The King, The President and The Dictator
14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 23 April 2017 — In the palace of the
Captains General in Havana there is a throne awaiting its king. It was
prepared when Cuba was still a Spanish colony and a monarch has never
sat in its imposing structure. The visit of Spain’s King Felipe VI visit
may end such a long wait, but the Island needs more than gestures of
symbolism and protocol.
The king and the Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy, will arrive in the
country a few months before Raul Castro leaves power. The official
visit, long prepared for, has all the traces of a farewell. It will be
like the farewell of the Mother Country to one of its descendants across
the sea. Someone who began as leftist revolutionary and ended up being a
part of a rigid dynasty.
The visitors will arrive in the middle of “the cooling off of the thaw”
between Washington and Havana. The expectations that led to the
diplomatic normalization announced on 17 December 2014 have been diluted
with the passage of months in the absence of tangible results. More than
two years have tone by and the island is no more free nor has it
imagined to merge from its economic quagmire.
US airlines have begun to reduce the frequency of their flights to Cuba,
discouraged by low demand and the limitations that remain on Americans
traveling to Cuba as tourists. Castro has not withdrawn the ten percent
tax he keeps on the exchange of dollars, and connecting to the internet
from the island is still an obstacle course. All this and more
discourages travelers from the country to the north of us.
The photos of building collapses and old cars fill the Instagram
accounts of the Yumas (Americans) who tour the streets, but even the
most naïve get tired of this dilapidated theme park. Cuba has gone out
of style. All the attention it captured after the day Cubans refer to in
shorthand as “17-D,” has given way to boredom and apathy, because life
is not accompanied by a comfortable armchair to support this incredibly
long move where almost nothing happens.
Last year tourism reached a historic record of 4 million visitors but
the hotels have to engage in a juggling act to maintain a stable supply
of fruit, beer and even water. Between the shortages and the drought,
scenes of long lines of customers waiting for a Cristal beer, or
carrying buckets from the swimming pool to use in their bathrooms are
Foreign investors also do not seem very enthusiastic about putting their
money into the economy of a country where it is still highly centralized
and nationalized. The port of Mariel, tainted with the scandals of the
Brazilian company Odebrecht, and with activity levels far below initial
projections, seems doomed to become the Castro regime’s last pharaonic
and useless project.
But Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House hasn’t meant an iron fist
against the Plaza of the Revolution as some had prophesied. The new US
president has simply avoided looking toward the island and right now
seems more focused on the distant and dangerous Kim Jong-un than the
anodyne and close at hand Raul Castro.
The Havana government lost its most important opportunity by not taking
advantage of the opening offered by Barack Obama, who hardly asked for
anything in return. Right now there hasn’t even been start on the
drafting of the new Electoral Law announced in February of 2015. Was
that news perhaps a maneuver so that the European Union would finally
decide to repeal the Common Position? Fake news that sought to convince
the unwary and fire up the headlines in the foreign press with talk of
To top it off, they have increased the level of repression against
opponents, and just a few days ago a journalism student was expelled
from the university for belonging to a dissident movement. A process
in the purest Stalinist style cut off her path to getting a degree in
this profession that, decades ago, officialdom condemned to serve as a
spokesperson for its achievements while remaining mute in the face of
Take care. The visit of King Felipe and Queen Letizia is inscribed in
times of fiascos. Failures that include the economic recession that
plagues a country with a Gross Domestic Product that closed out last
year in negative numbers, despite the usual make-up the government
applies to all such figures. And the Venezuelan ally unable to shake off
Nicolas Maduro, increasingly less presidential and more autocratic. The
convulsions in that South American country have left Cuba almost without
premium gas and with several fuel cuts in the state sector.
These are not the moments to proudly show off the house to visitors, but
rather a magnificent occasion for the highest Spanish authorities to
understand that totalitarianism never softens nor democratizes, it just
changes its skin.
The Spaniard will have to spin a very fine thread not to turn the visit
of the head of state into an accolade for the dying system. The royals
will be surrounded by the attentions of officials who are trying to
avoid, fundamentally, their stepping a single decorated millimeter
beyond the careful preparations that have been underway for months. As
was once attempted during the 1999 visit of Juan Carlos de Borbón to
participate in an Ibero-American Summit.
On that occasion, and during a stroll with Queen Sofia through the
streets of Old Havana, officialdom blocked access to the neighbors,
emptied the sidewalks of the curious and worked the magic of converting
one of the most densely inhabited areas of the city, with the most
residents per acre in all of Cuba, into a depopulated stage where the
royal couple walked.
Their successors, who will travel to the island “as soon as possible,”
could do worse than to study the ways in which Barack Obama managed to
shake off the suffocating embrace in March of 2016. The American
president handled himself gracefully, even when Raul Castro – with the
gesture of a conquering guerrilla, fists raised – tried to trap him in a
snapshot. But the White House tenant relaxed his hand and looked away. A
defeat for the Revolution’s visual epic.
Nor does Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy have an easy time. The official
press does not like him and surrounds him always with criticism and
negative news about his Party. He does not enjoy sympathies among the
circles of power in Havana despite having reduced the degrees of tension
that reached a peak during the term of Jose Maria Aznar. But on the
island there are more than 100,000 Cubans who are nationalized Spanish
citizens, also represented by that nation’s leader and who are, in the
end, his most important interlocutors.
Felipe VI and Rajoy have in their favor that they will no longer be
bound by the protocol to be photographed with Fidel Castro in his
convalescent retirement. The king declined his father’s participation in
death tributes for the former president last November in the Plaza of
the Revolution. Thus, the young monarch managed that his name and that
of the Commander in Chief do not appear together in the history books.
However, he still has to overcome the most difficult test. That moment
in which his visit can go from being a necessary approach to a country
very culturally familiar, to become a concession of legitimacy to a
Meanwhile, in the Palace of the Captains General, a throne awaits its
king, and in the Plaza of the Revolution a chair awaits the departure of
Editorial Note: This article was published in the original Spanish
Saturday 22 April in the Spanish newspaper El País.
Source: The King, The President and The Dictator – Translating Cuba –