OBAMA'S HISTORIC CUBA VISIT

José Andrés: “In Cuba, Spain has lost the strength our common history gives us”

Celebrity chef travels to Havana with Obama delegation to explore opportunities

Chef José Andrés at his Las Vegas restaurant in 2011.
Chef José Andrés at his Las Vegas restaurant in 2011.

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Spanish-born celebrity chef José Andrés, who has built his career in the United States, was part of the delegation that traveled to Cuba with President Barack Obama this week on a historic trip to illustrate the renewed ties between both nations.

Andrés, who owns restaurants across the US and does community outreach work through a food program in Los Angeles, wasted no time during his short stay in Havana.

I think that the forces of good, of progress, are already out there and nobody can control them

Chef José Andrés

In a little over 24 hours, he had already visited a dozen paladares – privately owned retaurants – and slipped into their kitchens to offer advice to their Cuban chefs.

As a naturalized American, Andrés was in Cuba to explore business opportunities as well as avenues of cooperation through his non-profit World Central Kitchen, which is already active in other Caribbean nations such as Haiti and Dominican Republic.

But as a native of Mieres (Asturias), Andrés cannot also help looking around him with Spanish eyes – and what he sees is Spain losing ground in Cuba from a business perspective, after so many years of effort by Spanish entrepreneurs.

“At the political level, my honest opinion is that, regardless of whether the Socialist Party or the Popular Party [are in power], Spain has [in Cuba] allowed the strength that our common history gives us to slip away,” he said in an interview with EL PAÍS in Havana.

The mere fact that Cuban president Raúl Castro visited Europe without stopping in Spain “is a bit strange,” he adds.

“Castro should have been in Spain because of that historical union of our language, economy, social issues... I think this plays against Spain, because Cuba is going to be a land of many opportunities, and for Spanish workers and businesses, it is a place where there is going to be growth.”

“I would like for Spain to have a bigger presence every day,” he says. “We have to ensure that Spain does not fall behind. America is already making its move.”

The list of other members of the delegation that came with Andrés to Cuba provides insights into where American interests lie: Airbnb founder Brian Chesky, PayPal chief Daniel Schulman and hotel executives such as Marriott president Arne Sorenson.

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As for himself, “I’m not here to give advice. I am here as a small businessman, as a youngster who came to America and who slowly built up his own small company. I am here to share my successes, my failures, my philosophy.”

Andrés is hopeful that the new era in bilateral relations between Cuba and the US will be an irreversible process, even if a Republican is elected to the White House at the next presidential elections.

“I think that the forces of good, of progress, are already out there and nobody can control them,” he says. “What we need to do is for change to be progressive for the good of the Cuban people, for change to be gradual, organized and always forward-moving. And I think that Obama’s presence will mean that 20 years from now, Cuba is going to be a very different country.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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