BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, COINCIDING WITH THE 60TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CUBAN REVOLUTION, AMBASSADOR OF CUBA TO BAKU, ALFREDO FIDEL NIEVES, TOLD AZERI OBSERVER ABOUT THE AFFECTION THAT THE PEOPLE IN CUBA FEEL TOWARDS AZERBAIJAN, THE LONG HISTORY OF BILATERAL COOPERATION, AND THE PROSPECTS OF ECONOMIC EXCHANGE AFTER THE LIFTING OF THE CUBAN BLOCKADE. HE ALSO EXPLAINED WHY CUBA IS SO ATTRACTIVE FOR TOURISTS AND PROVIDED RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FOREIGN VISITORS.
Question: How do you assess the level of cooperation between Cuba and Azerbaijan? What do you see as your primary mission as Ambassador to enhance it?
Answer: I think that this interview is very timely. January 1st was the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, and throughout this year we will host many activities to celebrate its triumph. Furthermore, I recently marked my two years as Ambassador in Baku, and I think it is a great time to evaluate the activity of a head of a diplomatic mission since the work of an ambassador is only noticed after some time has passed. The plans that we had when I arrived in Baku are being met step by step. I assess the bilateral relation between Cuba and Azerbaijan as stable and full of mutual respect. Our cooperation is advancing both in the bilateral and multilateral spheres. During these past two years, Azerbaijan has provided the support that Cuba has requested in the most pressing political issues. I am thankful to the government of Azerbaijan for their assistance in lifting the Cuban blockade. We, in turn, support Azerbaijan in all of their concerns. We are also looking for ways to increase economic cooperation and make the bilateral trade more varied. We are examining common interests which would allow us to build up economic ties. Now, we see that there are good prospects for cooperation in the spheres of health, medicine, and biotechnology. We are working with the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences to develop joint biotechnology projects, and the Azerbaijan State Tourism Agency to expand joint tourism. We are also developing cooperation in sports. Regarding economic cooperation, we are looking for ways to bring Azerbaijani products to the Cuban market and Cuban products to Azerbaijan, and we already have processes that can allow us to meet this goal. It is true that our bilateral trade is still underdeveloped, and does not correspond to our high level of political and diplomatic relations. However, it is vital that we find ways to develop them despite the distance between Cuba and Azerbaijan. We are working hard on the exchange of information and delegations, and the signing of protocols that will allow us to enhance our economic links. I believe that we have made a leap in relations during these past two years, and our achievements in bilateral cooperation will be even more visible in the coming years.
Q.: What were the main achievements completed during your stay in Baku?
A.: I think that it is imperative to understand the interests that exist in Azerbaijan for Cuba. I believe that it is crucial to realize what the possibilities of commercial exchange between our countries could bring. Getting this information requires many hours of work, many visits, contacts, and knocking on doors, in which I think we have succeeded. I believe that there is a lot of knowledge about Cuba in Azerbaijan and vice versa, which will enable the jumpstart that we want in the economy and trade. The number of Azerbaijani visitors coming to Cuba for different reasons is increasing. Our medicine is exceptional in treating lung cancer, and there is a trend among Azerbaijani oncology patients to go for treatment in Cuba. I cannot give the exact numbers, because many of them are going through Moscow, but it is increasing. I believe that this is an area where we should deepen cooperation between our researchers and institutes. This was not achieved overnight; it took a lot of time. There is an understanding in Cuba that Azerbaijan is developing in all of the spheres, and there are multiple spheres where we can look for collaboration. The distance between our two countries will not affect the development of our relationship.
Q.: Tourism is one of the pillars of the Cuban economy. Could you tell our readers about cooperation between Azerbaijan and Cuba in this sphere? Do you have any plans to promote Cuba as a tourist destination among Azerbaijani travelers?
A.: Tourism is the second largest industry for the Cuban economy after medical services provided within the country and abroad, and it sometimes even overtakes medicine. The number of Azerbaijani tourists in Cuba is increasing, though I cannot give exact numbers since many of them get visas in Russia and other countries. In the last two years, we did a lot to strengthen cooperation in the tourism sphere. For the first time in 2017, Cuba had a stand in the Baku International Travel and Tourism Fair. We started to develop our relations with the Culture and Tourism Ministry of Azerbaijan and with the local tour operators and agencies. Additionally, during this time, Turkish Airlines launched Baku – Istanbul – Havana flights, which shortened flight times between our countries with a convenient connection. There is also a flight with a layover in Moscow, although it is a bit longer. In 2018, we organized a presentation for Azerbaijani travel agencies showcasing Cuba as a tourist destination. We maintain close contacts with the main Azerbaijani, Turkish, and Russian tour operators, which sell Cuba tourist packages in the Azerbaijani market. I believe that the flow of tourists from Azerbaijan to Cuba and from Cuba and Latin America to Azerbaijan will be increasing. That is why we are working to have an Azerbaijani presence at the Cuba International Tourism Fair, which will take place in Havana this May. All of the conditions for this have been created, and it would be Azerbaijan’s first time participating in a tourism fair in Latin America. This fair brings together representatives from all over Latin America, and it will allow your country to learn about the Cuban tourism industry and promote itself as a tourist destination to Latin America. It is essential to let Latin America know that tourism is developing in Azerbaijan. I think that now is an opportune moment because cooperation in the tourism sphere can be increased through investments since the blockade has been lifted. Cuba is also open for Azerbaijani investments in the tourism sphere, and tourism supported areas such as the hotel and agro-industrial fields. I believe the prospects for cooperation in the tourism sphere are excellent.
Q.: Why is Cuba a must-see place for everyone? What sights could you personally recommend to visit in your country?
A.: Cuba is the safest country in the Americas. Moreover, it is a country with a lot of culture, education, great hospitality, and a developed public health sector, which I believe is very important for tourists. Besides, Azerbaijanis have a personal welcome in Cuba because for many years Cuba had extremely close relations with the Soviet Union, and we have a friendly attitude to all of the people from this region. Many Cubans have studied in Azerbaijan and other countries of the former Soviet Union. There are people from Azerbaijan who moved to Cuba but maintain ties with their relatives in Azerbaijan. These connections transformed into friendship and affection between our peoples through the generations. In Cuba, we have great respect and affection towards Azerbaijan and other countries in this region. Every visitor feels it. Showcasing Cuba as an attractive tourist destination will certainly help the country. We have a remarkably rich and deep history with different periods including Spanish colonialism, American neocolonialism, and finally the triumph of the revolution. All of these periods are highly respected and studied in Cuba, and I believe it is critical for tourism that we keep this history alive. Cuba capital, Havana, is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, and this year we are celebrating its 500th anniversary of Havana. Our culture also impresses every tourist. I recommend all visitors to allow themselves to be captivated by the Cuban dances, songs, and spirit. Try to feel the energy and colors of Cuba, which are bright and colorful. The sky is always blue, the sun is constantly radiant, the moon perpetually shines, the beaches are forever whitish blue, and the temperature is continuously pleasant. Cuba is a paradise on Earth and a natural garden. However, the treasure of Cuba is its people. Our people are rebellious, politically active, and friendly. We respect all cultures, religions, and thoughts, and we show this kindness to all of our visitors.
Q: As you stated, in the Soviet period a lot of Cuban students studied in Azerbaijan. Do we currently have a student exchange? Are there any educational programs for Azerbaijani students in Cuba?
A.: There are possibilities for a student exchange, especially recently. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost all of our Cuban students graduated from national universities. However, the measures taken over the last couple of years have allowed young students to study abroad. Currently, some Cuban students study in different universities in Russia. I believe that Azerbaijani universities also have conditions to receive Cuban students. I also believe that Cuban universities can be particularly useful for Azerbaijani students. For instance, the Cuban Medical University, Sports Institute, and the University of Arts could be attractive for Azerbaijanis. I have personally visited almost all of the universities of Azerbaijan. For me, it is essential to have meetings with the universities’ management, to look for exchanges and agreements between the universities, and to have contacts with Azerbaijani students. When I visited the State Oil University, I was excited to see photos of the Cubans who had studied there. When I visited the University of Arts, I was excited to see that the approach to the preparation of artists is similar in our countries. When I visited the University of Foreign Languages, I was excited to see that the students speak about Cuba with love and affection. I was impressed by how easily they understood a Cuban film and managed to receive its message. When I visited Nakhchivan State University, I was excited to see a huge interest in Cuba among the students. I also visited the ADA University, Tourism University, and Sports University and saw that conditions exist for exchange between our professors and students in the diplomatic, tourism, and sports spheres. I think that our cooperation can make large gains in the educational fields.
Q.: Both Azerbaijan and Cuba have an oil industry. What kind of cooperation in this sphere could be interesting for both sides?
A.: We have always had cooperation in this sphere. Many of our oil specialists, especially managers in the oil and gas industry, have studied in Azerbaijan. Currently, Cuba is examining the possibilities of offshore drilling, and we are working to understand the fundamentals of this sphere. The conditions have been created for our specialists to come to Baku and take courses at Azerbaijan State Oil University, and revive the scientific exchange that has always existed between our countries.
Q.: What goods are exported from Cuba to Azerbaijan and from Azerbaijan to Cuba? Are there any Cuban goods that are not present in the Azerbaijani market, but could find demand here?
A.: Cuban classical products, such as rum and tobacco, are sold in Azerbaijan’s stores and shops, but we have to open the way for more products. I believe that cooperation in the agro-industry is important. In recent years both Azerbaijan and Cuba have progressed in this sphere. We have a variety of fruits that would be in demand in the Azerbaijani market. We produce exotic fruits such as pineapple, guava, avocado, and mango, and you produce products that are exotic for us. I believe that the means for an exchange of these products have been created. Besides, Azerbaijan can export lubricants, chemical products, and plastics which we do not produce. There are plenty of possibilities for exchange and a lot of products in Azerbaijan that could enter the Cuban market. Therefore, we want Azerbaijan to participate in the next Havana International Fair, which will be organized by the Cuban Chamber of Commerce in November. Our tourist industry needs varied products. For instance, I would like to buy the delightful Azerbaijani pomegranates in Cuba. I also know that there are great quality Azerbaijani wines, delicious Azerbaijan juices and vegetables, and excellent Azerbaijan nuts.
Q.: What events, visits, or meetings are planned until the end of the year for the development of bilateral relations?
A.: Our governments and foreign ministries exchange meetings on a regular basis. For example, in 2018, a delegation headed by the Cuban Vice Foreign Minister took part in the Ministerial Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Baku and had meetings in the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry. The Azerbaijani Foreign Minister planned to visit Cuba in 2018, but it was postponed at the last moment. However, everything is prepared for a future visit, and we are working to make it happen in 2019. Besides, we have many more visits planned at the governmental level.
Q.: Mr. Ambassador, you have been living in Baku for about two years. What are your impressions about the city and the country?
A.: I am very impressed with the development of Baku and how it is changing. I am impressed with the Azerbaijani culture. My wife and I attend cultural events every week, and we have already visited all of the theaters, concert halls, and exhibition centers in Baku. I am very impressed with the hospitality of the Azerbaijani people. It is very important and pleasant for me that despite the distance between our countries, Cuba is known everywhere. People in all of the places in Azerbaijan know about the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara. The older generation knows about the October Crisis, our sporting achievements, and Cuban medicine. All of the people, both young and old, feel admiration for Cuba and see it as an attractive and affectionate country.