Spanish king defends democracy and human rights on state visit to Cuba

At a dinner attended by Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel, Felipe VI underscored the need for institutions to respect freedom of expression and of association

Felipe VI speaking in front of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana.
Felipe VI speaking in front of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana.Juan Carlos Hidalgo / EFE

Spain’s King Felipe VI made a plea in support of democracy and human rights during a speech on Wednesday in front of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. After stating that change cannot be forced from the outside, in allusion to US pressure for regime change, the king insisted that “human rights are best defended in a democracy.”

The speech – the most important of Felipe VI’s state visit to Cuba – was made during an official dinner at the Captains General Palace in Havana. The Spanish royals put on the event for Cuban authorities after Díaz-Canal invited them to dine at the headquarters of the Council of State on Tuesday. During his talk, Felipe VI underscored the need for institutions to “represent the diverse and plural reality” of society, and to respect the rights of citizens, including the right “to freely express their ideas, freedom of association and assembly.”

Díaz-Canel promised Spanish businesses a “relevant participation” in Cuba’s development plans until 2030

The king used the 1978 Spanish Constitution as a model, arguing it was “based on agreement, negotiation, consensus and reconciliation,” and said it had allowed Spain to see its “best years as a fully democratic country.”

“From this Constitution and from our very history, Spaniards have learned that human rights, freedom and the dignity of people and the interests of our citizens are best represented and defended in a democracy,” he added.

Although the Cuban president was not expected to make any speeches at the event, and did not speak at the dinner on Tuesday, he decided to respond to Felipe VI’s plea. In his reply, Díaz-Canel defended the sovereignty and independence of Cubans to decide the rhythm and reach of its own changes. “On this path that we have willingly chosen, it is important to count on the accompaniment of your true friends in the world, and the Spaniards are among them,” he said.

The words of both heads of state were carefully chosen to ensure there was no disagreement. The king used the verb “accompany” to describe Spain’s support for the transformation Cuba is undergoing, “in respect” of Cuba’s own decisions. But while Felipe VI spoke about political changes towards a democratic, pluralistic regime that respects basic rights, the Cuban president appeared to focus solely on economic reforms.

Sources from the Spanish government admitted that the king could not visit Cuba without making a call in favor of democracy, and that this plea went as far as what Cuban authorities were willing to allow. Díaz-Canel did not seem upset by the king’s speech. Indeed, he applauded Felipe VI and thanked him for Spain’s “clear and public support” against the “unfair” US sanctions that “cause so much hurt” to the Cuban people. Díaz-Canel also commended the “loyalty and commitment” of Spanish businesses, threatened by US sanctions, and he promised the latter a “relevant participation” in Cuba’s development plans until 2030.

King Felipe VI

Before the dinner, King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia met with 22 representatives of Cuban civil society, including entrepreneurs, owners of private businesses, journalists from independent digital media groups, as well as writers and artists like Jorge Perugorría and Leonardo Paduro.

According to several people who attended the meeting, the king promised them that Spain would support their independent business and cultural initiatives, and asked them if they thought the current economic reforms were irreversible. The guests thanked the Spanish royals for their visit, and asked them to call on Spain to strengthen its relations with Cuba and boost the visibility of its civil society.

King Felipe VI and Queen Leticia arrived in Havana on Monday for a state visit aimed at sealing the full normalization of historically complex relations between both countries. This trip marks the first time a Spanish monarch has made an official visit to the island in 500 years.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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