By Sarah Marsh and Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba’s foreign trade and investment minister opened the country’s international trade fair on Monday waxing defiant in the face of an increasingly aggressive Trump administration and precipitous decline in trade.
The annual event, at sprawling fairgrounds on the outskirts of Havana, draws hundreds of businesses and government delegations from around the world, including many U.S. allies.
The fair, which includes an investment forum, is designed both as Cuba’s main business venue and a show of international support in the face of U.S. sanctions.
Panama’s president will visit the fair on Tuesday, Germany will open a trade office, Spain has the most companies in attendance and Russia is expected to sign a number of deals.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who replaced Raul Castro in April, cut the ribbon and toured the grounds, tweeting: The fair “ratifies international interest in trading with Cuba despite the (U.S.) blockade.”
This year’s fair comes as the Communist-run country faces a severe cash shortage and stagnation. Efforts to attract more foreign investment to overcome the crisis have fallen short.
Direct foreign investment entering the country has averaged in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the last few years, according to the government, compared with the annual $2.5 billion (1.95 billion pounds) it is seeking.
Combined exports and imports fell around 25 percent from 2013 through 2017, with imports dropping to $11.3 billion from $15.6 billion, according to the government.
The government announced in July that a disastrous sugar harvest and drop in tourism would force further cuts in imports through the end of the year.
Trade and Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca blamed everything from U.S. sanctions and climate change to “the resurgence of nationalism and protectionism” for the country’s economic woes.
He did not mention the crisis gripping ally Venezuela or the resulting decline in Venezuelan subsidized oil and cash for medical care.
The Caribbean island is struggling to pay foreign providers on time and seeking longer payment terms. Malmierca thanked economic partners “who are standing by us in these circumstances” and promised to “honour our obligations,” as he has for the last three years.
Malmierca also welcomed the dozen or so participating U.S. companies, saying they understood “the mutual advantage of working with Cuban businesses.”
U.S.-Cuban relations have deteriorated sharply since Donald Trump became president, with a return to Cold War characterisations of Cuba and a tightening of trade and travel restrictions eased by predecessor Barack Obama.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)