Spain to replace envoy in Havana

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The Independent Online
Spain is expected to send a new ambassador to Cuba after just 15 months, reinforcing the tougher line taken by Jose Maria Aznar's conservative government towards the regime of Fidel Castro. The imminent nomination, reported in yesterday's El Pais newspaper, could open fissures in Mr Aznar's government.

It is hardly surprising that Mr Aznar would feel frostier towards Mr Castro than did his socialist predecessor Felipe Gonzalez. One of Mr Aznar's first international initiatives, taken during a Spanish visit by the US Vice-President, Al Gore, in May, was to promise the United States full co-operation with the anti-Cuban measures proposed in the Helms-Burton law, which would sanction foreign companies operating in Cuba.

But the new Prime Minister swiftly recanted under a wave of protest from Spanish companies operating in Cuba. Within days of Mr Aznar's meeting with Mr Gore, the head of the giant Sol Melia hotel chain, owner of hotels in both Cuba and the US, said that if the law were implemented, he would close his US operations rather than his Cuban ones.

In the months following, Mr Aznar was whipped into line with the rest of the EU when Brussels decided to take action against the law, and the Foreign Ministry now says it "rejects [the law] totally".

Spain has stronger economic ties with Cuba than has any other European country. Spanish tourism and construction companies operating in Cuba are an important pressure group in Madrid.

El Pais reports that the Foreign Minister, Abel Matutes, told the ambassador, Eudaldo Mirapeix, two months ago that he wanted him to stay, but was overruled by the Prime Minister, who prefers Jose Coderch, a diplomat close to the former conservative prime minister, Adolfo Suarez.

The step would be a snub to Mr Matutes, a former European Commissioner, and influential businessman, who is considered to be outside Mr Aznar's close circle. As an entrepreneur, Mr Matutes is inclined to favour business relations with Cuba.

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