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Cuba hopes for strengthened relations with Japan in a wide range of areas and also wants to normalize ties with the United States, its longtime nemesis, sometime in the future, Vice President Carlos Lage said in a written interview with The Japan Times.

“Cooperation between our two countries (Japan and Cuba) is ongoing, and we look forward to its expansion,” Lage wrote prior to his first official visit to Japan next week.

Lage said his visit will be aimed at deepening mutual knowledge between Cuba and Japan, and he expressed hope that it will become a “modest contribution to the strengthening and consolidation of our historical, wide-ranging links.”

The visit will also provide Cuba with a good opportunity to “establish new relations (with various Japanese circles) that enhance our traditional friendship,” the vice president said.

Noting that the first Japanese stepped on Cuban soil in 1898, Lage said: “It could be said that for some time now, both countries have been taking steps aimed at enhancing the knowledge of their respective realities, problems and aspirations, without disregarding what has been done throughout nearly a century of relations.

“Cubans recognize many values in the Japanese: their industriousness, their capacity to overcome adversities, their discipline, their loyalty, their traditions and their culture,” he added.

Lage will make a four-day official visit to Japan starting Monday at the invitation of the government to discuss with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and other political and business leaders ways to strengthen hitherto estranged relations between the two countries.

The 48-year-old Lage, who is widely regarded to be one of the most likely future successors to aging Cuban President Fidel Castro, will be the highest-ranking Havana official ever to make an official visit to Japan.

Castro, who established his revolutionary regime in 1959, is now 74. By inviting Lage, Japan apparently aims to lay the groundwork for strengthening ties with a post-Castro Cuban regime.

Lage is widely seen as a top official in charge of economic management. He has promoted Cuba’s economic reforms through introduction of foreign investment and has also advocated an overhaul of inefficient state-run enterprises. During his Japan visit, Lage is expected to ask for increased Japanese economic cooperation to help accelerate reforms of the Cuban economy.

Japan’s official development assistance for Cuba has been limited to relatively small amounts of grants-in-aid and technical cooperation. No official yen loans have been provided, not only for political reasons but also due to concerns about Cuba’s ability to repay them.

During the Cold War, Japan imposed tight restrictions on the exchange of visits by government officials with Cuba because the United States, Japan’s most important ally, regarded Cuba as a threat to its own national security.

However, the U.S. no longer views Cuba as a security threat and it no longer objects to high-level government contacts between Japan and Cuba. Although the U.S. still retains economic and other sanctions against Cuba, it has gradually been loosening them since Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to the Caribbean country in early 1998.

Lage’s visit to Japan will culminate an exchange of visits by senior government officials and political figures between the two countries that have become increasingly active in recent years.

He frankly acknowledged that since the early 1990s, Cuba has faced “complex circumstances,” especially economic ones, as a result of the disappearance of the socialist bloc and the demise of the Soviet Union, as well as because of toughened economic and other sanctions by the United States.

“These events curtailed trade between Cuba and Japan. But recovery seems to have started,” he said, adding that there has been a “significant revitalization process of bilateral exchanges” in the past five years.

Lage expressed satisfaction with rapidly warming ties with Japan and particularly welcomed the recent inauguration of Japan Airlines charter flights from Osaka to Havana.

“We hope Cuba will become a major tourism destination for the Japanese,” he wrote. “The Japanese visiting Cuba get to know the country and its people. And upon their return, they convey their experiences, encouraging others to travel, not only to enjoy the beaches and our nature but also to engage in trade, conclude business deals, appreciate our culture and even to ‘discover’ — in the case of those unfamiliar with them — the links binding the men and women of our archipelagoes.”

On Cuba’s relations with the United States, Lage said nearly four decades after the Cuban Revolution, they “remain tense.”

Successive U.S. administrations, almost without exception, have been “bitterly opposed to any social empowerment process by the people on our continent,” he lamented. “The Cuban Revolution embodies and carries forward a more profound, wide-ranging project from the social, humane and political standpoints.”

Lage called on the United States to take the initiative toward improved ties between the two countries, saying: “The solution to the problem is in the hands of the U.S. government and Congress.

“We are not the ones blockading them, or the ones who maintain military bases in their territory against their will, or the ones who produce pieces of legislation almost on a daily basis to strangle them.”

“Furthermore,” Lage said, “the U.S. policy toward our country has not only been deleterious to Cuba but it has also worked against the interests of U.S. citizens themselves — both those who are willing to know the country as tourists and those who have wanted to engage in trade and business deals but have not been able to.”

Lage particularly criticized the U.S. Congress, where he said there are “ultraconservative forces still operating on the mentality of the Cold War that unrealistically analyze the international environment in order to cause the U.S. to prevail.”

He called the Helms-Burton Act, under which the U.S. has imposed sanctions, an “emblematic example” in this respect.

“We look forward to one day having normal relations with the U.S., and that will be the case. But our independence, our revolution and our socialism are — and will be — unflinching,” he said.

On the Cuban economy, Lage noted that the country experienced the deepest crisis in its history in the early 1990s due to two factors: the “abrupt, unilateral loss of the fair economic and trading relations” with the former Soviet Union and other socialist-bloc countries in Europe, and the “worsening of the U.S. blockade.”

“In that crucial moment, when many counted and predicted the final days of the Cuban Revolution and neoliberal adjustment processes prevailed around the globe, the country chose to introduce whatever changes were necessary to meet the requirements of its unavoidable insertion into the world economy, but with the conviction that it was only possible by maintaining our socialism,” he said.

“The strategy adopted — first and foremost based on the endurance, stoicism and will of the Cuban people — proved valuable in the last five years,” Lage insisted, adding that the performance of the Cuban economy during that period “confirms the tendency to gradual recovery.”

Lage noted that Cuba’s gross domestic product — total output of goods and services — stopped declining in 1994 and has since grown an average of 4.4 percent annually, compared with the average growth rate of 2.5 percent for the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean during the same period.

“This trend is still on, and at the end of the first half of this year, the GDP grew by 7.7 percent,” he said, adding that the current economic growth is not accompanied by inflation.

“The country is ready to face the challenges of the future,” Lage said. “The harsh conditions we have tackled throughout this decade have tested not only our capacity of endurance but also the potential to outline a gradual economic recovery program in an increasingly globalized world.”

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