How corona crisis unfolded in Cuba

HamburgAmbassador Jürgen Nicklaus tells Hamburg News about pandemic's impact on island state
25 November 2020
Aerial view of HafenCity

Thirty-nine HamburgAmbassadors in 29 countries volunteer their time to raise Hamburg's profile abroad. Jürgen Nicklaus is the HamburgAmbassador to the Cuban capital Havana, where he has lived for the past 20 years. In our series of interviews, Nicklaus outlines his experience of the coronavirus pandemic and how Cubans are coming to terms with it.  

Hamburg News: Mr. Nicklaus, what impact has the recent election in the United States had on Cuba? 

Jürgen Nicklaus: People in Cuba are relieved that Joe Biden won the U.S. presidential election. Biden announced before the election that he wanted to abolish sanctions introduced by Trump. Transferring dollars from the U.S. to Cuba will become possible in future and American tourists will be able to visit Cuba again. Cruise ships can make ports of call in Cuba and trade between the U.S. and Cuba is likely to become simpler. 

Hamburg News: Cuba sealed off its borders fully for months, and you could only re-enter from late July on humanitarian flights organized by the Cuban government. How are your living conditions in the island state at the moment?

Nicklaus: The living conditions are slightly improved at present. However, in September, we had a curfew from early evening until morning in Havana and in certain provinces. All bars and restaurants were closed. Travel between the different provinces was only possible with a special permit, so the entire passenger transport came to a standstill. The restrictions were gradually relaxed or lifted In October and November. 

Hamburg News: Why has coronavirus caused so few deaths and why has the death toll been so low in Cuba?

Nicklaus: At the moment, there are between 20 and 60 new cases and hardly any deaths. Cuba had about 7,600 COVID-19 cases and 131 deaths from March to mid-November. That is an excellent rate for a population of 11.2 million inhabitants. Around 2.7 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants have occurred over the last seven days. I do not think the numbers have been forged either, especially as every single infection in provinces, cities and districts is listed daily in the press ("Cubadebate").

r Jürgen Nicklaus, HamburgAmbassador
© Jürgen Nicklaus
Jürgen Nicklaus

Masks are compulsory in Havana and in nearly all provinces. The police are strict and ensure that the masks are worn properly. Fines are high at about USD 80. If a new infection is detected, the police cordon off the entire district. People need a a special permit to leave or enter it. All contact persons are quarantined. Since spring, doctors and medical students have visited practically all households at regular intervals to check for symptoms of a COVID-19 infection. These measures keep new infections relatively well under control and have resulted in hardly any infections or deaths.

Hamburg News: Cuba lost the key tourist sector by closing its borders at the start of the pandemic. Is the sector recovering somewhat ?

Nicklaus: Tourism was one of Cuba's most important sources of foreign exchange revenue. There were no tourists from late March until early October. All restaurants, hotels and room rentals were closed. Almost all of Cuba's international airports reopened in October while Havana's José Martí Airport reopened in mid-November. Condor flies to Varadero six times a week from Düsseldorf and Frankfurt. All passengers must undergo a PCR virus test on arrival in Cuba. The cost is included in the price of the ticket. Cuba hopes that these measures will lead to an enormous increase in tourism and generate important foreign exchange revenue.

Jürgen Nicklaus, HamburgAmbassador to Cuba
© Jürgen Nicklaus
Cruise industry among Cuba's key issues in future

Hamburg News:  Cuba's healthcare counts among the world's leading systems and the country is now sending doctors and nurses and carers abroad - a sector which it is leading. How do you rate this?

Nicklaus: Cuba has had this sector for a long time. When Venezuela still had foreign currency, up to 25,000 doctors were sent there. Venezuela was charged USD 6,500 per doctor per month. Cuba supplied almost all Central American and Latin American countries with doctors against payment. At times, doctors and medicines were Cuba's most important source of foreign exchange revenue. Cuba is now trying to place nurses in Europe but is encountering difficulties, as it only wants to pass on a small share of the income to the nursing staff.

Hamburg News: Cuba is highly enthusiastic about change in these difficult times, media reports say. President Miguel Díaz-Canel has called for more economic opening and less bureaucracy. Can you cite any examples?

Nicklaus: It is true that President Díaz-Canel has repeatedly called for the dismantling of bureaucracy, which is really extreme in Cuba. The will exists, but I doubt whether it can be achieved as the president would like. That will probably take a little longer after all.

Private micro-entrepreneurs are to be promoted and licenses will be granted more generously than before. Private companies can now import or export, but only through state-owned foreign trade companies. Foreign investors should find it easier to do business in Cuba in future. Bureaucratic hurdles are also to be abolished. A 10 per cent exchange fee had been levied hitherto when exchanging U.S. dollars, but that fee has been removed in a bid to bring more US currency into the country.

Hamburg News: The food supply has suffered during the corona crisis. Many Cubans had barely enough to feed themselves. The sector is now becoming a "matter of national security". Is that a step forward?

Nicklaus: Whether that is a step forward remains to be seen. The food supply is still very bad. Prices have risen considerably, even those of basic foodstuffs. More and more state stores only accept  debit or credit cards, i.e. only for foreign exchange. The keyword here is "Moneda libremente convertible" (MLC).

Hamburg News: Digitalization has been virtually non-existent in the island state so far. Are there any approaches to improve this situation?

Nicklaus: Yes, things are happening in that respect. Many conferences are going digital and even trade fairs are now planned and carried out digitally.

Hamburg News: Thank you very much for the interview, Mr. Nicklaus.


Thirty-nine HamburgAmbassadors in 29 countries hold honorary offices, to which they are appointed by the Mayor of Hamburg. The Senate Chancellery, the Chamber of Commerce Hamburg and the institutions involved in Hamburg Marketing created the HamburgAmbassador programme. Co-ordinated by Hamburg Marketing, the programme is unique in Germany in terms of structure. The HamburgAmbassadors lend their support to and  network on behalf of politics, entrepreneurs, scientists and cultural workers abroad to position Hamburg on an international scale.


Jürgen Nicklaus, HamburgAmbassador

Jürgen Nicklaus has spent the past 20 years in Havana. He was appointed President and CEO of Stefan Messer GmbH, a specialist in industrial and medical gases, in 2001. Nicklaus has several years expertise working with the Cuban government, commercial enterprises and the local population. He has advised various Hanseatic delegations about business and investment opportunities in the island state and has arranged contacts with the government and institutions. Nicklaus has reliable contacts in the port and cruise industry, which is a major issue in Cuba as the island heads into the future. In 2009, he was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit with Ribbon for his many years of commitment to Cuba. Since 2002, Nicklaus has also represented the interests of the German state of Hesse on the island.