June 24, 2015 / 6:41 PM / 4 years ago

INTERVIEW-Mexico says it leads Latin American dash to invest in Cuba

HAVANA, June 24 (Reuters) - Mexico has more investment projects under negotiation with Cuba than any other Latin American country as it seeks to strengthen relations within the region and engage with the Communist-run nation, the country’s head trade official in Cuba says.

Luis Cabrera, who runs the Cuban office of ProMexico, a Mexican government agency promoting foreign trade, said in an interview on Tuesday that the initiative began long before the United States and Cuba announced in December they would restore diplomatic ties and work to normalize relations.

He said two of six projects at a Chinese-style development zone at the port of Mariel, just west of Havana, are Mexican: Devox General Paint got approval earlier this month to build a factory there, while in February meat-packer Richmeat de Mexico became the first international company to get the go-ahead to operate at Mariel.

Venezuela, Brazil and other Latin American countries have also expressed confidence in Cuba, but the Mexicans appear to be ahead of the pack of foreign businesses and government agencies that have flocked to the island nation following its rapprochement with the United States.

Venezuela is the most vested in Cuba, providing its socialist ally with oil on generous terms and engaging in several large-scale joint ventures. Brazilian development bank BNDES lent Cuba $800 million to build the Mariel port.

Mexico is opting for smaller-scale ventures with 19 companies working on projects in food, beverages, packaging, chemicals, renewable energy and other sectors.

“We have seven more projects being considered at Mariel and another 15 around the country, all of which were proposed well before December and a few of which we expect will be approved soon,” Cabrera said.

The Mexican government believes Cuba has begun a “profound process of reform,” he said. “Every country has its peculiarities but learns it must adapt. You can only expect so much today or tomorrow, but we think it is important to be here.”

Mexico forgave 70 percent of a Cuban debt worth nearly $500 million in 2013 and appointed one of its most senior diplomats, Juan Jose Bremer, as ambassador.

Historically strong relations between Cuba and Mexico soured when Mexico’s conservative National Action Party held power between 2000 and 2012.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which regained power in 2012, sees an influential relationship with Cuba as central to improving ties throughout Latin America, Cabrera said. (Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Daniel Trotta; and Peter Galloway)

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