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Assessment: Cuba
June 2008

Assessment: Cuba is published bi-monthly by PRIMA-News in Moscow in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, based in Washington, D.C.

The European Union’s Childish Dreams

        A hot Cuban summer this year was signaled by warming relations between the European Union and communist Cuba. European politicians like to talk about human rights, declare their allegiance to them, and occasionally express concern and bewilderment over some extraordinary actions or events in the world. But mostly, they like to keep up appearances, smile politely, and maintain smooth and pleasant international relations so that they are not required to resort to strong criticism or become the target of deserving criticism themselves. A normal human wish!

        Isn’t it a nice wish for the executioner to respectfully give way to his lady victim and even chivalrously help her up the scaffold before beheading her? European politicians would shed tears and purr with sympathetic tenderness. Isn’t it also a nice wish for the cannibal to use refined language when inviting his victim for breakfast to consume him?  In the European politicians’ eyes, this is the triumph of political correctness and well-balanced political strategy.

        Except Cuban dissidents stubbornly refuse to accept such obvious European values. The Cuba
n opposition alliance “Agenda for Transition” has urged the European Union to work for the benefit of the Cuban people and not for the benefit of the island’s government. Otherwise, normalization would mean punishing all of civil society and especially those who are fighting for democracy, the letter concluded. The group stressed in an open letter that more than 200 dissidents are still languishing in Cuban jails.

        Agenda for Transition leader Vladimiro Roca told EFE they would take the letter to the French Embassy ahead of the EU meeting in mid-June reviewing the policy of sanctions imposed against the Cuban regime in 2003. France currently holds the EU rotating presidency.

        The European sanctions were imposed following a wave of arrests of Cuban dissidents in the Spring of 2003 and include a freeze on visits by high-level officials; the policy also includes inviting dissidents to national day celebrations at embassies of EU member states in Havana. The sanctions were formally suspended, but not permanently lifted, in 2005.

        Martí Noticias
writes that the Cuban regime pushes for the end of these so-called sanctions, but continues its repressive policies against dissidents. Agenda for Transition wonders what will happen after “normal relations” with the communist regime in Cuba are restored. In its open letter, given to Agence France-Presse and other mass media on Tuesday, June 10, opposition leaders Martha Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca warned that the Cuban government wants the opposition to be ignored so it can continue trampling on fundamental freedoms without fear of being rebuked by the EU.

But dissidents’ concerns fell on deaf ears. An EU diplomat told Reuters in June, “The time could be right because of changes undertaken by Cuba’s new leadership.” By these, he meant changes allowing Cubans to buy cell phones, rent rooms in hotels once reserved for foreigners, and an increase in public debate. “Sanctions could be lifted,” another EU diplomat said of the ongoing talks, “but linked with dialogue, with a review.” Yet another said, “We are working on finding the exact formula,” ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers on June 16.

The former colonial power Spain has long led the calls to end the EU sanctions, which unlike the 1962 U.S. embargo never prevented trade and investment. But the change did meet some resistance from the 27-member bloc’s ex-communist members, notably the Czech Republic. Prague is skeptical of signs of progress or reforms in Cuba and wanted a “dual-track” approach under which high-ranking EU delegations would be obliged to raise concern over human rights and democracy during any visit and to meet opposition groups. “This is our condition for the negotiation [on ending sanctions],” a Czech spokesman said in Brussels.

        One needn’t have the ability to see the future to guess that isolated voices of doubt, concern and mere common sense would be drowned in the sweet-talking chorus of European politicians who have developed a taste for comfort and cynicism dubbed the art of compromise.

And so, the European Union lifted sanctions against Cuba. The decision was announced on Thursday, June 20, after a meeting of EU foreign ministers. The EU Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, explained that the measures approved by Brussels were meant to “encourage” authorities on the island to continue movement toward reform. She also noted that radical improvement in relations between the EU and Cuba is possible only with a significant improvement in the human rights situation in Cuba, especially the freeing of political prisoners.

        But what does this “radical improvement” mean? Havana would hardly notice the lifting of the European diplomatic sanctions: first, they were limited and, second, they were suspended three years ago. Imposed in 2003, they mainly consisted of restricting high-level political contacts and couldn’t be compared to the tough measures the United States adopted against its southern neighbor.

The EU imposed its sanctions under international pressure in response to mass arrests of dissidents in Cuba, but it scrapped them in reaction to the Cuban government’s decision to approve the sale of microwaves and other electric appliances to ordinary Cubans! Out of seventy-five dissidents arrested during the Black Spring in 2003, twenty were released for health reasons, and fifty-five remain imprisoned. No cases were reviewed. There were no amnesties. And there are new political prisoners in Cuban jails. But Raul Castro authorized the sale within Cuba of microwaves! For the EU, it is the most significant sign of democratization on the island.

        Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, the most active proponent of lifting sanctions, said, “Spain is defending the idea of democracy and freedom for Cuba and the Cubans and is engaged in a fruitful dialogue with Cuba. Spain will continue to work so that the Cubans can evolve.” Such a statement speaks volumes of how the Spanish minister himself could hardly evolve.

In Havana, Marta Beatriz Roque, leader of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba stated that the European Union’s decision elated the totalitarian regime and untied its hands to crack down on dissent. Human rights activists consider the reforms instituted by Raúl Castro —the ostensible reason for lifting the sanctions — as purely cosmetic and say that Spain now bears heavy responsibility for helping the Havana regime stay afloat.

        Well-known Spanish political scientist Cesar Vidal told Radio Liberty, “Spain’s policy is idiotic. Who believes 80-year-old Castro and his circle can be re-educated as democrats?” He called such an assertion by the Spanish foreign minister demagoguery. Vidal said that forces in power in Spain imagine themselves as mentors to the marginal regimes of Latin America, including Raul Castro’s Cuba, Evo Morales’s Bolivia, and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, and they are trying to convince Europe of their ability to influence these regimes and “civilize” them.

        Former prime minister of Estonia Mart Laar sharply criticized the European Union and his own government for approving the lifting of sanctions against communist Cuba. “The EU has decided to . . . acknowledge the ‘liberal reforms’ that have been undertaken by the government of Raul Castro. That news could have been expected, but it is still offensive to read. It is hard to believe that people with sober minds can seriously speak of liberalization coming to Cuba,” Laar writes on his official blog.

        “Yes, the Cubans now have the right to enter hotels for foreigners, and now they can own computers — but now, as before, only the communist nomenklatura has money for it. Free use of the Internet remains forbidden, not to mention other freedoms. And that’s called liberalization?” Laar writes. Instead, Europe should have listened to the voices of those who “stand for democracy in Cuba” while deciding the issue of lifting the sanctions.

        “Although the EU also decided that the issue of conditions in Cuba will be examined again in a year, it cannot be believed, unfortunately, that, if political prisoners are still rotting in the prisons and the internet will still be inaccessible to Cubans, Europe will find the courage in itself to restore the sanctions. That decision requires a consensus and, of course, there will be at least one country in Europe that will try to block it. But the decision to lift the sanctions required a consensus as well. Therefore, I am ashamed not only of Europe, but of my country too,” the veteran Estonian politician concluded.

        A policy of appeasement is nothing new. But it’s a pity that the victims, and not the creators of such a policy, reap the consequences.

        Alexander Podrabinek

        Moscow, June 2008