14ymedio, Havana, January 5, 2024 — “Fresh currency.” For more than ten years that has been the slogan of the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM). Its directors, senior Cuban officials and foreign investors bluntly admit it in “Prow to the Future,” a documentary taped using Geocuba drones and accompanied by an original score from the musical duo Buena Fe (Good Faith).
The 28-minute video presents the ZEDM, which began operations in 2013, as the Cuban revolution’s greatest economic achievement, exalting its logistical capabilities. The stated purpose of the documentary, which was broadcast last Tuesday on Cuban television, is to attract foreign investment and commemorate the regime leaders who came up with the idea, from Fidel Castro to its current and “hardest-working” supervisor, Ramiro Valdés, the current vice-president of the Council of State.
But the mastermind behind ZEDM, the interviewees insist, was General Julio Casas Regueiro, the former government minister for the Armed Forces, who died of a heart attack in 2011, two years after its opening. They add, however, there were two other people who closely oversaw its development: the recently deceased Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja, head of the military-run GAESA business conglomerate, and his former father-in-law, Raul Castro.
Osvaldo Bravo, director of the Mariel Engineering Services company, remembers personally seeing “Luis Alberto” every week during the feasibility phase of the project. The documentary includes a lot of images of Lopez-Calleja meeting with other senior officials over the years.
Later came an “accelerated investment process” to create what Lopez-Calleja and Casas Regueir had seen in other countries, particularly in Panama. The first feature of the project was the port of Aguas Profundas [Deep Waters], completed in 2013 “despite no previous experience,” boasted Bravo.
If they were in a rush to finish the project, it was to make a good impression on the other Latin American heads-of-state who would be attending the second summit of Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which was being held in Havana in January 2014. All the stars of 21st century socialism — among them, Nicolas Maduro, Dilma Rousseff and Evo Morales — were there to kick off ZEDM. The launch was successful; the more lasting failure came later.
The Mariel construction company that employed, and still retains, 3,000 workers was also in charge of complementary projects such as the container terminal and two railway lines that access the site. Raul Castro claimed the “mighty” terminal would ensure a “prosperous, socialist future” for Cuba
Some eleven kilometers of roadway and four bridges are part of a “robust” network of access routes into and out of ZEDM, the documentary points out. The canal that provides an outlet to the sea is 200 meters wide and 18.3 meters deep. The bay was dredged in 2022 to accomodate Neopanamax ships, the largest in the world, explained Martín Jose Spini, director general of the logisitics conglomerate PSA International, a company based in Singapore
The dredging, Spini adds, was a strategy used to gain a competitive advantage. Other ports in the region do not have the capacity to accomodate large vessels of the Neopanamax variety. Cuba does. The fact that Mariel has this feature makes it the preferred option among Caribbean terminals.
Its directors emphasize that everything goes through Mariel, from the parts for the new Parranda beer factory to rationed consumer goods. Technology for Mexico’s Richmeat’s sausage factory, as well as the raw materials to make its products, have passed through the port.
The chain of command at ZEDM is clear. Orders come from the Council of Ministers via the Rector’s Office and its deputy director, Yanet Vázquez. If an overseas company wants access to what the zone has to offer, it must go through the one-stop shop that handles all requests. At the moment, there are sixty-four businesses operating in the zone.
The Mariel construction company has been in charge of building other complementary projects such as the container terminal. (Screen Capture)
“We didn’t have to knock on Cuban officials’ doors,” says Arnoud Van Shaik, who is director of the public-private partnership Cervecería Cubana and is also in charge of Latin American operations for Bavaria, a Colombian company.
Luis Alberto Gonzalez Hernandez, the president of Richmeat, is of the same opinion. His company, which has been operating at ZEDM since 2019, hopes to produce about 7,000 tons of food annually within three years. Additionally, he would like to have closer ties to Cuban producers, especially those who could provide locally sourced raw materials.
Alexandre Carpenter — the president of Brascuba, a tobacco company which produces H. Upmann and Fresh cigarettes — admitted that investing in Cuba has had its “problems and challenges” but added, “The country is changing a lot.”
The Guajaibón solar farm, as well as Vietnam’s Thai Binh adult diaper factory and Suchel TBV are other businesses expected to expand this year. Suchel’s Vietnamese directors have said they will produce 70,000 tons of powdered laundry detergent and 20,000 tons of the liquid detergent annually. One Spanish, one Portuguese and two Vietnamese companies will share 119 hectares of the Mariel VI Industrial Park, which is now “ready for occupancy.”
ZEDM has one little-known feature: a plan to house workers’ families in the nearby town of Caguaarán at the rate of 130 homes per year. Dozens of buildings have already been built.
Getting Mariel off the ground cost three billion dollars, paid in large part by Brazil, which explains why Dilma Roussef cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony, as Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel points out. Despite the documentary’s upbeat tone, the project’s history is actually a string of disasters.
In 2022, Mariel barely earned 18 million dollars in exports. It pulled in about 13 million in the first half of 2023. Since the ZEDM began operations ten years ago, it has managed to bring in just 3.5 billion dollars in total, not the 2.5 billion annually that was forecast.
Some eleven kilometers of roadway and four bridges are part of a “robust” network of access routes into and out of ZEDM, the documentary points out.
Mariel’s business portfolio continues to grow. It now has 729 projects, twenty-one more than in 2022, for a total investment of nearly $34.5 billion dollars. However, the instability of the Cuban economy led to the failure of sixty-three planned projects in for 2023. Typically, the regime’s expectations for ZEDM have little to do with reality.
Several of the businessmen who now vehemently defend the ZEDM have had problems dealing with its bureaucracy. One of the most notorious examples involved Suchel TBV, whose Vietnamese managers halted its factory’s operations in early 2023 due to difficulties importing its machinery. The expected results, which are highlighted in the documentary, came to nothing.
Ten years later, all hopes for the regime’s survival remain pinned on Mariel and ZEDM. They are still following Raul Castro’s grandiose mandate: “Keep on building.”
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