Cuba country brief


Australia and Cuba have long enjoyed friendly relations.  Formal diplomatic relations were established in 1989.

Australia has non-resident diplomatic accreditation to Cuba through the Australian Embassy in Mexico City.  Cuba has an embassy in Canberra.

The Republic of Cuba consists of the island of Cuba (westernmost of the Greater Antilles), the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) and 1,600 small offshore islands.  Cuba is the largest island in the West Indies, lying at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico (to the north-west) and bounded by the Caribbean Sea (to the south and west) and the Atlantic Ocean (to the north-east).  Cuba lies around 145 km north of Jamaica and, a similar distance south of Key West in Florida in the United States.  Cuba also has a 29 km land border in the south-east where the United States has a leased area at Guantánamo Bay, but Cuba retains sovereignty.  Cuba, the largest country of the insular Caribbean, in terms of both extent and population, covers 109,886 sq. km or about 45% of the total surface area of the Antilles. 

Cuba's population is approximately 11,210,064 million (2013 census). Just over 64% is defined as white, 27% mulatto or mixed-race ethnicity (mainly Spanish and African descent), and, 9% black. Numerous influxes have influenced Cuba and its culture, notably Spanish settlement, slaves from West Africa, French fleeing from the Haitian revolution (early 19th century) and most recently Jamaican settlers.

Political overview


The native Amerindian population of Cuba began to decline after the European discovery of the island by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and following its development as a Spanish colony during the next several centuries.  Large numbers of African slaves were imported to work the coffee and sugar plantations.  US intervention during the Spanish-American War in 1898 assisted the Cubans in overthrowing Spanish rule and the 1901 Platt Amendment to the Cuban constitution authorised the US to intervene in Cuba in the event of instability.  The Treaty of Paris established Cuban independence from the US in 1902 after which the island experienced a string of governments mostly dominated by the military and corrupt politicians.  In the years following independence, Cuba saw significant economic development but was often ruled by military figures who obtained or remained in power by force. 

On 1 January 1959, after a three-year guerrilla campaign led by Fidel Castro, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, the dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista was overthrown.  President Castro declared Cuba a socialist state on 16 April 1961, his iron rule holding the subsequent regime together for nearly five decades.  He pursued close relations with the Soviet Union and for the next 30 years Cuba received substantial economic and military assistance from the USSR, estimated at US$5.6 billion annually, which kept Cuba's economy afloat and enabled it to maintain a large military establishment.  Cuba's communist revolution, with Soviet support, was exported throughout Latin America and Africa during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and relations between Cuba and the West, especially the United States, deteriorated.  Fidel Castro stepped down as president in February 2008 in favour of his younger brother Raúl Castro.

System of Government

Cuba is a socialist state with a civil law system based on Spanish civil code.  The Communist Party of Cuba is the leading force of society and the State.

Executive power is exercised by the Cuban Government, which is represented by the Council of State and the Council of Ministers.  Legislative power is exercised through the unicameral National Assembly of People’s Power, comprising 612 members elected every five years, which is constituted as the maximum authority of the state.  Raúl Castro is President of the Council of State, President of the Council of Ministers, First Secretary of the Communist Party, and Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.  Esteban Lazo Hernández is President of the National Assembly.

In 2013, the Cuban National Assembly elected Miguel Diaz-Canel as First Vice President. Castro’s term is scheduled to end in 2018 and Diaz-Canel would succeed him if he were unable to serve out his second term.

US-Cuba relations

The United States maintains a trade embargo against Cuba which affects Australian companies with operations in the United States.  While Australia does not have any trade or economic legislation or measure which restricts or discourages trade or investment to or from Cuba, the embargo remains an impediment to trade between Australia and Cuba

The embargo in its current form consists of three main pieces of legislation governing Cuba sanctions - the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act (Torricelli Act), the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (Helm-Burton Act) and the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act. Since 1996, Australia has voted in favour of Cuba's annual resolution in the United Nations General Assembly calling for an end to the US trade embargo of Cuba.

On 13 April 2009, President Obama lifted restrictions on family travel, telecommunications and family remittances to Cuba and expanded the scope for delivery of humanitarian items directly to the Cuban people.  On 12 January 2011, President Obama announced a further easing of restrictions on US citizens travelling to Cuba, non-family remittances and US airports supporting licensed charter flights to and from Cuba.

On 17 December 2014, Presidents Obama and Castro announced a move towards normalisation in US-Cuba relations, the most significant development in the relationship since the US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. President Obama announced measures to re-establish diplomatic relations and a US embassy in Havana, reviewing Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, as well as steps aimed at authorising expanded commercial sales and exports from the United States of certain goods and services, allowing US citizens to import additional goods from Cuba, authorising transactions between the United States and Cuba such as travellers to Cuba being able to use US-issued credit and debit cards, and efforts to increase Cuban’s access to communication technology items.

Bilateral relations

Australia and Cuba have long enjoyed friendly relations. Formal diplomatic relations were established in 1989 and the relationship has enjoyed renewed momentum in recent years. Cuba opened an embassy in Canberra in October 2008.

In 2009 former Foreign Minister Stephen Smith made the first visit to Cuba by an Australian Foreign Minister since 1995, with a reciprocal visit by Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodriguez, in June 2010.

An agenda for closer bilateral cooperation between Australia and Cuba was developed with the signing in 2009 of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Australian and Cuban foreign ministries. The MoU identified as priorities for closer cooperation and exchanges between each country in fields of mutual interest such as science, culture, sport and commerce.

On aid development cooperations, the former AusAID and its Cuban counterpart signed an agreement in June 2011 facilitating cooperation on the delivery of medical services to Haiti, following a devastating earthquake in 2010.  We continue to progress joint medical cooperation program in the Pacific with Cuba through the Kiribati Internship Training Program for Pacific Island graduates of Cuban medical training, in partnership with the Fiji National University.

In April 2012, a senior CSIRO scientist visited Cuba, reciprocating a visit to Australia by a science delegation from Cuba in October 2009.

On Australia Day, 26 January 2012, the Australian Journey exhibition of Indigenous art and photography opened in Havana, sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Throughout January and February the exhibition showcased the sophistication and diversity of Australian indigenous culture and helped facilitate people-to-people links between the Australian artists and their counterparts in the arts sector in Cuba.

In 2013, the Cuban Yes I Can (Yo! Si Puedo) literacy model was piloted as part of a national Aboriginal adult Literacy for Life campaign, in three far western NSW communities (Wilcannia, Bourke and Enngonia), supported by a combination of Commonwealth, State and private funding including construction contractor Brookfield Multiplex who signed on as the founding corporate partner.  The first group of students graduated in July 2014, and it is planned to further expand to other Aboriginal communities in 2015.

Economic overview

Since taking office in 2008, President Raúl Castro has pursued incremental economic reform.  The Government continues to balance the need for loosening its socialist economic system against a desire for firm political control.  It has slowly and gradually implemented limited economic reforms, including cuts to public sector employment, moves to make state enterprises more efficient, an increased role for small business, expansion of small cooperatives, and a focus on attracting foreign investment into mining, energy, agriculture, and tourism. The government aims to have the private sector employing 40 per cent of the population by 2016 (from 10 per cent in 2010).  It has allowed Cubans to buy electronic appliances and cell phones, stay in hotels and buy and sell used cars.  The Government also opened up some retail service to “self-employment” leading to the rise of so-called “cuentapropistas” or entrepreneurs.  Recent moves include permitting the private ownership and sale of real estate and new vehicles, allowing private farmers to sell agricultural goods directly to hotels, and expanding categories of self-employment. Despite these reforms, the average Cuban's standard of living remains at a lower level than before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting downturn of the 1990s.

Since late 2000, Venezuela has been providing oil on preferential terms. Cuba has been paying for the oil in part with the services of Cuban personnel in Venezuela including some 30,000 medical professionals.  Offshore oil exploration is underway in association with Chinese and Norwegian investors.  An oil refinery and a tanker port are being built in anticipation of significant deposits, which if found could revitalize the Cuban economy within five years.

Growth sectors in the economy include tourism, mining, energy, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, telecommunications and manufacturing.  Professional services have emerged as a significant source of hard currency for the Cuban economy (mainly doctors and nurses to Venezuela). 

Remittances also play a large role in Cuba's economy, open source estimates range from US$800 million to US$1.5 billion per year, with most coming from families in the United States.  

Foreign investment laws, which came into effect in June 2014 offer attractive incentives to foreign companies.  Taxes on profits have been reduced from 30 to 15 percent, companies will be exempt from paying taxes for the first eight years of operation and foreigners doing business would be exempt from paying personal income tax.  An exception remains for companies that exploit the country’s natural resources, such as nickel or fossil fuels, which will pay taxation rates as high as 50 percent.  Foreign investment will reportedly be allowed in all sectors but investment and marketisation will be barred in all fields related to medical services, education and national defence to safeguard the country’s socialist system. 

In July 2014, Russia agreed to write off 90 percent of the island's US$35.2 billion debt to the former Soviet Union, with Havana still having to repay ten percent, some US$3.5 billion over a ten-year term. Russia also agreed to expand cooperation with Cuba in key areas such as energy, health, oil, and rescue/firefighting training.  Also in July 2014, Cuba and China agreed on a range of initiatives during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, aimed at further strengthening economic and cultural relations.  These included collaboration on oil sector participation, cyberspace, education, transfer of technology, development of renewable energies, biotechnology, environment monitoring, as well as the granting by China of a line of credit to build a multi-purpose terminal at the Santiago de Cuba harbour and an interest-free credit line. 

Trade and Investment

Two-way merchandise trade between Australia and Cuba in 2013-14 totalled A$12.2 million.  Major Australian exports to Cuba in 2013 were heating & cooling equipment & parts, specialised machinery & parts, paper & paperboard, cut to size and meat (excluding beef).  Australian merchandise imports from Cuba were worth A$8.4 million in 2013-14 and were mainly manufactured tobacco, alcoholic beverages, edible products & preparations, coffee & substitutes.  Currently, Australia does not trade in services with Cuba, nor have an investment relationship with Cuba. 

High level visits

2009:  Then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith visited Cuba. 

2010:  Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodriguez, visited Australia as a guest of government.

July 2011:  Then Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Richard Marles, visited Cuba.

October 2011:  Cuban Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Ana Teresita Gonzalez visited Australia for the Commonwealth and Developing States Meeting in Perth.

Last Updated: 1 November 2013