Thursday, December 01, 2016

Keep Taking Us To Havana

It may be that someone did actually say "take me to Havana" in the days when airplane hijacks suddenly became popular and the Cuban capital was on the list of favoured destinations for the asylum-seeker. Closed off, to US airlines at any rate, the island nation had acquired a certain mystic, courtesy of Fidel Castro.

In the 1960s, when various individuals supposedly started to wander into cockpits in order to request a detour, Spain remained committed to the 1953 agreement with the US (and Vatican) by which the Franco regime was to legitimise itself in the view of a doubting international community. A pro-American policy wasn't, however, to prevent the regime from establishing a relationship with Castro, and this owed much to the coincidence of 1959: Castro staged his revolution, while Spain adopted the Stabilisation Plan which was to underpin the country's economic revolution.

Prior to the rise of Castro, Franco had been seeking to exert Spanish influence throughout the one-time empire of Central and South America. This was via a combination of the concept of "Hispanidad" and the stifling Catholicism that had characterised the Franco regime from the time of the Civil War. The clash of ideologies that Castro's revolution represented might well have shattered relations with Spain, with the threat to these relations initially equal on both sides. Cuba expelled the Spanish ambassador in 1960 for having interrupted Castro while he was criticising Spain. The regime, for its part, was under pressure from external forces (especially the Americans) and because of dissenting voices internally.

But through the 1960s a realpolitik emerged that was based far less (if at all) on the previous nationalist-religious philosophy and very much more on economic necessity. The dogmas of the Falange were discarded in favour of the technocracy of Opus Dei. The pragmatic technocrats, so important in having guided Spain to a more stable economic future courtesy of, for example tourism, viewed Cuba purely in economic terms. Trade with Cuba, rather than lessening, increased during the 1960s, and by the 1970s there was pretty much full-scale economic cooperation.

For the regime, Cuba held special significance. This had been one of Spain's most important colonies in the nineteenth century. The economic relationship was such that Mallorcans were among those who grew rich through trading with the island (and also Puerto Rico). When Cuba was lost during the humiliations suffered at the hands of the Americans at the end of the nineteenth century, national (and military) pride was shattered. Franco had sought to restore this. Despite what the Americans felt about Castro, events of 1898 still influenced thinking.

The ties with Cuba, strengthened by the PSOE government of Felipe González, were such that in 1990 the old relationship with Mallorca's entrepreneurs was truly revived. In that year, the Sol Palmeras hotel was opened. The following year, Castro attended the opening of the Meliá Varadero hotel, just as he had been at the inauguration of the Sol Palmeras.

The way had been opened up by a businessman from the Canaries, Enrique Martinón, who was the first to really sense the tourist possibilities in Cuba. Sol Meliá, as was, entered into a 50-50 joint venture with the Cuban state corporation. Mallorca's hoteliers were thus beginning a lucrative association with Cuba, the main problem to which was to be the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act, otherwise known as the Helms-Burton Act, under which foreign companies could be sued for "trafficking" land confiscated from Americans after the Castro revolution. At least one hotel, Las Americas, was on land that had belonged to the Dupont family.

The Helms-Burton Act was met with a unified response of opposition by the European Union, but in the same year that it was passed, José María Aznar of the Partido Popular came to power. He adopted a much tougher attitude towards Cuba, and the EU accepted a "common position" - proposed by Madrid - to pursue democratic reforms in Cuba. This political move pleased the American government, but it was also a means - so it seemed - for a deal to be struck: Spanish companies would not be pursued by Helms-Burton. Aznar, for all his hardline stance, was to go to Cuba in 1999. He stayed at the Havana Meliá, showing his support for Spanish entrepreneurs and protesting against Helms-Burton and the US embargo.

If nothing else, this all highlighted what by then were one hundred years of US-Spanish tensions where Cuba was concerned. Meliá was obliged to disinvest in the US, having set its stall out in Cuba, a loyalty that Castro recognised, but any difficulties were not to get in the way of Mallorcan hotelier expansion. Iberostar appeared in 1998, and with Meliá now forms by far the strongest presence. There are currently some 58,000 hotel places in Cuba. Roughly half of them are under the control of Balearic hotel chains.

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