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Interview with Her Excellency, Berris Ekinci, Ambassador of Turkey in Cuba

Her Excellency, Berris Ekinci, Ambassador of Turkey in Cuba, at the embassy in Havana.

Last December I had the delightful opportunity to meet with the Turkish Ambassador to Cuba at the Embassy where we sipped coffee and held a conversation on Turkish business on the Island.

In this interview, yet another taking place under the new conditions of the pandemic, I spoke with Her Excellency, Berris Ekinci, Ambassador of Turkey in Cuba, in late October.

On November 12, the day prior to the publication of this interview, a ceremony was held at the premises of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investments of the Republic of Cuba (MINCEX) with the attendance of Ambassador Ekinci and Mrs. Ana Teresita Gonzalez Fraga, First Deputy Minister of MINCEX, Dr. Aldo Grandal, Director General at the Ministry of Health and Mr. Ahmet Altintas, representative of Karpowerships, in which a donation from the company was presented in support of Cuba’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The donation which arrived in Cuba on September 28 with a Turkish Airlines charter flight included 5,100 surgical face masks, 40,000 surgical gloves, 300 liters of disinfectant, 420 protective suits, 400 surgical face shields, 1,000 COVID-19 CRT rapid tests, and three portable ventilators. This is a demonstration of the solidarity and friendship between Turkey and Cuba, and it is the mutual will of both countries to carry on this close relationship.

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Ambassador Ekinci shares with us here the fascinating history of Turkish-Cuban relations that reaches back to the days of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century. Her Excellency also speaks about Turkish business on the Island, its successes, challenges and prospects for the future.

A new era of business communications has evolved during COVID-19. Many diplomats in overseas postings have not been able to return home for holidays as was normal in the days before the pandemic. Ambassador Ekinci is one of the diplomats who has remained in Havana.

Since 2016 the Ambassador has served as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Turkey to Cuba. Her career began in 1994 as a Career Officer at the Department for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Department, and followed as Attaché at the Office of the Special Counselor to the Undersecretary (1995), Attaché and Third Secretary at the Turkish Embassy in London (1996), Third and Second Secretary at the Turkish Embassy in Azerbaijan (1999), Second and First Secretary at the Department of Energy (2001), First Secretary and Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations (2003), Head of the Department of Energy (2007), Consulate General in Marseille (2010), and the Deputy Director-General for Energy, Water and Environment (2012).

Ambassador Ekinci holds a Bachelors Degree in Economics from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara and a Master´s Degree in Finance from Boston College in the United States.

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Cuba Business Report: I understand that Turkey and Cuba have held bilateral relations since 1952. Not many people are aware of the length of this relationship. What brought Turkey to Cuba in 1952? Can you tell us about the evolution of this relationship historically?

Ambassador Ekinci:

When the historical roots of the Turkish-Cuban relations are examined, it could be seen that various interactions had begun as early as the second half of the 19th century. During the Ottoman time, the Empire opened a Consulate in Havana in 1873. We may ask why? From the readings, we understand that it was a period when the look of the Ottoman Empire towards the New World had changed, and furthermore Cuba’s fight for independence had as well attracted the attention of the Empire.

This was the first interaction.

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In 1950, our Embassy in Mexico City was accredited to Cuba to carry out the political relations. Then in November 1952, diplomatic relations between the two countries were formally established. There was an increasing interest from the part of the Turkish Government to open up to the Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Since then, we had uninterrupted diplomatic relations. Having said that, up until the 1990s there has not been much of an interaction between the two countries.

It was only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union that the relationship really took off.

In that aspect, the visit of the Cuban leader Fidel Castro to Turkey for the UN Conference on Human Settlements, HABITAT, in 1996, constituted an important step.

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Towards the end of the 90s, we witness an acceleration of bilateral visits of high-level representatives, focusing on economic and trade relations, followed up again by a period of slowdown.

A crucial milestone has been the visit of our President of the Republic, H.E. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2015 to Cuba. This was the first visit ever at that level to Cuba. Several ministers accompanied our President. The visit has been a great success and paved the way to the deepening of relations.

The most concrete and rapid result which came out of it was the start of the Turkish Airlines flights in December 2016 and since then, Turkish Airlines have been flying to Havana three times a week.

On the political ground, another important visit has been the one of the Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs H.E. Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla to Turkey in 2017, which as well represented the first ever-official visit of a Cuban Foreign Minister to Turkey.

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Then last year in May, we received our Minister of Foreign Affairs H.E. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to Havana. A first at that level following a period of 20 years. It has been a very important as well as successful visit.

At the political level, I can say, without any doubt, that we have very good relations.

Now, together with our Cuban friends, we are working very intensively to increase the level of our economic and trade relations up to the level of our political relations.

In the period of 2018-2019, the Turkey-Cuba Technical Follow-up Committee convened three times in order to work on and deepen the bilateral economic and trade relations. The last one took place in February 2019 in Havana. The Turkish delegation was led by the Deputy Trade Minister, H.E. Gonca Yılmaz Batur, who was accompanied by a very large delegation of around 50 people, including representatives of different ministries such as Trade, Transport, Agriculture, Health and Treasury, as well as representatives of the Turkish private sector.

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What are the industry sectors Turkish business is most interested in?

Ambassador Ekinci:

Those that have been prioritized by Turkish business, in consultation with the Cuban side, have been biotechnology, tourism, construction, infrastructure, agriculture and energy including renewable energy. In the sector of tourism, we have the Turkish company Global Ports Holding that took over the management of the Sierra Maestra Cruise Port in Havana. This is a company that operates 25% of the cruise ports in the Mediterranean.

However, following the decision of the US administration in relation to the cruise ships coming to Cuba, and the halt of journeys to Cuban ports, the activities of Global Ports were hampered. Therefore, if I may say so for now, they are in the waiting room. They are waiting to see what the next step would be.

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In agriculture, we have engaged in a chickpeas project. We have donated 100 kilos of seeds to Cuba through the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency. A technical team came to Cuba last year for the plantation in November. They assisted the Cuban party with the plantation in an area of Sancti Spiritus. They were supposed to come for the harvest in the springtime but unfortunately, due to COVID-19 they were not able to. However, we have been told that the harvest had been a very encouraging one. Hence, the parties intend to continue this cooperation.

We would like to have a bigger and deeper cooperation in the agricultural field with the Cuban side. We have a great experience in this area that we are ready to share.

That’s very interesting.

Ambassador Ekinci:

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In addition, in the energy field, we have a Turkish company called Kartet which have been transforming ships into electricity plants. They are operating in many countries all over the world. They have three ships near Havana in Mariel where they are producing electricity. This is viewed as a trade activity since the company is selling the electricity produced to the Cuban operator.

Turkey is not one of the big players in Cuba but we can see that there has been a deepening of economic-trade relations and an increased interest from the part of the Turkish companies in the last couple of years. I hope that this will be a start. The presence of these companies in this country may pave the way for other Turkish companies to enter the Cuban market. Consequently, I believe that the experience they will have and share with others will be crucial.

Turkish business signed a contract this year with BioCubaFarma. Can you tell us about the deal?

Ambassador Ekinci:

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Turkish biopharmaceutical companies are very much interested in the health and biotechnology business in Cuba. In 2018, the Ministries of Health of both countries signed a memorandum of understanding on health and medical sciences.

Then last year, in 2019, the regulatory bodies of both countries signed a memorandum of understanding with the objective of cooperation in areas such as the inspection of medicines, the rational use of medicines, clinical trials, quality control, scientific evaluation. This was a very important step in relation to the registrations of medicines in the respective countries.

As I already said, there is a great interest on the part of the Turkish pharmaceuticals. Last year during her official visit, a large group of high representatives, CEOs of Turkish pharmaceuticals, accompanied our Deputy Trade Minister.

In the margins of the Technical Follow-up Committee meetings, these companies held a series of meetings with the Cuban representatives of the health sector. It lasted for a week; it was very intense and very helpful. It gave a clear idea for the Turkish companies on how to proceed on potential cooperation areas.

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There are already several companies doing business with Cuba in this sphere. I may mention some of them. The first one I can label as ‘the pioneer’ as they established relations with the Cuban side more than 10 years ago, namely Hasbiotech. This company registered in Turkey some Cuban origin medicines like Heberprot P intended for diabetes, Leukoplus for strengthening the immune system, Epoplus for kidney failure and Vaxira for cancer. Moreover, this company also has taken the rights for the CIGB 500, a Cuban origin molecule that has the objective to diminish heart attacks. Clinical trials will be initiated in Turkey and, if the results are positive, then production will follow. This is a very important project in line.

The clinical trials are in process now?

Ambassador Ekinci:

They will start.

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Another company, MomentumCuba has teamed up with BioCubaFarma to commercialize two of their immune therapies in Turkey and in the neighboring region. They also have been working on some other products with the relevant Cuban companies.

Another one I can mention is the OKAN Group, which signed agreements with Servicios Medicos de Cuba, the University of Havana on Medical Sciences and the Oncology Center. These documents include provisions such as the exchange of students and medical staff and, as well, joint research on cancer tumors. One of the aims is to establish a joint cancer research center in Istanbul.

Turkey is against the economic sanctions imposed on Cuba by the U.S., sanctions and regulations which have been described by many as a violation of international law. What is the government of Turkey doing to protect Turkish business which operate or plan to operate in Cuba? We have for example, in Canada the FEMA Act and the EU have mechanisms in place to protect their international trading and sovereignty.

As you said, Turkey is against any unilateral sanctions and coercive measures. We believe that instead, the parties should engage into dialogue and try to find some common ground. Those sanctions, primarily, they affect the population and in this specific example, we can see how the sanctions are affecting the Cuban people. These unilateral sanctions also hamper the third party interests with their extra-territorial effects. The Turkish companies, are also affected by these sanctions.

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Other companies that do have an interest in engaging with Cuba, on economic grounds, have an increased reluctance to do so due to the U.S. sanctions and Helms-Burton law. These are very unfortunate.

We don’t have in Turkey, as in Canada or the EU, a legislation or mechanism in place which would be directly protecting our companies. Of course, we do explain to the companies that Turkey is not recognizing those unilateral sanctions. We are trying to assist them (the companies) in any way possible but there is no concrete mechanism as per se. In addition, even when you look at the concrete mechanisms which exist, you can see they also unfortunately have their limits in the real world.

Moreover, Turkey has always been among the overwhelming majority of countries which has been supportive of the UN resolution tabled by Cuba each year at the General Assembly for the lifting of the U.S. sanctions against Cuba.

Looking to the future of Turkish-Cuban relations – where does Turkey hope to be with Cuba over the next five years?

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Ambassador Ekinci:

I believe our political relations will continue to be as fruitful as they are now and I really hope that, as I said in the beginning, we will be able to bring the level of our trade and economic relations to the level of our political relations, as they are lagging much behind their true potential. When we look at the trade volume between the two countries, for example last year’s number, it is around $55 million dollars, which is not representative of the potential which exists.

So I really do hope that the economic, the investment framework in the country will get better, giving incentives to potential foreign investors, traders. There have been some very promising announcements made on the 16th of July by the Cuban government. Of course, it is the implementation of what had been announced which will pave the way for the increase in interest of the potential investors and businesses from Turkey. The investment environment has to get better for the businesses as there are difficulties related to both the U.S. sanctions and other factors as well.

One should not forget that Turkey is far away from this region, there is the language barrier, the distance barrier. Turkish businesses are choosing to concentrate on regions neighbouring Turkey and for the last years, there has been a growing interest towards Africa and the entry into the African markets. We have to find ways to attract them to the Cuban market. Actually, Cuba, itself, seems very attractive for the Turkish people. People are interested to come to Cuba, willing to do business with Cuba so I am always asking our Cuban friends to help us in this endeavour.

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And right now the COVID situation doesn’t help anything.

Ambassador Ekinci:

Unfortunately not. But one good thing has been that even during COVID times, we managed to organize some virtual meetings with the participation of both sides. We learned that in between the physical encounters, there could be virtual meetings to pursue with the negotiations, the discussions. No need to say that physical presence has another dimension but everyone understands that advancements could be possible with virtual meetings. We have some companies, which have during these times finalized negotiations. We will continue our efforts for our companies to stay in touch with their Cuban counterparts and continue their talks virtually, up until the opening.

Ambassador, I would like to thank you so much and it is so nice to see you again.

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Ambassador Ekinci:

Thank you for this opportunity.

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