An interview with the Moroccan Ambassador to Havana, Mr. Boughaleb El Attar. After a period in Spain, where, as political adviser to the Moroccan Embassy in Spain, he facilitated the constitution of the Club of Friends of Morocco, composed of a hundred intellectuals, businessmen, trade unionists, journalists and politicians of all stripes, he was appointed by King Mohammed VI to reopen the Embassy in Cuba. Three years later, he gives an exclusive assessment of his mission to Atalayar.
Morocco is proving to be a pioneer in vaccinating its population against the pandemic, including foreign residents and immigrants. Is this a surprise to you?
Not at all. From the outset, His Majesty King Mohammed VI took the COVID-19 pandemic very seriously, and ordered strict border closures, mobility restrictions and a ban on crowds. When the vaccine was ready, he was the first to use it and set an example. As a result, more and more countries are relying on the Moroccan way. For example, the parliaments of Honduras, Nicaragua and Bolivia have just asked their respective governments to follow the Moroccan model.
On a different ground. The Polisario is conducting an international campaign to denounce the economic and commercial activities of the Moroccan government in the Saharan territory. What do you think?
This campaign is constantly going from failure to failure. The latest was in New Zealand, where it tried to suspend the trade agreements that the country has with Morocco concerning the purchase of phosphates. The court rejected the complaint that sought to freeze the New Zealand Sovereign Wealth Funds invested in it, declaring that these financial operations are legal.
The Polisario's argument is that Morocco occupies Western Sahara, and therefore steals its wealth...
No UN Security Council Resolution concerning the Moroccan Sahara issue has ever mentioned Morocco's "occupation" of the Sahara. Therefore, the premise is false, and the conclusion is equally false. Secondly, I remind you that the so-called Hans Corell Report, which is a legal opinion issued by the UN at the request of the Secretary-General, clearly specifies the legitimacy of investments and development plans that benefit the populations living in the Moroccan Sahara.
The same controversy is taking place in Europe...
Indeed. But the EU has continued to defend the legality of the agricultural and fisheries agreements with the Kingdom of Morocco. Direct and indirect investments continue to flow to the southern provinces, not only from the US, France and other EU countries, but even from Russia, as reflected in the latest fisheries agreement signed with that country.
Morocco's active diplomacy on the African continent is striking. What is the reason for this vigour?
Morocco's involvement in the African continent, to which it belongs by history, geography and law, has been one of the main thrusts of the diplomacy inaugurated by His Majesty the King. The main thrust of this diplomacy is the mutual benefit and development of peoples. During his reign, His Majesty has made more trips to Africa than to the rest of the world, and signed more cooperation agreements with the countries of the continent than with the rest of the world. South-South cooperation is at the heart of the Kingdom's international projection. It is the same thing we want to do in Latin America, and it is beginning to bear fruit.
Another new Arab country, the Kingdom of Jordan, has opened a consular office in El Aaiún, as did the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and many other African countries in the past. What is your assessment?
It is an expression of the Arab world's firm solidarity with the reality of the Moroccan Sahara, and with the proposal made by His Majesty to resolve the issue on the basis of the proposal for advanced autonomy for the region within the framework of a united and sovereign Morocco.
Relations between the Alawi Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany are currently at a low ebb. Could we be on the verge of a diplomatic rupture?
The moment is delicate, due, as the Moroccan diplomatic communiqué pointed out, to "deep divergences on issues that affect the Kingdom of Morocco". The King's firmness in dealing with state affairs leaves no room for doubt, and is exemplary. Although there has never been any talk of "severing relations", the "red lines", as you call them, do exist and Morocco does not tolerate any transgression of them, whoever they may be. The sovereign, who is the head of state and Emir of the Believers, is as generous as he is firm in defending the intrinsic values of the Kingdom.
Do you think this tension with Germany will be resolved soon?
That depends solely and exclusively on Germany.
Mr Boughaleb El Attar, you were the first ambassador appointed in 2017 by the Kingdom of Morocco to the Republic of Cuba, after 37 years of rupture. How did the Havana authorities greet you?
I can say very well, with great respect and hope, imbued with the spirit of nobility and joy that characterises the Cuban people. I think we can speak of the closing of a parenthesis in bilateral history.
And how did the Cuban people see you?
With great relief and manifest friendship. They have opened all their doors to me. That which unites us is infinitely more important than that which separates us.
The re-establishment of bilateral relations was preceded by an event that can be considered historic: the private visit of Morocco's King Mohammed VI to the island. How did Cubans perceive it, and have there been echoes of the impact of the royal visit in recent years?
As you rightly say, that visit has had a much greater historical importance than what has been written about it, which has been a lot. Imagine that a Head of State, who is also His Majesty the King and Amir al Muminim (Emir of the Believers), decides to travel to a country with which he has no diplomatic relations because they were broken off in 1980, which has a different culture from Morocco's, and a communist political regime. Nothing like this had ever been seen before in history. HM King Mohammed VI wanted to make this trip, and he did. It was a gesture of deep friendship. Diplomatic relations followed. Our Cuban friends are very proud of this. And I have to say that this has helped me a lot in my task as Ambassador. In every meeting I had, both with officials and with representatives of civil society, they all reminded me that they were extremely satisfied with this visit.
Do you think it was a wise decision to appoint as Ambassador to Cuba a socialist cadre, from the socialist party, heir to the militant nationalism in whose ranks Mehdi Ben Barka, who is highly esteemed among Cuban leaders, was once a member?
Look. First of all, I must point out that the Ambassadors of His Majesty the King in any country in the world represent the Moroccan State. In Cuba, too. Ambassadors do not come on behalf of political parties, ideologies or social institutions: they are appointed by the King and come on behalf of the State. That said, I think this gesture by Morocco towards Cuba is important. In a way, it is as if the trip and the bilateral agreements signed by Comandante Che Guevara in Morocco 60 years ago, and the warm meeting between Comandante Fidel Castro and King Hassan II in the Royal Palace in Rabat in 1963, were back on the agenda.
Do you think Cuba has been surprised to learn about the Moroccan reality, after a very long period of ignorance?
One of the tasks of the Moroccan Embassy in Havana is to make the country, its history and culture, its traditions and customs, its progress, known. In particular, its democratic and social transformations brought about during the reign of HM King Mohammed VI. And yes, indeed, both the leaders and the representatives of the people at different levels, as well as the academic and intellectual elite, were pleasantly surprised to learn about the past, present and future of the Kingdom of Morocco. I confess that I made a great effort to make ministerial representatives and representatives of all sectors of the country understand the enormous progress brought about by the new Constitution of 2011 and the democratic changes and improvements introduced in Morocco by HM the King.
Very recently, we have witnessed an important event. Morocco decided to return to normality at the border crossing with Mauritania at El Guerguerat, for which it sent military forces to re-establish the traffic of trucks paralysed by Sahrawi militias. As a result, the Polisario Front declared that it was breaking the 1991 agreements and returning to arms, but Morocco has remained impassive. How did Cuban leaders view this?
Many in the world have been surprised by the firmness shown by King Mohammed VI in forcefully restoring the situation on the Kingdom's southern border in a peaceful military operation, which has been welcomed and supported by almost all Arab and African countries. Both the UN and the major world powers have called for calm and a return to dialogue. This was the position of the Kingdom of Morocco at the time. But the separatists persist in their provocation by continuing their so-called war. This situation has led our Foreign Minister, Nasser Bourita, to say that "we cannot sit down to negotiate with bandits". It is irresponsible behaviour on the part of the separatists who live in a delirium full of imaginary martyrs, making the world believe that they are waging a just war.
Who is the UN addressing when it calls for a return to calm?
The Polisario secessionist movement, obviously. Which was not only at the origin of the provocation, but also continues it. This chimerical "declaration of war" has not received explicit support from any country in the world, not even from those that have supported Polisario for decades. Neither Cuba, nor Venezuela, nor South Africa, nor even Algeria, have said they support the "return to arms" as Polisario calls it.
You say that Cuba has not supported you?
There has been no official statement on the matter, neither by the Cuban government nor by the Communist Party. A month ago, on the occasion of the Polisario's anniversary of the creation of its chimerical republic, the website of the Committee for Parliamentary Friendship between Cuba and the secessionist movement published a letter sent by the President of the National Assembly and member of the Communist Party's Political Bureau, Esteban Lazo Hernández, to "his Sahrawi counterpart". At no point in the letter is there any mention of Cuban support for the "return to arms" proclaimed by the Polisario militias, nor is there any mention of "the armed struggle for national liberation", nothing at all. All it says is that Cuba supports and subscribes to the efforts being made by the UN to resolve this issue, and that it will continue to show solidarity in the field of health and education with the refugee population in the Tindouf camps in Algeria. But it does not say a word about this so-called war.
But how is it that the Polisario publishes "war reports" almost every day?
These gesticulations are aimed at countries unaware of Morocco's reality, which fortunately are fewer and fewer every day.
This is no longer the case with Cuba, is it?
Indeed it is. Let us just recall that, on the occasion of Cuba's National Day, HM Mohammed VI sent a message of congratulations to the President of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, published prominently by the official agency Prensa Latina, in which he "expresses his determination to strengthen relations between the two countries". His Majesty stressed in it 'his satisfaction at the constant development' of relations of friendship between Rabat and Havana, in order to 'consecrate solid foundations of mutual consideration, constructive cooperation and solidarity'. As Prensa Latina reported, "Mohamed VI underlined his immediate determination to work, along with Diaz-Canel, to strengthen those relations and intensify joint efforts". "All these, the King stressed in his message, in order to benefit from the opportunities of cooperation and exchange in several fields to satisfy the two peoples' aspirations and contribute to the consolidation of the bridges of solidarity and South-South complementariness". This message comes from two heads of state, from two countries that know and respect each other. I believe that relations between Morocco and Cuba are improving considerably, after a 37-year hiatus resulting from an outdated Cold War.
On what areas can we speak of major achievements in these first three years of new relations?
Firstly, in the political area, which I have just mentioned, and which encompasses all the others. We have managed to reach bilateral agreements to cast reciprocal votes of support in the United Nations Human Rights Council, based in New York, and in the UN bodies based in Geneva. There is also an Agreement on international representation of persons with disabilities. In addition, there are two Memoranda of Cooperation in the sector of mines, renewable energy and environment, and one in scientific research, both awaiting signature.
Was there any progress in the bilateral economy and trade?
Yes, and very significant. We were about to organise a bilateral Cuban-Moroccan fair of handicrafts and industrial products, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to declare a lockdown. We will do so as soon as possible.
How is Morocco participating in the Cuban effort to attract international companies to its market, and financial flows to its economy?
Morocco is participating in all the forums and seminars organised by the Cuban government to open up to international companies and attract capital for the development of its economy. For example, they are preparing a meeting in the Special Development Zone (ZED) in the port of Mariel, where there is already a Moroccan-owned company producing consumer goods. Other projects are under study.
Do you think that the example of the off-shore port of Tangier Med is applicable to the Cuban project of the port of Mariel?
In society, as in economics and technological development, all examples are worthy of study. If the Cuban government finds our large Tangier-Med project, as well as the Dakhla port macro-project in the Atlantic, interesting, we are ready to share the experience with them. I would even say that there is a certain similarity between Tangiers-Med and Dakhla, as platforms towards Europe, Africa and America, and Mariel as a platform towards the central and northern region of the American continent.
What about cultural and sporting relations?
We have also made important progress, such as the organisation of a Film Week, unfortunately postponed for the moment due to the confinement of the pandemic. We have promoted the creation of a friendship group of Cuban artists and intellectuals with Morocco. After the meeting I personally organised at the diplomatic residence with more than twenty artists, filmmakers, fashion designers, poets, journalists, singers and painters, this Cuban-Moroccan Friendship Group came into being.
Do you think that all the points of conflict between Cuba and Morocco have been overcome, or are there still some to be overcome?
There are always areas for improvement. Agreement is an ongoing task. Cuba and Morocco are two states governed by a constitution in which democracy and freedom are written in gold letters. But then, in day-to-day application, we do not always see things in the same way. Each has the weight of its own history.
What are you referring to in concrete terms?
For example, the agency Prensa Latina, which is an official agency, asked me for an interview for which it itself drew up the questionnaire, promising to publish it in full. This was not the case. They wanted to censor the part where I spoke about Morocco's official position on the Sahara conflict. They asked the question and did not want to publish the answer because it did not coincide with the official Cuban position. They wanted to publish the amputated interview, and I didn't accept. And despite this, I organised the Prensa Latina President's trip to Morocco, where he met with high-ranking personalities and signed an agreement with the MAP agency.
As for the political question of the Sahara, the position of the government in Havana is well known. Do you think that the Cuban authorities have changed their position in the meantime?
Look, my task on this issue was clear. To make the Cuban authorities understand that the only realistic solution is the one that His Majesty King Mohammed VI has put on the table: to develop an advanced autonomy proposal that will allow the Saharan people to fully exercise all their political, economic and social rights, while maintaining national sovereignty and the territorial unity of the Kingdom.
Has the proposal been well received by the Cuban leadership?
We have been listened to, and I can tell you that the Cuban government sincerely wants this problem to be resolved. In fact, many of those I have met confess that it is a question of time.
But have you seen concrete progress?
Yes, for example, the Cuban government is increasingly in favour of leaving it to the United Nations to help solve the problem. Before, they talked more about Cuba being "faithful to its principles", which meant supporting the armed struggle; today they talk more about the United Nations.
One of the tasks of any state in the process of transition is to adapt the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly, as well as political pluralism and respect for the diversity of ideas, to the new reality. Cuba still seems to have difficulties with the exercise of freedoms, particularly freedom of expression, which is still being curbed. Have you noticed this in bilateral relations?
I spoke to you earlier about the censorship that Prensa Latina wanted to impose on us and I repeat that the very great progress Cuba is making is an ongoing process. It has made great progress from our point of view, such as the new Constitution which has been discussed and approved by millions of citizens. In this respect, it is similar to the new Constitution drawn up and massively approved by the citizens of Morocco.
Morocco has participated several times as an observer at Ibero-American summits. Do you believe that the project of linking Africa and Latin America through the Morocco-Spain axis is still valid? Does Cuba have a role to play in this?
Of course it does. And I would go so far as to say that, for historical and geopolitical reasons, Cuba can play a similar role to that played by Morocco as a bridge between Africa and Europe, and, through Spain, with America. It is worth remembering at this point that these days there is again talk of the project to link Europe and Africa via the fixed link across the Straits between Spain and Morocco. A grandiose project put on the table in the 1980s by the two guardians of the Strait at the time, King Hassan II of Morocco and King Juan Carlos I of Spain.
From your vantage point as an observer in Havana, how do you see what is happening in Latin America?
Latin America is going through a crucial stage in its history, full of uncertainties and hopes. The Kingdom of Morocco wants to be present, because we feel concerned by everything that is happening in Latin America and its people.
But the process of change in Latin America is moving very fast. Don't you think Moroccan diplomacy could be more active and penetrating?
It is always possible to be more active. Moroccan embassies receive guidance from His Majesty King Mohammed VI and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But in implementing them, it is up to us to find the best and most effective ways to do so and to develop South-South cooperation.
Turning to the Sahara issue, how do you think Cuban leaders could help in the final settlement of this conflict? Could they use their influence to convince Algerian allies that they should focus on the political solution currently on the table, that of regional autonomy?
Each government has its priorities and responsibilities. The most important thing in this case you mention is to be consistent with friendship and to work to overcome conflicts inherited from the past that do not benefit the people of Cuba and Morocco.