By Isaac Risco (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES— “This trip is part of our country’s normal bilateral relations,” Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo insisted on leaving Havana, but the circumstances in which the Spanish Foreign Minister ended his visit to Cuba suggest that the two countries are still far from achieving the rapprochement sought by Madrid.
Garcia-Margallo, the first minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government to visit Cuba, was not received by President Raul Castro on Tuesday, as the Spanish delegation expected. The meeting had not been officially confirmed, something customary for Cuban authorities, but he was confident it would take place.
Raul Castro had met in Havana with Garcia-Margallo’s predecessor, socialist Miguel Angel Moratinos, in 2010, and tends to personally welcome visitors who are sympathetic to his government.
The current head of Spanish diplomacy, however, was received by the Cuban government’s “second-in-command”, Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel and his Foreign Ministry counterpart Bruno Rodriguez, who joined him on the last day of the delegation’s visit. Garcia-Margallo arrived in Havana on Sunday afternoon and left on Tuesday.
His visit, the first by a Spanish foreign ministry official since 2010, was surrounded by high expectations, for it took place while Cuba is negotiating an agreement aimed at “political exchange” and “cooperation” with the European Union, an agreement that does not envisage any commercial benefits but which could put an end to Europe’s so-called “common position.”
The “common position”, impelled in 1996 by the conservative government of Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar (which designated Rajoy as his successor), has made relations with the EU conditional on an improvement in the island’s human rights situation. That a member of Aznar’s party should visit Cuba seems to suggest Madrid is considering putting an end to that policy.
Despite the fact that Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) was highly critical of the policy of exchange with Cuba maintained by the previous socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain, like other European countries, has long been calling for improved relations with Havana. Foreign diplomats from France and Holland have visited the island in recent times.
Garcia-Margallo left the island without answering questions from the press but touched on a number of thorny issues, such as the situation of Cuban dissidents, and called for a hastening of the island’s market reforms.
“Spain wants the economic reforms undertaken in Cuba to advance more quickly and create a broader margin for private initiative and foreign investment,” he commented.
During his meetings with Cuban authorities, he also spoke on behalf of the dozens of political prisoners released in 2010 and currently exiled in Spain, so that these be authorized to visit the island.
“I have asked Cuban authorities to authorize the people released from prison in 2010 and 2011 as part of agreements between the Church and government, and are currently residing in Spain, to be able to visit the island,” he said while reading his final declaration, after which he refused to answer any questions.
In 2010, Zapatero’s government successfully interceded to have the Castro government release dissidents belonging to the so-called “Group of 75”, imprisoned during a wave of arrests that came to be known as the “Black Spring” of 2003. The agreement reached by Moratinos at the time allowed the majority of these political prisoners to relocate to Spain.
It was even more curious that, following his meeting with Spanish entrepreneurs and Cuban Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca and other Cuban officials on Monday, Garcia-Margallo should have delivered a clearly political speech about Spain’s post-Franco transition at the Higher Institute for International Relations in Havana.
The Spanish minister praised the multi-party system and changes in political leadership, speaking in favor of freedom of the press and association.
A political rapprochement with Cuba does not appear easy for Spain, which expects Cuba, where as many as 400,000 inhabitants will become nationalized Spanish citizens, to become the second county in Latin America with the largest number of nationalized Spaniards, by virtue of Zapatero’s Historical Memory Law. The law will grant numerous Spanish descendants on the island Spanish citizenship.
Spain still expects to be able to persuade Raul Castro to attend the Spanish-American Summit to be held in Veracruz in December. “Cuba plays an essential role in the Spanish-American community of nations, and its presence at Veracruz, through President Raul Castro, is important,” Garcia-Margallo said, thanking Havana for its good work in the Colombian peace process and its contribution to the struggle against Ebola.