* Service exports drive 11 percent increase in earnings
* Tourism and sugar production up significantly
By Mark Frank
Havana, May 23 (Reuters) - Cuban exports were up 11 percent during the first quarter of 2012, compared with the same period in 2011, due mostly to increased income from tourism and health care services, state media reported on Wednesday.
The increase follows a 20 percent rise in exports in 2011, the report said, quoting Vivian Herrera, director of exports at the Foreign Trade Ministry.
The numbers appear to be good news for President Raul Castro and his efforts to bolster Cuba’s debt-ridden economy by increasing export income and decreasing imports.
Cuba’s exports totaled $14.2 billion in 2010, according to the last official statistics available.
According to preliminary figures, Cuba’s exports rose 11 percent compared to 2011, 15 percent of which was goods and the remainder services, Herrera said in an interview broadcast by local television.
“Most of the earnings from services are accounted for by tourism and health care assistance,” she said.
Tourism arrivals grew 5.2 percent through April, the National Statistics Office reported. In Cuba, tourism is considered a service export.
Some 40,000 Cuban professionals, most from the health care sector, are working in oil-rich Venezuela and the bulk of earnings go to the Cuban government.
Cuba exports similar technical services to some 30 other countries.
The service category also includes communications and revenues from joint ventures and patent leasing abroad.
This year’s increase in goods exports most likely came from higher prices for refined oil products and from sugar, with a 11.7 percent increase in raw sugar production reported through April.
Nickel output, the country’s main export product, was believed to be down a bit through April as international prices fell.
According to official statistics and local economists, Castro’s efforts to boost exports and reduce imports have resulted in annual trade surpluses averaging $2 billion since 2009.
The country has not reported on its balance of payments, which measures the inflow and outflow of all foreign exchange, since 2008, when it registered a $1.7 billion deficit.
Cuba last reported its foreign debt in 2008 at around $20 billion, with more than 50 percent classified as inactive, dating back to when the country defaulted in the late 1980s, while the remainder was active debt piled up after the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s former benefactor. (Editing by Jeff Franks and David Adams; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)