent exchange of delegations between our countries for the development of trade relations in these fields,” he added.
In conclusion, Monzon Barata said his Government was seeking the help of progressive countries like Malaysia to help end the long-drawn US economic, commercial and financial blockade.