The band plays on as communist Cuba embraces heart of capitalism
The cigars are out, the beer flows and it's BMWs all round as Bavaria
puts aside ideological differences in $500m deal with Castro regime
Kate Connolly in Munich
Friday May 18, 2007
In front of a picture of a skinny boy in his underpants hugging a water
pump and flanked by a 1950s car, Thomas Lang, a Bavarian businessman,
proudly describes his delight at striking a deal with the Cuban government.
"We've been asked to send 808 pumps to help the country's infrastructure
get on its feet," he tells an audience at Munich's chamber of trade and
industry (IHK), noting the dearth of clean drinking water for the
Caribbean island's 11.4 million inhabitants.
Mr Lang's firm, Wilo-EMU, represents one of hundreds of companies in
this most capitalist of German states that have agreed to help communist
Cuba's command economy, which, despite the United State's embargo, has
of late found a new lease of life, largely thanks to help from Venezuela
In its blurb to businesses, the IHK claims: "Cuba has far more to offer
than beautiful beaches and cigars. Its rotten infrastructure offers
German companies splendid business possibilities."
Cuba has a thirsty need for German technology to replace its rusting
Soviet-era equipment. Bavaria even has its own "ambassador" to Cuba to
oversee developments and before his recent illness Fidel Castro held
through-the-night talks with German engineers about diesel motors and
electricity generators prior to deals being struck.
A $500m (£250m) agreement has been struck between the Free State of
Bavaria and Cuba, under which the German companies are providing the
island with an array of generators, antennas, motors, and medical
technology. By comparison, the US had just $340m trade with Cuba last
year, mostly in agriculture.
The most delicious part of the deal for Bavarian traditionalists is the
request for the luxury carmaker BMW to provide all of Cuba's ambassadors
with its Series 1, 3 and 5 models. Even Raúl Castro, who is standing in
for his sick brother, is to get a Series 5 car.
As far as the Cubans are concerned, Bavarians have proven themselves to
be loyal participants in the revolution. By improving infrastructure
they are helping to put socialism on a solid footing for the post-Castro
"There are many points of the Cuban revolution that are interesting for
Bavarian firms," Eduardo Escandell, deputy trade minister, tells the
suits. "We're happy you want to take part." And please, he adds,
continue buying Cuban cigars, rum and honey in return.
His words sealed a "memorandum of understanding" between the Cuban
government and Bavaria this week as part of the island's attempts to
broaden its international interests – as well as thumbing its nose at
the 45-year-old US embargo. "For 50 years we've suffered from the
blockade but we've also survived without America for 50 years," Mr
Escandell told the Guardian.
"We will continue this fight. We need products, and we're happy that
Bavarian companies can provide them. It's not about politics, because
trade is trade."
As if to cement the deal in spirit, a band of lederhosen-clad men called
the Cuba-Bavarians strikes up, switching from oompah-pah to cha-cha-cha
numbers on their guitars and guiros [a percussive gourd] with ease.
Beerhall drinking songs and Che Guevara tributes fill the air. The
new-found understanding between Germany's richest region and the
communist state is striking. What, after all, have the two in common?
More than meets the eye, as German commentators are keen to point out.
Bavaria has been ruled by the same party, the Christian Social Union
(CSU), for half a century; Castro has ruled Cuba for 48 years. Both
understand the benefits of continuity in power.
But the potential for conflict is huge. At its popular beer-hall
rallies, the CSU rails against any way of thinking that does not tally
with its Catholic, white, conservative, male-dominated values.
Communism is despised by the CSU to the extent that the party has
invited members of the Cuban opposition to its Alpine training lodge to
school them in ways of overthrowing Mr Castro.
But talk steered away from sensitive issues this week. Instead, the
stress was on pragmatism. "Bavarians pride themselves on their mix of
tradition and modernity – the so-called laptop and lederhosen approach,"
says Stephan Mey, of Augsburg-based MAN Diesel, which is selling
generators to Cuba. "The Catholic side of our character means we're
always a bit flexible. If we do something we know we shouldn't we can
always go to confession afterwards."
Cooperation is not without risks. The European Union has frowned on
dealing with Cuba since Mr Castro's arrest four years ago of 90 critics
of his regime and the US is quick to punish firms that break its
embargo. German companies with US subsidiaries, or which are listed on
the New York Stock Exchange, have had to set up in places such as Egypt.
But Mr Castro's illness has slowed the cooperation. "We noticed when he
was ill that payment process was much more sluggish," says Mr Mey of
MAN. "The power vacuum has been obvious."
Ingo Friedrich, CSU vice-president, says the Cuba deal secures a
foothold in its future. "Fidel Castro's days are numbered. The earlier
one plans for the time after Castro, the better."
Sipping a beer, Fidel Antonio Castro Smirnov disagrees. "Fidel Castro is
stronger than ever," says the 27-year-old grandson of el máximo líder,
who is studying physics in Munich. "His 20-hour days are over but he
will be around to do business with the entire world for a long while yet."
One-party states – The unlikely link
Bavaria: 12.4 million
Cuba: 11.4 million
Bavaria: Gott mit dir, du Land der Bayern (God be with you, land of Bavaria)
Cuba: La Bayamesa (Bayamo Song)
Capital known for
Munich: Oktoberfest, beer and BMWs
Havana: Día de la Revolución, cigars and 1950s Cadillacs
GDP per head
Bavaria: Christian Social Union, the majority party since 1957
Cuba: Communist Party of Cuba, since 1965 (although revolution was in 1959)
Bavaria: US, Italy and rest of Germany
Cuba: Netherlands, Canada and China
Bavaria: Bayern Munich, one of the most successful clubs in football history
Cuba: The national team was the first in the Caribbean to reach the
World Cup, in 1938. It has never returned – baseball is the national sport
Bavaria: famous for yodelling and schuhplattler dancers
Cuba: famous for mambo, rumba and salsa