January 15, 2008 / 4:20 PM / 10 years ago

Cuba says nickel now top foreign exchange earner

HAVANA, Jan 15 (Reuters) - The Cuban nickel industry surpassed tourism as the country’s top foreign exchange earner for the first time in 2007, an economic commentator said on state-run television on Tuesday.

“Cuba’s production of between 75,000 and 76,000 tonnes meant revenues of around $2.7 billion, while tourism earned around $2.1 to $2.2 billion,” Ariel Terrero, considered the best informed economic commentator on state-run television, said.

Cuban officials have said nickel output was up 2.2 percent last year over a 2006 output of around 74,000 tonnes.

Terrero confirmed unrefined nickel plus cobalt production should reach a record 80,000 tonnes this year.

“There are plans to increase production at the Pedro Soto Alba plant, a joint venture with Canada, by 4,000 tonnes, an investment that began some time ago and which should come on line beginning this year,” he said.

Joint venture partner Sherritt International (S.TO) has announced plans to add 16,000 tonnes to the plant’s capacity, 4,000 tonnes in 2008, another 9,000 tonnes in 2009 and a final 3,000 tonnes in 2011.

Sherritt partner, state-run Cubaniquel, operates two older plants in eastern Holguin province where the joint venture is located, exporting the product mainly to Europe and China.

The three plants have operated at capacity for a number of years.

The Communist-run Caribbean island is one of the world’s largest nickel producers and supplies 10 percent of the world’s cobalt, according to the Basic Industry Ministry.

Nickel is essential in the production of stainless steel and other corrosion-resistant alloys. Cobalt is critical in production of super alloys used for such products as aircraft engines.

Cuban nickel is considered to be Class II with an average 90 percent nickel content.

Cuba’s National Minerals Resource Center reported that eastern Holguin province where the industry is based counted 34 percent of the world’s known reserves, or some 800 million tonnes of proven nickel plus cobalt reserves, and another 2.2 billion tonnes of probable reserves, with lesser reserves in other parts of the country. (Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by John Picinich)

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