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Canada trade, continuous and expanding, a boon for struggling Cuba

By John D. HabronSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 1980



Toronto

Cuban cargo ships in Canada's ports are the most visible sign of an unbroken, 20-year-old Cuban-Canadian trade connection. One link in this chain stopped here recently when Cuba's Japanese-built sugar carrier, the 26 de Julio, was unloading sugar at Redpath Industries' Toronto sugar terminal.

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In fact, a steady flow of Canadian dollars for Cuban products, unhampered by the recent refugee crisis, is needed more than ever by Cuban President Fidel Castro's struggling economy.

The raw sugar cargo of the 26 de Julio, which has a revolutionary slogan painted on her funnel showing a sturdy arm with a machete raised to cut sugar cane, also helps satisfy the sweet tooth of the Canadian consumer, who relies on the country's small handful of busy sugar refineries like Redpath for its refined sugar products.

Another source of President Castro's Canadian dollars is the eight-year-long flow of Canadian tourists to Cuba. since 1972, perhaps 25,000 Canadians have made the one-week package tour to Havana, looking for the "thrill" of a Caribbean holiday in a communist society. They have left behind an estimated $ 25 million.

Sugar, tourism, and the country's recently expoited superb seafood products bring Cuba some of the millions of dollars needed to buy Canadian equipment and technical expertise.

Some of this trade is based on the US industrial and engineering designs that have been denied Cuba since the American blockade, which began in 1961 and has continued for 19 years without a break.

These have included new diesel locomotives for the Cuban State Railways (with their engines made in Canada under US patents) and food processing machinery like cream separators, along with farm chemicals.

But much of Cuba's Canadian-bought machinery and technology is based on indigenous Canadian engineering and design skills. These include hydropower generators, coastal tankers, and the world-renowned and successful cross-breeding of the milk-producing Canadian Holstein breed with the hardy Cebu cattle of Cuba, able to survive the island's rugged tropical climate.

Canadian entrepreneurs and the Castro government work well together. The Canadian businessmen and engineers revel in the traditional hard-bargaining tradition of Cubans (practiced as much in Marxist Havana as capitalist Miami). The Cubans like business partners from a capitalistic country who don't dispute their Marxist politics.

As a result, at least one Canadian engineering consulting firm, the very aggressive SNC Group of Montreal, has done a complete design study for a Cuban state enterprise. The SNC assignment was to design a proposed $200 million stainless steel plant, which will not be built until Dr. Castro's hard- pressed government can finance it.

By the end of 1979 Canadian exports to Cuba represented 22 percent of Cuban imports from noncommunist nations. This portion could be even larger, except that Havana's government ministries must conform to "double sourcing," that is, buying from both communist and capitalist industrial suppliers.

For example, as far back as 1974, Massey-Ferguson, the Canadian farm equipment giant, could have sold Cuba its entire requirement for new mechanical cane cutters. However, the Russians had plans to build a cane-cutter manufacturing plant at Holguin, in central Cuba. It is believed to be in production and said to be making a product much inferior to the Canadian competitor.

Last year Canadian exports to Cuba jumped to $258 million, a modest amount in trade with noncommunist customers, but up 25 percent nevertheless from 1978 to a Marxist country with severely depleted hard-currency reserves to pay for outside technology.