CubaNews / January 2004
By Larry Luxner
Seven months ago, the 15-nation European Union — outraged at Fidel Castro’s dissident crackdown and executions of three ferry hijackers — moved to curtail official visits to Cuba, limit cultural exchanges and invite Cuban dissidents to National Day celebrations.
A furious Castro responded by leading half a million demonstrators past the Spanish and Italian embassies in Havana, screaming slogans and publicly calling Spain’s prime minister, José María Aznar, a “little Führer.”
Two days later, the Cuban government took control of Spain’s cultural center in Old Havana, gave its personnel 90 days to vacate the elegant mansion and erected a huge “Anti-Fascist” billboard at the main entrance.
Yet business is business. Spain continues to be the top foreign investor in Cuba’s tourism in-dustry, and last month, Spanish hotel giant Sol Melía inaugurated its 21st hotel on the island — the 260-room Meliá Cayo Santa María — along the northern coast of Villa Clara province.
Meanwhile, Cuba has displaced Venezuela to become the No. 3 customer for Spanish exports in Latin America after Mexico and Brazil.
Despite the political tensions, Spain exported $303 million worth of goods to Cuba during the first seven months of 2003, a 15.9% jump over the same period in 2002. Much of this was machinery, plastics, automobiles, tractors and spare parts, as well as iron and steel.
Spain’s imports from Cuba, meanwhile, came to $77 million from January to October 2003, a 4.5% rise from the year-ago period. Most of these imports consisted of cigars, seafood and rum.
“Long-term business prospects are completely detached from government,” a European diplomat told CubaNews in Havana. “Of course, we from the official side are here to help people do business. It’s a pity we cannot help them, but it’s their decision to go into business. Some of them are doing well; some are facing difficulties.”
Officially, there are 103 Spanish companies in Cuba out of a total of 363 registered asociaciones mixtas, or mixed companies — but even that’s a matter of debate.
“Some are the ones Cuba has created to operate abroad, others are UTAs (temporary unions for construction),” explained the diplomat, who asked not to be named. “Two companies get together for a specific construction project, and two years after, they finish. That’s very typical. One hotel company may have 10 hotels. So they might be registered as one company or 10 companies. All these figures have to be evaluated. Of the 103, we’d have to do an analysis and see how many companies there really are. In some cases, the Cubans would count the same company twice.”
Even so, Victor Moro, president of the Association of Spanish Executives in Cuba (AEEC), said that Spain occupies first place in investments — both in the volume of capital invested and in the number of joint ventures.
In all, 210 Spanish companies conduct business in Cuba; 57 of which have offices in Havana. Besides Sol Meliá, these include Altadis S.A. (cigars), Aguas de La Habana S.A. (water) and Repsol-YPF (oil exploration). “
In these moments, Spanish executives are the ones that, almost exclusively, are maintaining ties with Cuba,” Moro told the Madrid newspaper El País. And all of this is taking place, Moro stressed, despite the Aznar government’s systematic refusal to grant official support and guarantees to Spanish companies investing in and trading with Cuba.
Moro added that Spanish investors conduct commercial operations in Cuba “at their own risk.” That’s because the three official lines of credit — to buy food, capital goods and equipment and spare parts for the sugar industry, which amounts to coverage of $150 million — is blocked by arrears on the part of Cuba, whose debt to Spain exceeds $1 billion.
Whether Castro’s fiery rhetoric has had any effect on business is hard to tell. “I wouldn’t say that it’s had a specific and direct impact on business,” said the European diplomat. “But it’s certain the business environment has continued to deteriorate, as it has due to other circumstances. The Cuban economy is not performing well, and tourism now seems to be picking up, but in the medium term it’s stagnating. At most we are going back to the levels of 2001.”
Antonio Medina del Río, manager of Iberia Airlines in Cuba, said that after Castro’s march on the Spanish Embassy, representatives of Spanish companies were reassured during a meeting with officials of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“When you see a big demonstration like that, you’re afraid it’s going to affect business, but things were very calm,” he said, noting that Iberia has served Cuba for 54 years. “So far, there’s been no tangible effect. This is a problem between governments, not people.”
Meanwhile, Spain under Aznar’s leadership is finding that — except for its longtime opposition to the U.S. embargo — it has a lot in common with the Bush administration when it comes to Cuba policy.
“The two countries agree with the idea that Cubans should be able to return to the democratic family of nations, and eventually be able to choose their own rulers and have their own freedoms, which is not the case now. That’s one of the reasons we’re not very much liked by the [Castro] regime,” said Javier Ruperez, Spain’s ambassador to the United States.
“But we do not see the point in keeping the embargo,” Ruperez told CubaNews during an exclusive interview in Washington. “It has not produced any significant change in the Cuban population in terms of democracy. We feel that a more open approach would be better.”
Other than that, said the ambassador, “we are in 100% agreement with the United States” that Castro’s March 2003 arrest and jailing of 75 dissidents — and his government’s subsequent execution of three men who tried to hijack a ferry to Florida — were outrageous acts worthy of international condemnation.
“The Cubans think we were behind the common position of the EU,” Ruperez told us. “One thing we’re not going to do is engage in name-calling. Absolutely not. That’s just pro-vocation. It doesn’t help our relations with the Cubans or anyone else.”
Last September, Aznar visited Florida — stopping in Miami, Tallahassee and Orlando — and met with the president’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, and several Cuban exile groups. Ruperez called the prime minister’s visit with the Florida governor “a very positive and open meeting,” and said it shows that while Spain opposes the embargo, it clearly sympathizes with Cuban exiles who dream of demo-cracy for their long-suffering homeland.
“I think Spain will be called upon to play a significant role in the transition to democracy in Cuba, whenever Fidel Castro disappears,” said Ruperez. “We’ve gone through the same experiences. We had a dictator, too, and we were able to become a democracy peacefully. I wouldn’t say we’re trying to export our own model of transition — you cannot transport those circumstances from one country to another — but we know it is possible.”