Spain makes up for lost time in Cuba

Navy training ship, acting foreign minister and business delegation all set to visit the island

Miguel González
The Spanish Navy’s training ship ‘Juan Sebastián Elcano’ in Havana in 2012.
The Spanish Navy’s training ship ‘Juan Sebastián Elcano’ in Havana in 2012.EFE

Spain wants to make up for lost time in Cuba.

To that effect, it is preparing a packed agenda in May that will include a stopover by the Navy’s training ship, the Juan Sebastián Elcano; a trip by acting foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo, and a visit by a business delegation under the auspices of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce.

Hotel chains, the beermaker Damm and the sanitary ware firm Roca are interested in doing business in Cuba

And as a finishing touch, Madrid and Havana are about to sign a deal turning the island’s €375 million debt with Spain into investment.

Although political gridlock in Spain is preventing a visit by acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy or by King Felipe VI, Spain will nevertheless be notably present in Cuba this coming month.

The Spanish return to the Caribbean island will be most graphically illustrated by the presence of the four-masted Juan Sebastián Elcano, the third-largest tall ship in the world. The Spanish Army’s famous training ship will stop in Havana on May 11 after visiting Puerto Rico.

Acting foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo wants to visit Cuba next month.
Acting foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo wants to visit Cuba next month.John Thys (AFP)

It will be the 10thvisit to Cuba by the schooner barque since 1929, and the first in four years. But this particular stop will stand out above the others because of Cuba’s domestic situation and because the Elcano will sail straight from Havana to Miami on the 16th.

Not even the most veteran observers could recollect the last time a warship – even if it is a sailboat – covered the 200 miles separating the Cuban capital from the capital of the Cuban exile in the United States.

Meanwhile, the Spanish foreign minister told the radio station Onda Cero that he is looking for the right date to travel to Cuba “immediately.” García-Margallo would like his own trip to coincide with the Elcano’s, said sources familiar with the situation. This will be the acting minister’s second trip to Cuba after his November 2014 visit, when he delivered a speech in favor of a democratic transition – a speech that cost him a meeting with President Raúl Castro.

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And on May 19 and 20, delegates from the chambers of commerce of both countries will meet to discuss business opportunities opening up on the island following the thaw with the US. All the major Spanish hotel chains, which already run over 40% of hotel accommodation on the island, are interested in building new hotels and restoring old ones before their US competitors show up. Other companies that have expressed an interest in Cuba include the beermaker Damm and the sanitary-ware firm Roca.

The decisive push for bilateral economic relations will be the deal to convert a remaining debt of €375 million into an investment fund to finance common projects on the island. The agreement was sealed last week and must be signed in the coming weeks.

English version by Susana Urra.

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