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Spain’s Pedro Sánchez makes historic visit to Cuba but will not meet with leading dissidents

This is the first time a Spanish prime minister travels to the island in 32 years

pedro sanchez
Pedro Sánchez and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in September. EFE

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will arrive in Cuba on Thursday for a historic visit aimed at “normalizing, stabilizing and deepening bilateral ties.” During the visit – the first by a Spanish prime minister in 32 years – Sánchez and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel will open a business forum in the Grand Packard hotel, which is run by the Spanish chain Iberostar.

The two-day stay is considered a political minefield and has been carefully planned by both governments to prevent any slip-ups. Notably off the agenda is any meeting with vocal opponents of the Cuban government such as Elizardo Sánchez, Guillermo Fariñas or the Damas de Blanco.

Am I willing to defend human rights in Cuba? The answer is yes. In other words, I am not going just as a salesman

Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez

Sources from La Moncloa, the Spanish seat of government, say that no leader who has traveled to Cuba since 2015 – including the presidents and prime ministers of France, Italy, Portugal, Ireland and Austria – has met with these dissidents. Nor have the three Popes who have visited the island, or EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, or foreign ministers under the former Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy. The exception is former US President Barack Obama who met the dissidents in March 2016 at the recently opened US Embassy in Havana. But as one of Sánchez’s aides explains, “Sánchez is not Obama, and Spain is not the United States.”

Also off the agenda is a meeting with Raúl Castro, who will remain the leader of the Cuban Communist Party until 2021.

Instead, the Spanish prime minister will spend time with local business people, intellectuals, artists and bloggers – independent figures who are not aligned with the Cuban regime or with the opposition. This list includes actor Jorge Perugorría, writer Leonardo Padura, who was given the Princess Asturias Award, singer-songwriter Carlos Varela, and the designers behind the fashion label Clandestina. “Dissidents are not given ID cards and we have not looked at who has or has not had problems [with the Cuban government]. The guest list has been put together by the Spanish Embassy without asking permission from anybody,” say sources from La Moncloa.

Spanish King to visit Cuba in 2019

A likely outcome of Sánchez’s trip will be to confirm the first visit of the Spanish Royal Family to Cuba. The pretext of the visit is the 500th anniversary of the Havana Foundation, which was founded by Spanish explorer Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. The key date is November 16 but the trip could happen at any time around the anniversary. If the visit goes ahead, it will be the first time in history that Cuba has received the king of Spain. Former king Juan Carlos I traveled to Havana in 1999 for the Iberian-American Summit but not as part of an official bilateral visit.

The same sources refused to reveal whether Sánchez will call on Díaz-Canel to free political prisoners, explaining “the more reserve there is, the better the result will be.”

After the visit to Cuba was announced, the Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos demanded that Sánchez use his time there to call for greater democracy. “Are you going to defend human rights in Cuba? Will you meet with dissidents or are you going just as a salesman?” asked Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera. Sánchez replied, “Am I willing to defend human rights in Cuba? The answer is yes. In other words, I am not going just as a salesman.”

Indeed it is difficult to separate politics from business in Cuba. The Grand Packard Hotel which will host the Spanish-Cuban business forum was blacklisted by the Trump administration on November 13 because it is co-funded by Gaviota, an entity owned by the Cuban military. The lengthy blacklist includes more than 200 companies with links to Cuba’s military, intelligence and security services.

The Spanish government is aware of the situation but says the Grand Packard Hotel is Spanish and “wherever possible we go to Spanish hotels overseas to give them support.”

Sánchez will meet with independent figures who are not aligned with the Cuban regime or with the opposition

The goal of the meeting is to revive investment in Cuba. Sánchez has reserved seats in the official plan for 24 business people and almost 200 people have registered for the forum, which will open on Friday. Sánchez will be accompanied by Foreign Minister José Borrell, Industry Minister Reyes Maroto and Treasury Secretary General Carlos San Basilio.

The former Rajoy government never normalized relations with Cuba – efforts by then-Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo were sabotaged by the party. But Rajoy did much more: he forgave €2 billion in debt, more than he did for all the other countries put together. Part of this debt (€410 million) was used to fund Spanish investment in the island, but the process “is not as agile as it should be,” admit government sources. Rajoy’s decision allowed Cuba to access new lines of credit but the country has begun again to commit “small defaults,” which makes it more difficult for the island to secure investment.

Sánchez’s visit comes amid a heated debate in Cuba about plans to reform the constitution to give people greater rights (same-sex marriage for instance) while maintaining the one-party system. Sánchez does not intend to comment on the subject, which he considers an internal issue.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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