An Information Service of the
Cuba Transition Project
Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies
University of Miami

Issue 99
August 11, 2008



Staff Report

Islamic Investment in Cuba*

       After decades of expending military, financial, and human resources in support of a variety of Arab dictators, Islamic fundamentalist movements, and anti-Israeli terrorist organizations (1), in recent years Havana has begun to reap substantial returns on its long-term investment in the Middle East. From Dubai to Tehran and via OPEC in Vienna, the political and ideological ties cultivated by Fidel Castro's pro-Islamic foreign policy are now generating tangible benefits for the successor regime of brother Raul. In the process of receiving nearly US$1.5 billion (Table I) in foreign direct investment, financing, and aid from autocratic Muslim states, Cuba is emerging as a strategic ally and outpost in the Western Hemisphere for a wide range of Islamic regimes. For Cuba, the infusion of Islamic capital strengthens the regime's stability and diversifies the risk of economic collapse by adding a fourth financial pillar alongside oil from Venezuela, bilateral trade credit from China, and corporate capital from Canada and the European Union. As Cuba and its Islamic partners forge a trans-Atlantic alliance of their own, what are the implications of the increasingly free flow of trade and capital from the Persian Gulf to the Caribbean?


        Communist Cuba's alliance with the Iran of the Ayatollahs dates to 1979 when Fidel Castro became one of the first heads of state to recognize the Islamic Republic's radical clerics. Addressing then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Castro insisted that there was "no contradiction between revolution and religion," an ecumenical principle that has guided Cuba's relations with Iran and other Islamic regimes.(2) Over the next two decades, Castro fostered a unique relationship between a secular Cuba and theocratic Iran united by a common hatred of the United States and the liberal democratic West.

       In the early 1990s, Havana started to export biopharmaceutical products for the Iranian healthcare system. By the late 1990s, Cuba moved beyond pharmaceutical exports to transferring (licensing) both its medical biotechnologies and, along with the technical know-how, implicit capabilities to develop and manufacture industrial quantities of biological weapons.(3) In addition to training Iranian scientists in Cuba and sending Cuban scientists and technicians to Iran's research centers, the Cuban state-run Center for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering established a joint venture biotechnology production plant near Tehran at a cost of US$60 million (Cuba provided the intellectual capital and technology, and Iran the financing). With this facility, Iran is believed to possess "the most modern of its type in the Middle East." (4)

       Geographically, Cuba's strategic location enabled Iran on at least one occasion to clandestinely engage in electronic attacks against U.S. telecommunications that posed a threat to the Islamic regime's control and censorship. In the summer of 2003, Tehran blocked signals from a U.S. satellite broadcasting uncensored Farsi-language news into Iran at a time of rising unrest. Based on the location of the satellite over the Atlantic, it would have been impossible for Iranian-based transmissions to affect the satellite's signals. Ultimately, the jamming was traced to a compound in the outskirts of Havana that had been equipped with the advanced telecommunications technology capable of disrupting the Los Angeles-based broadcaster's programming across the Atlantic. It is well known that Cuba has continuously upgraded its ability to block U.S. broadcasts to the island, and hence conceivably to jam international communications in general. Although the Cuban government would later claim that Iranian diplomatic staff had operated out of the compound without its consent, given that Cuba "[is] a fully police state," as an Iran expert has noted, "it is difficult to believe the Iranians had introduced the sophisticated jamming equipment into Cuba without the knowledge of the Cuban authorities," much less utilized against U.S. targets without the knowledge of the
Castro regime. (5)

       For its solidarity and services to the Islamic Republic, Iran began compensating the Cuban government directly. During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Tehran offered Havana an initial 20-million euro annual credit line.(6) Yet following the election of current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, the island has emerged as a major beneficiary of Tehran's foreign policy. Consequently, Iranian financing for Cuba expanded exponentially from a modest 20 million euros in 2005 to 200 million euros for bilateral trade and investment projects in 2007. (7) And with Havana spearheading a campaign within the Non-Aligned Movement (Cuba currently holds the NAM's rotating presidency) to legitimize Iran's "peaceful" nuclear program as an "inalienable right" of all developing nations, (8) in June 2008 Ahmadinejad approved a record 500-million euro credit for the Castro regime. From Iran's perspective, Cuba deserves to be rewarded for its "similarity in outlooks on international issues." (9)

       In total, since 2005 Cuba has received the equivalent of approximately US$1.118 billion in credit from Tehran. With Islamic Republic financing, Cuba is undertaking critical investments in an effort to rehabilitate its dilapidated Soviet-era infrastructure. Iran is funding some 60 projects ranging from the acquisition of 750 Iranian-made rail wagons to the construction of power plants, dams, and highways. (10) Access to Iranian credit has in turn driven annual bilateral trade from less than US$20 million in 2001 to US$327 million in 2007 and led to the founding in May 2008 of a secure Tehran-Havana-Caracas shipping line connecting Iran to Venezuela via Cuba. In the view of Iran's finance minister, the investment in the joint Cuban-Iranian maritime freight venture benefits "[the three countries'] important business ties." (11) Moreover, with Havana as a growing financial and logistics center for Islamic interests in the region, the new line "may contribute to the expansion of trade between Iran and other Latin American nations." (12)

Table I. Select Investments in Cuba by Islamic States, 2008

Iran (13)
$1.118 billion
Transportation; energy; agriculture
OPEC Fund (14)
$50 million
Agriculture; infrastructure (electricity and water)
Qatar (15)
$70 million
United Arab Emirates - Dubai (16)
$250 million
Infrastructure (port)
*Committed or realized as of July 2008. Includes grants and bilateral government-to-government trade credits ("soft loans") as well as direct investments, typically in the form of joint ventures.


*First of a two-part series.


1. Cf. D. Amuchastegui, "Cuba in the Middle East: A Brief Chronology," (Coral Gables, FL: Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, Univ. of Miami, June 1999), (accessed August 2008).

2. Fidel Castro cited in Damian J. Fernandez, Cuba's Foreign Policy in the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), p. 86.

3. Cf. Jose de la Fuente, "Wine into vinegar: the fall of Cuba's biotechnology," Nature Biotechnology, October 2001 (Vol. 19, Num. 11).

4. See Cuba Transition Project, "Cuban Foreign Policy in the Middle East: A Cuba-Iran Axis?", Cuba Focus (Issue 55), June 7, 2004, Note 12, (accessed August 2008).

5. Safa Saeri, "Cuba blows the whistle on Iranian jamming," Asia Times (Hong Kong), August 22, 2003, (accessed August 2008).

6. Raisa Pages, "Iran Grants Cuba 20-million Euro Creidt," Granma Internacional (Cuba), January 17, 2005, (accessed August 2008).

7. IRNA, “Iran, Cuba sign investment, trade MoU,” Tehran, April 24, 2006.

8. Cf. "NAM backs Iran's right to nuclear technology," Tehran Times, August 2, 2008, (accessed August 2008).

9. Fars News Agency, "Iran, Cuba Sign Trade MoU," Tehran, June 20, 2008, (accessed August 2008).

10. IRNA, "Envoy: Arak Pars Wagon has big share in Iran-Cuba exchanges," Arak, Iran, August 15, 2007.

11. Press TV [Iran], "Iran, Cuba to launch shipping venture," November 5, 2007,§ionid=3510213
(accessed August 2008).

12. Ibid. See also IRNA, "Iran, Cuba agree to set up shippng company," Tehran, November 5, 2007.

13. Total known credit provided by Iran from 2005 to 2008.

14. See OPEC Fund, "Cuba," (accessed August 2008).

15. Amy Glass, "Qatar to build $70mn Cuba resort," Arabian Business, 29 April 2008, (accessed August 2008).

16. Reuters, "Dubai Ports studies building Cuba container terminal," Havana, October 19, 2007.