Cuba keen to raise its profile in S'pore

Local embassy opens today in Havelock Road as country looks to promote trade, tourism

Cuban ambassador Roberto Blanco Dominguez said he is in talks with businesses here to bring in authentic Caribbean island cuisine.
Cuban ambassador Roberto Blanco Dominguez said he is in talks with businesses here to bring in authentic Caribbean island cuisine. ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

Having been away from home for a few months, Cuban ambassador Roberto Blanco Dominguez was thrilled to find a restaurant serving comfort food such as black beans, rice and plantain chips.

But the diplomat was sorely disappointed when he dined at the restaurant in Chinatown recently.

"It wasn't exactly very tasty and authentic, but I guess it is expected," said Mr Dominguez, Cuba's first resident ambassador to Singapore who has been here since July to set up the embassy.

The embassy at King's Centre in Havelock Road will be officially opened today, but the ambassador knows there are no better diplomatic relations than to bring a slice of Havana here. He said he is in talks with the Singapore business community to bring in eateries serving authentic delights from the Caribbean island and its classic cigar halls.

"We don't only have the best rums and cigars in the world, we also have great music and a rich culture," said Mr Dominguez, whose wife will join him at the end of the month. He wants to spark greater interest in his country following a deal inked between former foreign minister K. Shanmugam and his Cuban counterpart to lift visa restrictions between Singapore and Cuba.

While the number of Singaporean tourist arrivals in Cuba is not available, Mr Dominguez said it is growing.

The interest is largely thanks to moves by the United States to re-establish diplomatic ties with the communist state and both countries reopening embassies in each other's capitals in July. The thawing US-Cuba relations have led to a spike in tourist arrivals from the US and around the world.

Besides tourism, Mr Dominguez also looks to Singapore's example to make up for lost time in Cuba's development. "There is so much we can learn from how Singapore has developed the economy, trade and education," he said.

PSA Corp's international arm will soon start to run operations in the Port of Mariel, which could drive the reclusive nation-state's economic liberalisation. Resort property owner Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts has also partnered the Cuban tourism group to run four hotels in the country -which has 11.2 million people in a land mass more than 150 times the size of Singapore - from next year.

The seasoned diplomat, who is in his 60s, has served in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Ethiopia in the last 40-plus years.

While Cuba has embassies in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, he hopes to ride on the goodwill built since high-profile visits by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2009 and Mr Shanmugam recently.

"The timing is perfect... Singapore is an important country in the region and it is a logical move to expand and cement our presence here."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2015, with the headline Cuba keen to raise its profile in S'pore. Subscribe