Cuba, A Risky Trip For Pedro Sánchez

Pedro Sánchez during the XXVI Ibero-American Summit held last week in Guatemala. (Moncloa)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 20 November 2018 – Pedro Sánchez will arrive in Cuba and will put an end to a long period of 32 years during which the island has not hosted an official visit by a President of the Government of Spain. The former Motherland hopes to reaffirm its business presence and reconquer the land that the United States won with a diplomatic thaw. The visit, however, planned as promenade of smiles and handshakes, presents many possibilities for failure.

During his stay in Havana, Sánchez will be surrounded by three fires whose flames will point at him from different positions. There is no way he will not be burned, or at least singed, on this trip, but it would be good if he knew the extent of the fire before delving into it.

If the Spanish president has chosen Cuba because it is a seemingly comfortable plaza that avoids his reaching nations that are nearer but with which there are too many outstanding issues, he may pay dearly for his mistake. As in 1898, this may be the place where the fleet of his illusions is sunk. Especially because it comes at a time when his visit may generate more resentment than benefits.

One of the fires that will burn the head of the Spanish Executive will be that of the almighty Government, a true master in diplomatic choreography, which designs every step so that the visitor does not depart from an agenda meticulously planned to the last detail. This itinerary has a clear purpose: to show the benefits of the Cuban system and, incidentally, to put a hand in the guest’s pocket so that he grants soft loans to the island’s ailing economy.

Miguel Diaz-Canel will show off the visit as an accolade to his Government and a success of his newly inaugurated mandate. If Madrid “sanctifies” this handpicked president, it is very likely that Sánchez will be followed by other European dignitaries who do not want to miss out on the red carpet in Havana. After all, many of them think that Cuba is a country of beautiful beaches and smiling people where a “heavy hand” is needed to keep things under control.

Ministers, officials and apparatchiks will surround Sánchez and, with a gesture of a hand or a raise of an eyebrow, they will drop the idea that soon, very soon, the country will enter on a path of deep reforms and that all of today’s deficiencies will be tomorrow’s achievements. Dressed in suits and ties or the traditional guayaberas, they will sell him the mirage of a change that is just around the corner, one for which only a little more money is needed.

Perhaps it will be a handshake with Raul Castro who, although he no longer sits in the presidential chair, continues to pull the nation’s strings from his watchtower as general secretary of the Communist Party. With a constitutional reform about to conclude, the octogenarian general may try to raise Sánchez’s arm with his fist raised, as fellow travelers, a gesture he has made with others.

To exorcise the demons that might manipulate his words, Sánchez should demand, as Barack Obama did, an opportunity to speak directly to the people of Cuba, live and in real time. Not the typical intervention of a press conference, where the official journalists will crowd the space asking him to speak out against the US embargo, but a speech without censorship or intermediaries.

Fleeing excessive protocol and guided tours will be another challenge. In this case, as well, he could learn from the experience of the former US president who tempered his more formal agenda with some escapes to several areas behind the curtains of propaganda. What he sees there will not resemble the tourist postcards but it will leave him with a more authentic impression of our reality.

The other burning coal that Pedro Sánchez will have in front of him is the political opposition and activism. So far, it has not been reported that he is going to meet with any opposition figures, nor whether the independent press will be able to cover some of the events in which he participates. Maybe that information has not been revealed yet, to avoid annoying the susceptible official hosts, but not announcing it generates strong criticism that would be worth tackling.

If the presidential plane takes off from this Island without the president having heard a version of Cuba other than that of the Palace of the Revolution, this will have been a useless and incomplete trip.

From the voice of the dissidents, Sánchez will be able to learn of the persistence of repression, now masked in subterfuges such as condemning opponents for “attack on authority” or “disrespect,” codified as common crimes. They can also detail how in recent years many activists have been “regulated,” a bureaucratic euphemism that hides a prohibition on leaving the island. That, together with the surveillance and the execution of critics’ reputations, remain common practices in this country.

But the flames do not end there. Sánchez lands in a nation where more than 150,000 citizens have become nationalized Spanish citizens thanks to the so-called law of grandchildren. These cubañoles are also waiting for a response to their demands on issues they assume as rights. Financial aid, greater support for food and medicine for the elderly, and intercessions so that the Plaza of the Revolution finally recognizes dual citizenship.

This community of cubañoles, the vast majority of which has never traveled to the Spain but rather has spent their entire lives in the island, will not speak to Sánchez as they might speak to a foreign visitor who arrives for a short time and whom one tries not to annoy, but as those who are addressing their representative, a public servant of a nation that owes them answers, protection and solutions.

Nor will Sánchez find rest outside of those three fiery tongues. Each commercial agreement that he signs during his visit, each loan that he grants, and each debt that he forgives to the Cuban Government, will be in direct contrast with the economic and business segregation to which the citizens of this country are subject.

Under current legislation, it is forbidden for a group of neighbors, who can range from prosperous owners of paladares – private restaurants – to owners of rental houses for tourists, to invest, for example, in fixing the paving of the street where they live. However, if a distant Asturian, Basque or Galician disembarks in that same block to erect a hotel, they will be allowed to do so.

Sánchez arrives at a moment when the piñata has already been shattered and the governing elite has divided the most succulent pieces of the national economy, in chicanery with foreign investors. Investors who close their eyes to the lack of rights of their employees and the absence of equity of opportunities for those born in this land, under the argument that “if we do not invest, others will.”

In this Cuba, fractured economically and politically, it will be a real miracle if this presidential visit does not end more in criticism than applause. The fire of public opinion waits to make firewood from this tree.


Editor’s Note: This text has been published this Tuesday, November 20 in the Spanish newspaper El País.

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