Successes and Mistakes of a Royal Visit

Before leaving for Santiago, Felipe VI of Spain met with Raúl Castro. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 15 November 2019 — This Thursday the three-day state visit by the Spanish Royals King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia to Cuba concluded, a stay that from before its beginning was surrounded by controversy and, now concluded, will continue to be subject to criticism, interpretations, grievances and redress.

We must recognize that the visit of the Royals was a small break in the Cuban information agenda, which had been dominated for weeks by the problems arising from the energy crisis and the ideological excesses to which the official press has accustomed us. For those of us who work in newsrooms, Felipe VI and Letizia became a brief distraction, a new topic that broke into our daily lives with more drums and cymbals than medium and long term effects.

However, after the excitement of those days, and beyond the thematic relief that it represented for the press, it is also worth highlighting some dark areas of this trip that were hidden by the official press and which, of course, had no place in the Twitter account of the Royal House.

After Felipe VI and Letizia’s plane took off from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara was released from one of the many arrests he has suffered throughout this year. The Royals went to offer flowers to the Spaniards who fell at the end of our wars of independence, without even knowing that a young artist was detained in a dungeon so that he would not pester the visit of such illustrious guests with one of his ‘performances.’

In Santiago de Cuba, the opponent José Daniel Ferrer did not experience the same luck. The Royals left and still the leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, arrested on October 1, remains imprisoned. Although it can be intuited that in the closed-door talks with Miguel Díaz-Canel, the King conveyed his concern and interceded for the release of the former prisoner of the Black Spring, no public statement confirms this.

In “there was talk of everything,” a phrase repeated by Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell to describe to the accredited press the meeting between the monarch and the newly appointed President of the Republic, almost anything and nothing can fit: they talked about the weather, of non-payments to Spanish businesses, of the soft credits that the Motherland will give to the Island… or some demands regarding human rights, citizen liberties and the need to decriminalize dissent on this Island were also sneaked in. We will never know, or it will be a very long time before we know.

What we do know is that, so far, the official Cuban press has not fully reprinted the speech Felipe VI gave at the dinner he offered last Wednesday night for Diaz-Canel and his wife at the Palace of the Captains General. It is hard to believe that the Spanish authorities did not try to convince their Cuban hosts to make the words of the monarch known, and without censorship, through the press of the Island.

While in 2016 Barack Obama made a speech in a cultural symbol such as the Great Theater of Havana, before hundreds of guests and it was broadcast in its entirety on national television, the Bourbon spoke behind closed doors, for a select public, and the next morning no official media had spread his words. However, thanks to social networks and the foreign press, some of us were able know what was said there.

The address of that night saves part of this unfortunate trip, because — among other things — Felipe VI delivered very necessary phrases about the existence of institutions that represent all citizens, and about citizens being able to express their preferences for themselves and find in these institutions “adequate respect for the integrity of their rights, including the ability to freely express their ideas, freedom of association and of assembly.”

But that was a pearl in the middle of the great pile of litter of this trip.

The meeting with part of Cuban civil society subtracted more than it added. From that meeting, however, we have the general report made by independent journalists who were included in the guest list and who informed the Royals of the penalties and obstacles associated with exercising their profession in Cuba outside the state channels. Another point in favor of this visit, but — as even the participants say – it was a very short meeting in which they were barely able to touch on some very comprehensive and essential themes and ideas.

But it was the meeting with Raúl Castro that was the great blunder of this visit. Not initially included in the official program, Felipe VI agreed to that appointment with Castro in response to a request made by Díaz-Canel during the dinner. Afterwards it was described as a private meeting, but the presence of the flags and the foreign ministers of both countries gave it an official character. A real “trap” that led the King to allow the politicization of what until then had been presented as a cultural journey. Or is it perhaps not political to meet with the secretary general of a political entity, especially when the entity is the only authorized party?

Put in the balance of life, public relations and history, the mistakes weigh more than the successes in this Royal trip. We will have to see how it is interpreted with the passing of the weeks and the years, but at the moment it seems that the Plaza of the Revolution scored several points in its favor, gaining legitimacy, getting Philip VI and Letizia to pose before the image of Che Guevara, paving the way for financial assistance totaling more than 57 million, palming the words of the King, and at the last minute sneaking Castro on the agenda. And the Zarzuela Palace? Fine thank you, so far only a speech that few Cubans have been able to read is on the ledger in their favor.


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