Brazilian President Lula strengthens relations 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.

Lula expressed his concerns about the U.S.-imposed embargo on Cuba during the summit on Saturday. He referred to it as an unlawful economic blockade and emphasized Brazil’s opposition to any form of one-sided coercive action.

“I cannot reword”

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 heritages.

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 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 formally reinstate the political and diplomatic ties with Cuba, which were completely neglected under the Bolsonaro administration.

The relationship between the two countries was robust during the reign of Lula’s leftist Workers’ Party from 2003 to 2016. However, it deteriorated under Bolsonaro, who supported the embargo.

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

In 2018, Cuba ceased making loan payments. Supporters of Bolsonaro on the extreme right frequently utilized this matter to criticize Lula, claiming 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 the projects undertaken by Brazilian companies holds significance in countering the opposition’s disapproval of the Workers’ Party.

Peres stated that Lula is highly interested in enhancing the utilization of Brazilian companies in the port 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 for the meeting is also likely to include discussions on expanding trade connections between the two countries. Brazil mainly exported vegetal fats and oils, rice, and poultry meat to Cuba.

Cuba is currently facing 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 goods, 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 were expected to touch upon Brazil’s “More Doctors” program. Started in 2013, this program aimed to address the shortage of healthcare services in remote regions by enlisting foreign doctors.

After his election in 2018, Bolsonaro swiftly suspended the program due to his criticism of it.

Peres stated that both nations are interested in resuming the program called “More Doctors.” Cuba’s financially struggling 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 global matters. Lula, on the other hand, has been striving to establish Brazil as a significant participant in international affairs since assuming office in January.

Lula’s approach has involved embarking on multiple international journeys, advocating for a restructuring of the global world order to grant greater influence to countries in the Global South.

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

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