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THE SCRAMBLE FOR CUBA BEGINS

Extraordinary talks are about to begin to open up the Cuban market to British and EU-based architects.

The RIBA and the Architects' Council of Europe (ACE) have agreed with their Cuban counterparts to start negotiations that would culminate in a Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) with the Communist Caribbean country.

The move was triggered because senior gures in ACE believe that there will soon be a signicant thawing of the hardline regime in Havana, a possibility that will open up vast business opportunities to its members.

It is widely believed that restrictive business and trade rules currently enforced will be relaxed if severely ill Cuban leader Fidel Castro dies.

The MRA deal will mean that British and European architects will be allowed to practise in Cuba, subject to work visas, and Cuban architects will be allowed to work on this side of the pond.

Perhaps surprisingly, the move comes as ACE attempts to nalise an MRA with the USA, which is still committed to a trade embargo against Cuba.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had offered a huge amount of financial support to Cuba, the Communist country - which has three schools of architecture and produces roughly 500 architects a year - has fallen into a state of severe disrepair.

ACE's practice group co-ordinator John Wright said work to regenerate Cuba's infrastructure was the main motivation for the talks.

'Everyone expects Cuba to relax any time now and we want to take advantage of this opportunity to help Cuba rebuild, ' he said. 'It doesn't matter to us what the Americans think of this.

They tried to get the EU to introduce a trade boycott against the country and were told to go away.

'There is already a lot of inward investment going in from Spain and Canada and the MRA will represent a big opportunity, ' he added.

Additionally, it is well recognised internationally that enormous work is required on the World Heritage Site of Old Havana - and this could represent work opportunities for more conservation-focused practices.

One architect who is excited by the prospect is London-based Cezary Bednarski, who is writing a guide called 20th-Century Architecture of Havana.

He is also a member of Cuba Initiative, a UK parliamentary group led by Tory peer Colin Moynihan, and was until recently a visiting professor of architecture at Instituto Superior Politécnico José Antonio Echeverría, in Havana.

'The opportunity for British architects to work in Cuba will be great, ' he said.

'On the other hand, while the Cuban regime produced mainly architectural dross, there are some young talented architects there who need a chance to shine, and this move may also help them, ' Bednarski added.

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