Brazilian president Lula strengthens connections with Cuba during G77 summit in Havana.

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met with his Cuban counterpart Saturday in Havana, signaling a revitalization of ties between the two countries in the first trip by a Brazilian president to the Caribbean nation in nine years.

Lula was in Havana for the summit of the Group of 77 emerging economies plus China. The group, founded in the 1960s, is meeting in Cuba just days ahead of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

During the summit on Saturday, Lula expressed his disappointment with the economic embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States. He stated that Brazil opposes any unilateral coercive actions and believes that Cuba is unjustly suffering from this illegal embargo.

“We firmly oppose the categorization of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism,” he stated. Lula was referring to the compilation of countries by the U.S. that are believed to have consistently aided acts of global terrorism. Nations included in this list face potential sanctions.

Cuba and Brazil have a deep connection in terms of history and population. Cuban people enjoy watching Brazilian soap operas, and both countries have vibrant musical cultures.

Lula and the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro had a friendly relationship, and Cuba celebrated Lula’s close win over the previous far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in the election held last year.

Paulo Peres, a political scientist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, stated that the event in Havana provided a chance to formalize the restoration of political and diplomatic ties with Cuba, which were entirely neglected under the Bolsonaro administration.

During the period of 2003 to 2016, when Lula’s leftist Workers’ Party held power, there existed a strong connection between the two countries. However, this relationship deteriorated under Bolsonaro’s administration, as he supported the imposition of an embargo.

Lula and Miguel Díaz-Canel, the leader of Cuba, were scheduled to have a conversation about the debt that Cuba owes to Brazil’s development bank. According to reports from the Brazilian press, the debt is estimated to be around $540 million. This debt was primarily accumulated during extensive construction projects carried out at Cuba’s Port of Mariel, which is situated about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Havana.

In 2018, Cuba ceased making payments on the loan. Supporters of Bolsonaro from the far-right frequently utilized this matter to criticize Lula, alleging that he prioritized constructing a port in communist Cuba over funding domestic initiatives.

Antonio Jorge Ramalho Da Rocha, a professor of international relations at the University of Brasilia, stated that the retrieval of the funds provided to Cuba for supporting projects executed by Brazilian companies will be significant in countering the criticism faced by the Workers’ Party from the opposition.

Peres stated that Lula is highly interested in enhancing the utilization of the port by Brazilian companies and maximizing its infrastructure to promote international trade with the Caribbean and the U.S.

Brazil’s foreign affairs ministry stated in January that there was a trade surplus of around $287 million between Brazil and Cuba in 2022. The agenda is also expected to include discussions on expanding trade connections between the two countries. Brazil primarily exported vegetal fats and oils, rice, and poultry meat to Cuba.

Cuba is currently experiencing its most severe economic crisis since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, according to experts. Although the island would appreciate an increase in imports of various products, it is widely believed that the Cuban government does not have the necessary funds to make the payments.

However, Cuba is currently undergoing a process of change as it allows the establishment of small and medium-sized private businesses. Since the legalization of small enterprises in September 2021, over 8,000 companies have been initiated in Cuba.

Peres mentioned that the two leaders would probably talk about Brazil’s “More Doctors” program. This program, which started in 2013, aimed to bring in doctors from other countries to provide healthcare services in underserved regions of Brazil.

After his election in 2018, Bolsonaro’s criticism of the program resulted in its quick suspension.

Peres stated that both nations are interested in resuming the “More Doctors” program. Cuba’s financially strained government would appreciate the earnings generated from the doctors’ wages, while Brazil still faces a shortage of healthcare professionals in rural regions.

Bolsonaro showed minimal concern for matters beyond national borders. Since assuming office in January, Lula has been striving to establish Brazil as a significant participant in global affairs.

Lula has implemented a strategy that involves going on multiple international trips to advocate for a restructuring of the global world order, aiming to grant more influence and authority to countries in the Global South.

Following his visit to Cuba, Lula will travel to New York, where he is scheduled to deliver the inaugural address at the United Nations’ General Assembly and hold a bilateral meeting with President Joe Biden.

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