Spain wants to take control of Cuba’s airports

Spain wants to take control of Cuba's airportsHAVANA, 26 Mar  For months, success was taken for granted. Everything seemed more than on track. In the offices of the Ministry of Development, it was taken for granted that Aena would assert its status as the top favorite in the race to take control of the Havana airport, the first whose management the Cuban government intended to assign to a foreign company.

But in diplomacy, especially in its strictly economic aspect, there is always the risk that another is faster. And the thing ended up twisting.

It was 2016 and the then Minister of Development, Ana Pastor, returned from an official trip to Cuba with a collaboration agreement under her arm. It was a kind of tacit commitment from the authorities of the island that Aena would be a basic actor in the regime’s plan to tender the management of its six international airports, to transfer it to more experienced groups than the state-owned Cuban Aviation Corporation.

The Cuban government is preparing the tenders to cede the management of five large airports. Aena already takes positions

That official visit by Pastor and other Spanish ministers took place in May. Only three months later, in August, the government commanded by Raúl Castro extinguished the Spanish triumphalism with a stroke of the pen and awarded the works of expansion and management of the Havana-José Martí Airport to the consortium made up of the French companies Aéroports de Paris and Bouygues.

French diplomacy moved quickly in the weeks leading up to the final decision on the concession. Meanwhile, in Spain the political paralysis had reigned for months after the elections of 20-D (which ended up being published six months later, on 26-J) and the interim government had slowed the approval of Aena’s international expansion plan, which had in Cuba one of its fundamental stops. So the company was left without one of the jewels with which it aimed to prop up its external growth.

Legaz in Havana
The plans of Cuba, in full economic opening, now go to tender the management of the other major airports on the island. The Cuban government wants to share the management of the international airports of Varadero, Santiago, Cayo Coco, Santa Clara and Holguín (although it is not excluded to add any of the airports destined only to national connections), and in this new task Spain is already taking positions so as not to be disappointed again.

The Cuban Government has confirmed that its intention is to continue with the process initiated with the Havana airport and extend it to the rest of the large national aerodromes. Ownership of the facilities would remain state-owned, but their exploitation would be ceded.

And although the Cuban authorities have not formally undertaken the process and there are no official deadlines to do so, Aena has resumed contacts at the highest level to prepare for when the project is resumed. “With Cuba you never know, but it could be this year,” says a sector source.

Last February, just four months after his appointment, the new president of Aena, Jaime García-Legaz, has already made a trip to Cuba to explore business opportunities and learn first-hand about the plans of the island’s authorities.

García-Legaz can assert in this task the very good relationship that, according to several political sources, he has with some ministers of the Cuban Government, harvested during the time he was Secretary of State for Commerce and also as president of Icex.

The plan of Havana for its airports is to emulate the formula that has been used for decades in the tourism sector, transferring the exploitation of hotels to foreign chains and maintaining ownership (or a majority co-ownership) in the hands of Cuban public companies. Spanish hotel groups are, by far, the ones with the greatest presence on the island. Meliá, Iberostar, Barceló … are real giants that operate dozens of establishments in the country.

The Cuban paradox
Aena is already the world’s largest airport group, managing facilities that last year reached 265 million passengers. In addition to the network of 46 airports in Spain, the subsidiary Aena Internacional participates in another 16 airports in Mexico, the United Kingdom, Colombia and Jamaica.

And now he wants to add Cuba (also Japan and the United States) to that list of countries where he is present. García-Legaz has made the internationalization of the group one of its major objectives, but for the time remaining for the end of the legislature, it may have to settle for just laying the foundations for the future.