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With US-Cuba ties warming, investors are circling

By Sneh Duggal      

It's not the only way Washington has boosted the Toronto consulate’s workload. A banking problem at the Cuban mission in Washington has led people seeking consular help to Canada.

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TORONTO—The number of Canadian companies eyeing Cuba for investment has spiked after the Caribbean nation and the United States recently came together to try to sweeten decades of sour relations, says Cuba’s consul general in Toronto.

US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, announced on Dec. 17 that the two countries had agreed to work towards restoring diplomatic and economic ties.

There’s been a flurry of interest in the rapprochement, including in Canada, with the Cuban consulate general in Toronto at the receiving end of some of this activity.

Consul General Javier Dómokos Ruiz has seen a spurt of interest from reporters, conference hosts and businesses. The consulate has been receiving a couple calls each day and five or six emails each week from Canadian companies, he said.

It’s just some of the work his four embassy staff members are busy with these days.

“The announcement has created a feeling that the tension between Cuba and the US is going to disappear,” Mr. Dómokos Ruiz said on Feb. 13 while sitting in his mission in the heart of Canada’s financial capital. “Those people that were afraid to come to Cuba because of punishment from the US…now they feel free to go because they are expecting not to have any punishment.”

Most people calling the consulate already know Cuba well, he said. “I think in my opinion they were waiting for this to happen.”

Mr. Dómokos Ruiz said that while some think they need to get there before the Americans arrive, there’s room for everybody.

“You cannot take for granted that Canada has a place, but Canada is competitive enough to position themselves in Cuba,” he said. “Like any other part of the world, the competition is because [of] what you have to provide, and if you’re good or not.”

Mark Entwistle, Canada’s ambassador to Cuba from 1993 to 1997, said the notion that there will be an invasion of US business interests into Cuba that proceed to “buy up” the island doesn’t seem like a viable scenario.

“[Cuba has] learned powerful lessons, I believe, that are now quite embedded in their DNA and the way they see the world about overreliance on single partners,” said Mr. Entwistle, who helped found Acasta Capital and currently serves as a director and special adviser at the firm.

Tourism is an area Canadian companies can invest more in, said Mr. Dómokos Ruiz. “We need more Canadian hotels.”

He doesn’t think budding relations between the US and Cuba will overshadow Canada’s longstanding ties with the island country.

“The relations, they are carried by government officials, but they are interpreted by the will of the people and they have been longstanding,” he said. “There are Canadian companies in Cuba that are solid, and they have been there when nobody wanted to come. So Cuba would respect that for many years to come because they prove to be friends in [times of] need.”

US cases flood consulate

Changes in Washington are affecting the small Cuban office in Toronto in more ways than one.

When M&T Bank Corp. stopped its services to the Cuban Interests Section, the country’s mission in Washington, the office had to significantly scale down its activities. The Cuban foreign ministry has unsuccessfully tried since February 2014 to find another bank that would handle the needs of its mission in the US. The Cuban authorities blamed the banking problem on tight US economic sanctions.

As a result, the Toronto consulate has started to get people from the US needing help.

“That has impacted us because it’s a small office and they are coming in big numbers,” Mr. Dómokos Ruiz said.

On Feb. 13, a long line of people stood outside the consular office, waiting for the doors to open at 10 a.m. The man at the front of the line had been there since 8 a.m.

The consulate typically has six staff members, but currently there are only four. They consist of two couples.

The consul general explained that Cuban diplomats are allowed to bring with them on a posting one family member who can work at the mission. Sometimes they are also considered diplomats in the host country and can hold titles such as consul. They also undergo some training.

Mr. Dómokos Ruiz, who is a career diplomat, started his journey in his foreign ministry’s protocol office. He has worked in the ministry’s Africa division and served at the Cuban embassies in Turkey, Zimbabwe and Kenya before coming to Toronto in 2012.

His mission is responsible for Ontario and all regions west of the province.

Aside from visa and passport processing, the consulate works on strengthening economic, cultural, educational and sports ties between the countries.

The staffers are asked to speak at conferences, universities and to political parties and try to meet with local authorities whenever they travel. They stay in touch with businesses, provincial and federal legislators and local politicians. The consul general is planning to ask for a meeting with Toronto’s recently elected mayor, John Tory, and has been asked to speak at nearby Brock University later this month about Cuba’s presence in Africa in the fight against Ebola.

The consulate knows of about 10,000 Cubans living in the region the mission is responsible for, but this number just accounts for the people who have registered in their office.

The consulate has been busy promoting Cuban participation and culture in lead-up to the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games to be held later this year in Toronto. The mission expects it will need to support a large Cuban delegation.

Toronto life brings cold receptions

National day receptions are the crux of the diplomatic social scene in Ottawa. It’s similar in Toronto among the consular corps, but the cold sometimes plays a huge factor.

Mr. Dómokos Ruiz said it’s become a tradition to host national day receptions at Toronto City Hall. Part of the evening includes a flag-raising ceremony, which happens outside.

“Our national day is a very complicated day—it’s [Jan. 1], it’s too cold and nobody’s in town,” Mr. Dómokos Ruiz said.

“Sometimes you go to these ceremonies and…you prove who is your friend, because people, they are outside in very cold temperatures,” he said with a chuckle, adding that he supports the flag-raising idea.

“They leave it there for the day in a very important spot of City Hall, and so the nationals of that country, they will feel very proud to see their flag [on] that day.”

And while diplomats and red licence plates are a well-known addition to Canada’s capital, people aren’t as familiar with consulates or diplomatic activities in Toronto.

“People ask you, ‘What’s that red plate?’ Or people have confused me with the [car] dealer…or you call [a telephone company] and [say], ‘I’m calling from the consulate of Cuba,’ and they say, ‘Can you spell it?’

“I don’t think it’s a big deal, but you are not that important like when you are in Ottawa because you are not that big in number,” he said. But he added that Toronto’s potential is big since they have a lot of access to politicians and large corporations.



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