• Kyodo, Reuters


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed Thursday to expand bilateral economic ties by increasing Japanese investment in the Caribbean country and canceling a major part of its debt to Japan.

At a meeting in Havana, Abe, the first Japanese prime minister to visit Cuba, also unveiled grants worth about ¥1.3 billion ($12.9 million) in medical aid to the country, Japanese officials said.

Abe referred to a recent bilateral agreement under which Japan would waive ¥120 billion of Cuba’s ¥180 billion debt to Japan, the officials said.

Given that Cuba has a friendly relationship with North Korea, Abe told Castro that Pyongyang’s repeated ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests, including its fifth and largest nuclear test earlier this month, have raised the threat level in the region and beyond.

He also sought Castro’s cooperation in resolving the abduction issue with North Korea.

Abe’s visit comes after Cuba and the United States resumed diplomatic relations last year following a 54-year freeze, prompting other countries to improve relations with Havana. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang plans to go there later this month.

Abe and Castro agreed to convene a deputy minister-level meeting of government officials and business leaders from their countries in November in Tokyo to discuss specific investment projects in Cuba, the officials said.

Abe is hoping his trip will encourage Japanese companies to invest in Cuba, whose major trading partners are Venezuela, China, Canada and Spain, according to the officials. Of the 700 or so foreign companies operating in Cuba, 18 are Japanese, the Foreign Ministry said.

As far as the medical cooperation plans are concerned, Cuba aims to use the ¥1.3 billion in aid to buy medical equipment. They also agreed to launch a study to set up a center in Cuba to train doctors.

Before the talks, Abe met with Castro’s elder brother, former President Fidel Castro, who led Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

In an interview published in Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper Granma on Thursday, Abe said he wanted to discuss trade, investment, cooperating on development and strengthening tourism exchanges.

“I also want to exchange opinions with a Cuba that holds great influence among the nonaligned countries about the reform of the United Nations Security Council, nuclear disarmament, the situation in Asia and other topics involving the international community,” he was quoted as saying.

Abe flew in from New York, where he told the annual U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday that the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arms program this year was “substantially more serious” than it was in the past.

Cuba is one of North Korea’s few diplomatic allies and a fellow member of the nonaligned movement formed in 1961 by states wanting to avoid siding with the United States or Soviet Union.

Japan has a long history of trade with Cuba, importing seafood, tobacco and coffee while exporting machinery.

Abe said he hoped to expand that economic relationship in a new era heralded by Cuba’s detente with the United States and business-friendly reforms.

“I believe firmly that Japanese companies can, as reliable partners, make a notable contribution to a Cuba that is updating its socioeconomic model,” Abe said

The reorganization of Cuba’s debt toward Japan, signed this week, should help toward that goal, he said. Cuba’s other long-term trading partners have already used debt forgiveness, swaps and new financing to try to win investment opportunities on the island.

Japanese firms wanting to gain a foothold in the country of 11 million people ahead of their competitors have descended there en masse in recent months, scouting for openings.

Trading house Mitsubishi Corp. opened a Havana office in July, telling Reuters it was keen to establish some infrastructure projects in Cuba which the Japanese government might help finance.

“I want to cooperate with Cuba, joining forces as much in the public sector as in the private one,” Abe said.

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