France and Italy make inroads in Latin America while Spain sits on the sidelines
Hollande and Renzi will be first European leaders to pay official visits to Buenos Aires
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will this weekend become the first European leader to visit Buenos Aires since the election last year of Argentinean President Mauricio Macri. Ten days later, French President François Hollande with also fly to Argentina following his official visits to Peru and Uruguay. Whether or not they are doing so intentionally, Spain’s rivals in Latin America are taking advantage of the political stalemate and uncertainty in Madrid in the wake of inconclusive general elections in December to expand their presence in the region.
France has no plans of “usurping or replacing” Spain’s influence in Cuba, said Yves Saint-Geours, the French ambassador to Spain, in an interview on Tuesday.
But the recent visit by Cuban President Raúl Castro to Paris and Hollande’s trip to Havana last year indicates otherwise.
Since Fidel Castro’s last visit to France, eight years have passed without a Cuban leader making an official visit to Paris. The Havana government has said that Raúl Castro was paying back a visit made by Hollande to the Caribbean island last May.
The trips come as United States and Cuban are trying to move forward to normalizing diplomatic relations.
France has no plans of “usurping or replacing” Spain’s influence in Cuba, says the French ambassador to Madrid
And Italian Prime Minister Renzi has followed close behind.
Last May, Renzi met with Castro in Rome after the Cuban leader paid a visit to Pope Francis at the Vatican. Then in October, the Italian prime minister led a business delegation to Havana in search for investment opportunities.
Now the visits by both European leaders to Buenos Aires – only 10 days apart from each other – don’t seem so casual.
Cuba and Spain agree on debt conversion
Cuban Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas and interim Economy Minister Luis de Guindos agreed on Tuesday “to set the rules” so that Spain can write off more Cuban debt in the near future.
According to a government statement, the goal is “to create an exchange value fund to finance projects in Cuba that both sides agree upon.”
The statement explains that the current interim government in Spain cannot guarantee this fund will be created in the future.
In December, Cuba negotiated with 14 countries that are members of the so-called Paris Club of creditors to restructure some $11.083 billion in debt, of which $2.471 billion is owed to Spain.
The agreement included forgiveness of interests on late payments and rebates on the principal and interests over 18 years.
While the economic boom Latin America had experienced over the past 10 years has now slowed down – mainly because of the drop in commodity prices, a stagnant Chinese economy, and the political and social crises in Brazil and Venezuela – Cuba and Argentina offer the best investment opportunities.
Experts believe that both countries, which have a great need for foreign investment, are convinced that they want to open their economies to the rest of the world.
In the case of Cuba, the now-interim Popular Party (PP) government in Spain had focused most its attention on trying to change the communist government’s ideology through pressure. The PP made this a sticking point for bilateral relations when the conservative party was in opposition.
Even interim Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo faced strong resistance by members of his own party before he made a trip to Havana in November 2014.
Although the trip was marred by Raúl Castro’s decision not to meet with the foreign minister, it was a helping push for future visits by Spanish and Cuban officials to discuss their economic relations.
But Mariano Rajoy, now the acting Spanish prime minister, never planned a trip to Cuba. At the same time, Castro has skipped Madrid during his last two European visits.
Fearing criticism by some conservative sectors, the Rajoy government had also vetoed an offer by Spain’s former King Juan Carlos for a private journey to the communist island.
Rajoy has his hands tied: he cannot make an official visit to Buenos Aires or invite Macri to come to Madrid
Rajoy’s rocky relationship with past Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner kept him away from Buenos Aires during the prime minister’s four-year term in office.
His personal friendship with Macri has now put him in a privileged position as Argentina enters a new era. But now that relationship remains uncertain until the current political stalemate in Spain is resolved.
As interim prime minister, Rajoy has his hands tied: he cannot make an official visit to Buenos Aires or invite Macri to come to Madrid. Rajoy can only sit back and watch as Renzi and Hollande make inroads in the region.
“It’s clear that something is not right here,” said a diplomatic source close to the Spanish Socialist Party. “I don’t know if it is all just coincidence or if [France and Italy] think so much about us. But Spain has left a lot of holes in its relations with Latin America and others are moving in to fill them.”
English version by Martin Delfín.