CubaNews / July 2003
By Larry Luxner
Fidel Castro’s hatred of the Bush administration is well-known, but last month’s outburst against the 15-member European Union took many Cuba-watchers by surprise.
It all started Jun. 5, when the EU announced it would review its once-friendly relations with Cuba following the sentencing of 75 dissidents to long prison terms and the firing-squad executions of three men who hijacked a ferry.
The European Union also slashed high-level bilateral visits and participation in Cuban cultural events, and — in a real slap in the face to Castro — offered to invite Cuban dissidents to embassy celebrations of all EU national days.
In response, Fidel and his brother Raúl led hundreds of thousands of demonstrators past the Spanish and Italian embassies in separate, well-choreographed acts of outrage. On national TV, Fidel called Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar “a little Führer” and likened Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi to hated fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Two days later, the Cuban government took control of Spain’s cultural center in Old Havana, gave its personnel 90 days to vacate the elegant mansion and erected a huge “Anti-Fascist” billboard at the main entrance.
Despite Castro’s irrational actions, however, there’s little evidence the transatlantic war of words has scared away European investment from Cuba, or kept a single Spaniard, Italian, German or Belgian from going ahead with that long-planned, three-week vacation to Varadero.
“I don’t think there’ll be economic consequen-ces, because the EU has issued no economic sanctions,” said Pierre Sella, economic attaché at the French Embassy in Havana. “So we don’t think anything will change for now.”
Added John Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council: “It’s too early to tell if the stated common EU position will survive individual EU member country interests. Traditionally, the EU has made pronouncements relating to Cuba which have generally not been implemented by individual countries.”
In mid-February, the European Union inaugurated its embassy-like office along Quinta Avenida in Havana’s Miramar district — amid signs of an official EU softening and the likelihood that Cuba would be welcomed into the Cotonou Agreement, a preferential trade accord that benefits 78 former European colo-nies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.
Then came the dissident crackdown, the jail sentences and finally the executions — and Castro’s short-lived honeymoon with the EU came to a screeching halt.
“Cotonou is now completely out the window,” said Philip Peters, vice-president of the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank. “It would not have opened a spigot of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, but it could have meant some increased aid and trade preferences for Cuba.”
The director of the EU office in Havana, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, was on vacation and couldn’t be reached for comment, though a European ambassador who asked not to be identified said “we have not had any concrete signals of a major economic impact so far.”
On the contrary, European tourism to Cuba appears to be doing quite well.
“Politics is one thing, tourism is another,” explained Eric Peyre, Cuba sales manager for France’s Accor Group. “The average French-man doesn’t even know what’s going on in Cuba. They think most of the tourists in Cuba are Americans. Maybe only 2% of the population of Europe is even aware of the political situation.”
Peyre, who worked for Spain’s Sol Meliá hotel conglomerate before joining Accor, told CubaNews that as long as the island remains competitive on price, it will continue to attract tourists, regardless of political tensions.
“Companies like Accor and Meliá look only at the bottom line, and as long as the bottom line looks good, there is no problem,” Peyre said, noting that Meliá now manages 9,000 rooms in 21 hotels across the island, making it by far Cuba’s top foreign hotel operator.
Two other Spanish companies, Occiden-tal and Pinero, are also making modest investments in Cuba. A few months ago, Occidental took over management of the 472-room Novotel Miramar, while Pinero now manages the former Club Med in Varadero and has invested at least $2 million to upgrade the property.
“If business was so bad and they were so nervous, they would never sign contracts or invest money in Cuba,” said Peyre.
But that’s exactly what Dennis Hays, executive vice-president of the Cuban American National Foundation, wants to see happen.
Hays, a former Cuba desk officer at the State Department, has been quietly visiting the Washington embassies of European countries in recent months, trying to get diplomats to toughen their attitudes towards Castro.
“What I find is a receptivity to even talk about the subject which wasn’t there a year ago,” Hays told CubaNews. “I find great frustration. Having their money taken away to pay for American agricultural imports was a bitter pill to swallow for guys who bent over backwards for Cuba and then got slapped in the face. Castro’s actions are clearly the actions of a guy who doesn’t give a damn.”
Hays, whose Miami-based CANF is still the largest Cuban exile group in the U.S. despite recent internal strife, says “I don’t want this to be a U.S.-Cuba issue. It should be a Cuba vs. civilized world issue. If the Europeans adopt a Zimbabwe-type visa policy where the top 50 guys in the regime were declared persona non grata, that would be a severe blow to Castro.”
In a lengthy commentary published in The Guardian, Lord Moynihan, chairman of the U.K. Cuba Initiative, urged British lawmakers to “study the Cuban psyche rather than view the situation through the unfocused binoculars of American wishful thinking.”
Yet the European ambassador we spoke to rejected the idea that the EU has somehow buckled under pressure from the Bush adm-inistration to tow the American line.
“We have always been against the death penalty, the trade embargo and the isolation of Cuba. The fact that we are now expressing ourselves more specifically on these things does not mean that our policy is closer to that of the United States,” the diplomat said.
“I don’t think it will change conditions for human rights in the short term, but it’s important for Europe to speak about the values that are the basis for the EU’s common policy. This has to be repeated again and again.”