For the first time in 113 years, a German foreign minister is visiting Cuba.
Now, after U.S. President Barack Obama took the Caribbean island off the list of terrorist states, European countries don’t want to miss out on its economic and political revival – including Germany.
“We have different political and economic systems and ideas about democracy, free speech and press freedom,” said Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the Social Democrats, junior partner in Germany’s ruling right-left coalition. “But we have noticed an opening in Cuba, which we want to be a part of – and we want to assist with our experience in transformation.”
The last time a delegate from Germany came to Cuba was in 2000, when former minister for development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, a prominent left-wing member of the Social Democrats, met former Cuban president Fidel Castro. She was labelled “Red Heidi” by Germany’s weekly Der Spiegel at the time, because of her left-leaning sympathies.
“After decades of stagnation, Germans and Cubans don’t know much about each other.”
One year later, the former German economics minister, Werner Müller, came to Cuba and also met Mr. Castro.
“Now, after decades of stagnation, Germans and Cubans don’t know much about each other,” said Mr. Steinmeier before his departure.
His journey had been delayed several times because of Mr. Steinmeier’s involvement in the Iran nuclear negotiations in Austria this week.
The relationship between Cuba and most European countries had cooled down in recent years. But when Mr. Obama officially ended Cold War relations with Cuba on December 17 last year, counties hurried to take up relations with the country again.
In recent months, two other high-ranking politicians visited the island from the European Union. In March, E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini traveled to Havana. Two months later, French President François Hollande also went to Cuba.
Much business is at stake. Today, Cuba’s main trading partner is Venezuela, with €3.4 billion in trade volume and in charge of around half the island’s direct investments. After Venezuela, Cuba’s trading partners are 26 countries in the European Union, led by Spain, which is involved in Cuba’s tourism sector, and France, which has been active in construction and telecommunications.
Forty German companies are active in Cuba, either directly or through representatives.
Cuban officials said they hope that Germany will invest in areas such as infrastructure, medical technology and energy production.
“Mr. Steinmeier’s trip is a positive signal,” said Johannes Hauser, head of the Regional German Chamber of Industry and Commerce for Central America and the Caribbean. “It would be good to open an office here in Cuba for German companies,” he said.
Other countries with interest in Cuba include China, Canada and Brazil.
Europe has been an important trading partner with Cuba in the past, but after the arrest of 75 political dissidents in Cuba in 2003, Brussels reduced its communications to a minimum. After their release in 2008, relations slowly started to recover.
European businesses now insist on a common understanding when it comes to human rights and democratization.
Thomas Ellerbeck, an executive member of the German hotel and cruise ship operator TUI Group based in Hanover, said he is interested in business opportunities in Cuba, but sees a need for political and economic structures to be in place first.
Originally, the German minister was supposed to travel to Cuba sooner and his trip was supposed to be longer and more ambitious. But the nuclear talks in Vienna took longer, so Mr. Steinmeier’s trip is now a lighter version of his original plans. He is accompanied by members of business and cultural associations from Germany.
Mr. Steinmeier met with the successor of former president Fidel Castro, his brother Raoul Castro. He will also meet senior members of government including Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, Economy Minister Marino Murillo and Culture Minister Julian Gonzalez.
All three are said to be part of a younger generation of Cubans who will play an active role in the country’s future development. Mr. Rodríguez is expected to succeed the Castro brothers and lead the country through the transition from a social planned economy to an open market economy.
Representatives from Germany and Cuba will sign a policy statement to open the country for German businesses and cultural exchange programs.
Mr. Steinmeier’s Cuban trip cements his recent foreign policy successes, coming on the tail of successful negotiations with Iran. There, he had played a key role in working out a preliminary agreement between Iran and six other delegates from countries including the United States, Russia and France.
Mr. Steinmeier is the second-most popular politician in Germany, following Chancellor Angela Merkel, and at times has even overtaken her in popularity rankings.
The foreign minister is said to work in a thoughtful, controlled and careful way, which is widely appreciated. His main competitor in the opinion polls, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, also a member of the Social Democrats, is seen as someone who acts according to instinct, which often backfires among the public.
“There is no success without persistence,” Mr. Steinmeier said.
Klaus Ehringfeld is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Mexico, the Caribbean and Columbia. Franziska Scheven is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition based in Berlin. To contact the authors: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org