Cuba flag

Cuba country brief

Introduction

Australia and Cuba have long enjoyed friendly relations. Formal diplomatic relations were established in 1989. but the relationship has enjoyed renewed momentum in recent years.  In 2009 former Foreign Minister Stephen Smith made the first visit to Cuba by an Australian Foreign Minister since 1995.  In June the following year, the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodriguez, visited Australia as a guest of government.  There have a regular exchange of high level visits in subsequent years.  The Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Mr Marles visited Cuba in July 2011 and the Cuban Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Ana Teresita Gonzalez visited Australia in October 2011 for the Commonwealth and Developing States Meeting in Perth.

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: expanding people-to-people links, aid cooperation, and encouraging closer ties in science and technology, sport and culture. Significant progress has been made on this bilateral agenda.

On aid cooperation, AusAID and its Cuban counterpart signed an agreement in June 2011 facilitating cooperation on the delivery of medical services to Haiti, which had suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010.

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.

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. The embargo is codified in US law as Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (also known as the Helms-Burton Act). Australia welcomes recent US moves to improve relations with 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.

History

Cuba had been a Spanish colony since Columbus's arrival in 1492, though in 1762 it was briefly held by Britain before being returned to Spain in exchange for Florida.  A series of rebellions during the 19th century failed to end Spanish rule but the Spanish-American War finally led to Spain’s withdrawal, and formal independence for Cuba, in 1902.

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 and pursued close relations with the Soviet Union.  Relations between Cuba and the West, especially the United States, deteriorated.  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.

Political outlook

After dominating Cuban politics since 1959, Fidel Castro transferred power to his brother Raúl temporarily in August 2006 and then permanently in February 2008.  A process of incremental economic reform followed.  In 2008, Cubans were given title to the state-owned homes.  In 2009, in the biggest cabinet reshuffle in 30 years, ten new ministers were appointed, including the current Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, and Trade Minister, Rodrigo Malmierca.  In April 2011, the first Cuban Communist Party Congress in 14 years endorsed Raúl Castro's agenda for cuts to public sector employment and state enterprises, a reduction of the food ration, an increased role for small business, expansion of small farming cooperatives, and a focus on attracting foreign investment into mining, energy, agriculture and tourism.

In November 2011 the Cuban Government lifted a ban on automobile and home ownership. In December 2011 the government cut the price of building materials by 20-30 per cent, eased land leasing laws and enacted a new policy which would give Cubans looking to invest in business or renovate their homes access to bank credit. In January 2012 new regulations permitting carpenters, locksmiths, photographers and repairmen to become self-employed came into effect. These changes are consistent with President Raúl Castro's goal for the private sector to employ 40 per cent of the population by 2016 (from 10 per cent in 2010).

Economic outlook

GDP fell to 1.4 per cent in 2009 following the global financial crisis and three damaging hurricanes but an upward trend began in 2011, with GDP growth of 4.7 per cent, forecast to reach 5.5 per cent in 2012.

Growth sectors of the economy are tourism, mining, energy, telecommunications and manufacturing.  The Cuban Government is also focused on expanding its pharmaceutical and biotechnology exports.  Eighty-five per cent of Cuba’s pharmaceuticals are produced in-country.

Offshore oil exploration is also underway with a new oil refinery and a tanker port being built in anticipation of significant deposits.  Despite the three failed wells in 2012, experts believe that it is likely Cuba does have offshore oil.  Finding and producing it will take years, however, as potential fields are mostly in what the oil industry calls "ultra-deep water," which requires specialized drilling rigs. 

Bilateral economic and trade relationship

Two-way merchandise trade between Australia and Cuba in 2011 totalled A$13 million.  Australian exports to Cuba totalled A$7 million – primarily milk and cream, mineral manufactures, aircraft parts and heating and cooling equipment.  Cuban exports to Australia were worth A$6 million in 2011 – mainly tobacco, crustaceans, edible products and preparations and alcoholic beverages.

Updated September 2012.